‘Nude Descending A Staircase No. 2' (1912) By Marcel Duchamp
Is it nude? Is it a staircase? Is it descending?
OK, so the first thing to say is that this painting when exhibited at the famous Armory Show in 1913 in New York City shocked the audience. American show-goers, accustomed to realistic art, were scandalized not just by Duchamp but by the Fauvism, Cubism, and Futurism on display. Yet he sold all four of his paintings in the exhibition and in 1915 he emigrated to America.
So back to the actual painting. Duchamp’s title names the central mass of movement — those abstracted geometric planes — as a ‘nude’. Yet there are no discernible anatomical human body parts. The question of whether the figure represents a human body remains unanswered; the figure provides no clues to its age, individuality, or character, while the only clue provided by Duchamp is in the bottom left of the painting. In block letters are written, “NU DESCENDANT UN ESCALIER” and the gender of “nu” is male. So is this nude a male nude then? In an interview just before his death in 1967, Duchamp commented on the surprising success of Nude Descending a Staircase, №2 at the Armory Show,
“What contributed to the interest provoked by the canvas was its title. One just doesn’t do a nude woman coming down the stairs … it seemed scandalous."
— Marcel Duchamp, 1967 Interview
All descriptions of the painting assume it is nude and then show the features and dynamics of the work to be that of a naked human being walking down a staircase. But isn’t it literally more of a self-fulfilling art prophecy once you have read the title? And that is surely what Duchamp is intimating in the hidden context of painting a nude — or even a body clothed — that is in movement — it must be done by heavy suggestion and in the eye of the mind. Anything else would have been not ‘scandalous’ but impossible.
You cannot paint a nude actually walking down a staircase. You can if the nude stops and stands on a staircase. But not walking or walking down in one continuous movement. A single painting cannot capture this type of movement of a human being down or up anything. It is not the movement of a human being that Duchamp captures but a slow transitional change. But of what? It is more reminiscent of the movement and change of a mechanism or a machine.
What strikes me when I look at the portrait of a metallic, mechanistic movement is the sense of an armored entity dominating the visual space. Rather apt for the Armory Show?! It seems to be developing and growing within this darker, cavernous region of rock? It is not moving downwards but seems to be unfolding its full metal jacket upwards from left to right. Slowly and cautiously it is rising and coming into the light. Readying itself for action. Is this not an almost perfect description of the times which were about to unleash the first taste of modern, mechanical warfare upon the world?
The influence of the chronophotography of Étienne-Jules Marey and others, particularly Muybridge’s Woman Walking Downstairs from his 1887 picture series, published as The Human Figure in Motion is clear to see. As is the way the new art of cinema was capturing images and then replicating them. This new cinematographic process was being replicated in the plastic arts by Duchamp.
By the time of World War 1, Duchamp had rejected the work of many of his fellow artists (such as Henri Matisse) as “retinal” art, intended only to please the eye. Instead, Duchamp wanted to use art to serve the mind. I would suggest that Nude Descending a Staircase, №2 was the transitional work between the eye and the mind in Duchamp’s development which would ultimately lead to the birth of conceptual art. But I would further suggest even more; that Marcel Duchamp in 1912 had already shown humanity how CGI works in film and video production as it replicates movement through the dilation of time and space.