Marcel Duchamp: Elle a Chaud au Cul

Appropriation in Art

by Henry Ballate

Henri-Robert-Marcel Duchamp; Born in Normandy in northern France, (28 July 1887 – 2 October 1968). Duchamp traveled back and forth between Europe and the United States for much of his life. His initial foray into modern art followed the trends of his contemporaries, with his first paintings in the mode of Cézanne and the Impressionists, while after 1910 his work reflects a shift toward Cubism. One of his most important works, Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2) (1912, Philadelphia Museum of Art) (a second version of a work on cardboard from 1911), however, reflects Duchamp’s ambivalent relationship with Cubism. He adopts the limited palette of Cubist paintings, but his invigorated figure is in a state of perpetual motion—a very different effect from Picasso and Braque’s Analytic Cubism that held figures tightly in place. Provoking negative reactions from even the Parisian avant-garde, the painting was rejected by the Salon des Indépendants for both its title and the artist’s mechanistic, dehumanizing rendering of the female nude. The following year, it sparked controversy at the New York Armory Show, helping to establish Duchamp’s reputation as a provocateur overseas and paving the way for his arrival in New York two years later.

The term appropriation in the visual arts means to adopt, borrow, recycle or sample aspects of artificial visual culture. I define appropriation as to take, especially without permission; to adopt or borrow would need permission. Art practices involve the appropriation of ideas, symbols, artifacts, image, objects, forms or styles from other cultures. In some cases, the original subject remains accessible as the original, not in others.

Appropriation has always been part of the creative process. The act of making art began with appropriation; taking images, concepts and re-interpreting them as art. Appropriation can be seen as part of art evolution, and it can be traced back to The Caves of Altamira in Northern Spain. Modern artists dipped their brush to borrow from their art historical forebears. Manet borrowed a well-known composition from Raphael, and Picasso borrowed from Rubens and Velazquez. Marcel Duchamp introduced the concept of the ready-made in 1917. That year he entered “The Fountain” which consisted of a urinal on the pedestal with the signature “R. Mutt”.

“Ever since Marcel Duchamp signed and presented “The Fountain” art has been as much about ideas as it has been about the objects that artists make. For many contemporary artists, the object itself is a by-product of the artistic process, and far less prominent, if not virtually irrelevant, to the action of making the artwork, which for many artists is the principal artistic activity” (Art Matters).

“The Fountain” is a compelling appropriation because there never was an “original.” The “original” version 1917 was lost or destroyed; then in 1950 Duchamp authorized curators to purchase urinals in his name, the first is the New York reproduction today in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the second 1953 Paris reproduction is lost and the third 1963 Stockholm reproduction is in the Moderna Museet in Stockholm. Then in 1964, in association with Arturo Schwarz, the artist made the decision to issue 12 replicas modeled after Stieglitz photo of the “original”; Duchamp understood that originality is not the determinate factor for art, and the urinal has been named the most influential modern artwork of all time. In the 1950s Rauschenberg used what he named “combines”, combining ready-made objects such as tires or beds, painting, silk-screens, collage, and photography. Jasper Johns, at the same time as Rauschenberg, incorporated found objects into his work. A sea change occurred when artists such as Lichtenstein and Warhol appropriated images from commercial art and popular culture as well as the techniques of these industries. Artists appropriate other artists under the reasonable assumption that “there is nothing new under the sun.”


Fountain, Marcel Duchamp

“Sherrie Levine uses her own camera to take photos of famous works of art, and then signs and exhibits them as her own. Her best-known series, one of which I reproduce below, is after the photographs of a Depression-era photographer, Walker Evans. Levine took her photos from a book in which the Evans photos were reproduced. She printed a photo she had taken from a print of a photo in a book, which was printed from a photo of a photo” (Art matters).

Appropriation challenges our preconceptions about originality and accessibility; arguments for reproduction are rooted in democracy, education, and access. Mass reproduction allows for the democratization of all forms of information, including art, books, prints, and later film, television and the internet allows people to see images from around the world. Very few people originally saw the Mona Lisa, at the Palace. Today it is one of the most recognized works of art, and the most reproduced. Millions of people can see it every year at the Louvre in Paris. The viewing experience has changed drastically. Today we can buy a fridge magnet or original size print on canvas of the Mona Lisa.

Marcel Duchamp put reproduction to humorous ends by appropriating and altering the Mona Lisa in 1919. He added a mustache to a print of Leonardo’s painting and shocked critics with his “L.H.O.O.Q.” For “appropriation” as a term, that was the starting point.

Today we might think that mass reproduction of an image lends it greater authority and reverence as a promotional tool. The more we see a reproduced work of art, the more we recognize it as something valuable and significant. Reproduction is something that we take for granted today, but it did not exist before the printing press in 1440, and photographic reproduction has only been possible in the last 150 years. This act of taking possession flouts the Modernist appreciation for originality.


L.H.O.O.Q. Mona Lisa, Marcel Duchamp

Although in the 1920s, Duchamp famously renounced artmaking in favor of playing chess for the remainder of his life, he never fully retreated from his quintessential role as artist-provocateur. Duchamp is associated with many artistic movements, from Cubism to Dada to Surrealism, and paved the way for later styles such as Pop (Andy Warhol), Minimalism (Robert Morris), and Conceptualism (Sol LeWitt). A prolific artist, his greatest contribution to the history of art lies in his ability to question, admonish, critique, and playfully ridicule existing norms in order to transcend the status quo—he effectively sanctioned the role of the artist to do just that.


Henry Ballate is University Professor of Art & Design. Specializes in Modern art, with particular interests in classical iconography, from the Renaissance to popular culture images. Henry have over 20 years of combined experience as a Visual artist and graphic designer. His involvement with arts started at a very young age. Throughout his lifetime career, his work has been included in solo and group exhibitions in Europe, America, and Asia. Education: M.F.A. Visual Art Miami International University of Art & Design. Miami. USA 2010. B.F.A. Graphic Design Miami International University of Art & Design. Miami. USA 2007. Drawing and Painting Accademia Italiana. Firenze, Italia 2002.



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