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Alchemist of the Avant-Garde

The Case of Marcel Duchamp

John F. Moffitt

Publication Year: 2003

Acknowledged as the “Artist of the Century,” Marcel Duchamp (1887–1968) left a legacy that dominates the art world to this day. Inventing the ironically dégagé attitude of “ready-made” art-making, Duchamp heralded the postmodern era and replaced Pablo Picasso as the role model for avant-garde artists. John F. Moffitt challenges commonly accepted interpretations of Duchamp’s art and persona by showing that his mature art, after 1910, is largely drawn from the influence of the occult traditions. Moffitt demonstrates that the key to understanding the cryptic meaning of Duchamp’s diverse artworks and writings is alchemy, the most pictorial of all the occult philosophies and sciences.

Published by: State University of New York Press

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. ix-x


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pp. xi-xiii

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Introduction: prosecuting the Duchamp case

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pp. 1-12

In the postmodern age, in which structuralist theory reigns and claims of artistic autonomy are countered with New Historicist assertions of cultural embeddedness, ideology is believed to create the visual manifestations we call “style,” and the artist is often considered an almost passive instrument, who records the intellectual fashions ...

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CHAPTER ONE an esoteric French adolescence for Duchamp: symbolist culture and occultism

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pp. 13-36

Born in 1887, by the time a twenty-eight-year-old Marcel Duchamp left France for America in mid-1915, his career as an artist was already distinctively shaped. Before describing culturally pertinent specifics of his biography in chapter 3, we need to examine the distinctive cultural environment in which he absorbed his first perceptions ...

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CHAPTER TWO the invention of the modern alchemist-artist

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pp. 37-64

In order to explain coherently the historical context of a corpus of alchemical iconography informing Duchamp’s early works (as specifically identified beginning in chapter 4), this chapter will explore the character of a certain metaphor coined in the Symbolist period. This personified modernist leitmotif, the Alchemist, is now so familiar ...

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CHAPTER THREE the cultural shaping of an artist-iconoclast: Duchamp in France, 1887–1915

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pp. 65-96

Before embarking upon an analysis of the now iconic art of Marcel Duchamp, it will be useful first to examine his role as a mere mortal. The apparently well-molded outer surface of this artist’s life seems essentially boring.1 That perception notwithstanding, in examining his curriculum vitae and public persona, we shall be on the alert for ...

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CHAPTER FOUR Duchamp’s first experiments in esoteric and alchemical art, 1910–1912

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pp. 97-168

The principal obstacle to linking Marcel Duchamp’s thought and art with Alchemy has been the lack of any substantial historical foundation. Alchemy is just one among various, potentially applicable facets of the Esoteric Tradition, but it can only be modern Occultism that would have proved pertinent to Marcel Duchamp. ...

Images follow page 168

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CHAPTER FIVE Duchamp in New York with esoteric patrons and the Large Glass, 1915–1923

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pp. 169-224

Fleeing from a war-torn European continent, after a tense Atlantic passage in a blacked-out steamer cautiously navigating through dark waters to avoid German U-boats, Marcel Duchamp arrived in the port of New York on a sweltering Tuesday, August 11, 1915. Greeted on the pier by Walter Pach, the

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CHAPTER SIX alchemical emblematics and the ready-mades, 1913–1923

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pp. 225-264

The argument pursued in this chapter will mainly focus on a single, critically notorious category of Duchamp’s peculiar artistic production: the uniquely conceived, so-called ready-mades. By far, these are the objets duchampiennes that have proven most appealing, even useful, to contemporary avant-garde artists, particularly the American kind, ...

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CHAPTER SEVEN the esoteric fourth dimension and laws of chance, 1895–1923

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pp. 265-312

Whereas they are always generally hermetic in character—meaning both figuratively and literally closed to the uninitiated—not all of Marcel Duchamp’s esoteric pursuits turn out to have been always strictly, narrowly, alchemical in nature. Our targeted artist’s esoteric interests were certainly much broader, far more eclectic than just that. ...

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CHAPTER EIGHT the circle closes, 1923–1968

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pp. 313-370

Given the variety and weigh of the evidence already assembled, clearly the artwork of Marcel Duchamp, at least until 1923, the year of an apparently definitive abandonment of the Large Glass project, was consistently conceived using the rich variety of themes and motifs endlessly discussed in writings stemming from the Esoteric Tradition. ...

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Epilogue: the prosecution rests

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pp. 371-376

Dieter Daniels poses two provocative questions regarding the Duchamp editorial avalanche: “Why have so many commentaries been called for regarding so few artworks?” “Why exactly has Duchamp become the object of so many—and so contradictory—theories?”1 Why, indeed? Briefly put, any body’s artwork is ...


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pp. 377-422


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pp. 423-458


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pp. 459-468

E-ISBN-13: 9780791486900
Print-ISBN-13: 9780791457092
Print-ISBN-10: 0791457095

Page Count: 468
Illustrations: 30 b/w illustrations
Publication Year: 2003