The Influence of Mathematic and Scientific Discovery on
La Mariée Mise à Nu Par les Célibataires, Même
The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even
The period of time which Marcel Duchamp occupied most actively as an artist was a period of numerous grand upheavals. In particular, great new discoveries were being made in the worlds of science and technology. The culture of the time was saturated with scientific imagery and ideas, in a manner no doubt similar to the way in which we, today, are nearly overwhelmed by references to digital technology. The theme is practically ubiquitous in the artistic and popular cultural products of the time. One piece in particular, however, stands out. Marcel Duchamp's The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even or simply, the Large Glass, displays a singular depth in its approach to science, and in particular, its interpretation of the mathematical theories of Henri Poincaré.
The Large Glass was created over a relatively long period of time, from 1915 to 1923. The piece consists of two large panes of glass, decorated with a variety of unorthodox materials, including varnish, lead foil, lead wire, oil paints, and a six month accumulation of dust. The upper panel portrays the bride, and the lower panel portrays the nine bachelors and their “bachelor apparatus” which is generally used to refer to the complex machinery which surrounds the bachelors.
The piece itself is, however, only one half of the whole oeuvre, as it were. Duchamp intended the piece to be studied with a “Sears Roebuck catalogue” of notes, in Duchamp's words, which were created by Duchamp prior to and during the creation of the piece. These notes were published numerous times. The largest number of notes (289) were in fact discovered after Duchamp’s death, and they, in particular, display an "overtly scientific orientation"1.
The fields of scientific endeavor which primarily influenced the creation of the Large Glass can be separated into three distinct areas: Particle physics, non-Euclidean geometry, and the reexamination of the scientific process itself. In the first field, of physics, two discoveries stand out for their complementary nature. The discovery of X-rays and their application, rendering the world in varying shades of transparency, instilled in the minds of laymen doubts about the physical solidity of objects. The discovery of electrons and other particles, exerting their influence across apparently empty space, questioned the nature of the void. We see arising a great, romantic ambiguity.
Marcel Duchamp was eight years old when, in 1895, Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen first detected X-rays. He was in his early twenties, however, when fellow artist and mentor Frantisek Kupka began to explore the various aspects of X-ray imagery. Kupka was a painter but had a passion for science, and this seemed to rub off on Duchamp as the two of them explored the subject. One of the lessons most frequently drawn from the concept of X-rays, at the time, concerned the limitations of the regular human senses. They were frequently touted for their ability to reveal worlds invisible to the naked eye. In this way X-rays also contributed to the emerging ideas about the relativity of human perception, which will be explored later on.
In light of these scientific revolutions, certain aspects of the Large Glass become a little more transparent. To begin with, the title is certainly not insignificant. One of the social ripples set off by the discovery of X-rays was a paranoia which arose from the vague knowledge that X-rays could “see” through clothing. This led to all sorts of imagined voyeuristic horrors. At a basic aesthetic level, the Large Glass’ many layers of varying transparency resemble the early X-ray photographs. But more importantly, the X-rays comment on the limitations of human senses validated, in a way, modern artists', such as Duchamp’s, rejection of their Impressionist precursors as being too concerned with visual sensation alone.
X-rays offered the most concrete example of the world beyond human sensory perception, but other, more abstract concepts were equally important. In math, various people, most notably Henri Poincaré, were pushing, or rather far surpassing, the limits of traditional, three dimensional, Euclidian geometry. The idea of a non-Euclidean geometry, and especially of an unseen fourth dimension, had been around for some time, but truly grew to prominence in the early 20th century. Duchamp was particularly interested in the concept of the fourth dimension, and his use of it, and attempts to express it in the Large Glass are not unlike the attempts of renaissance artists to accurately capture three dimensions on the two dimensional canvas. Duchamp made extensive references to the fourth dimension in the notes which accompany the Large Glass, the most notable of which is probably this:
The shadow cast by a 4-dimensional figure in our space is a 3-dimensional shadow....Construct all the 3-dim’l states of the 4-dim’l figure, the same way one determines all the planes or sides of a 3-dim’l figure - in other words: one can move around the 4-dim’l figure, according to the 4 directions of the continuum.2
Duchamp was by no means a mathematician
, and the ideas formulated in this note are his interpretation of the work of Élie Jouffret
. He had enough of a grasp, however, to play with the concepts, and this is really one of the most interesting and useful ways to interpret Duchamp’s Large Glass: As a playful exploration of the various scientific ideas which were bubbling up all around him.
This brings us to the final - and arguably the most important - concept which is explored, and that is the basic processes of scientific thought themselves. Henri Poincaré, in addition to his work in geometry, was greatly interested in the idea of chance and chaos, and its relation not only to nature, but to thought. Nature, according to Poincaré, is a machine of chance and probability on all scales. The most significant act of chance, according to Poincaré, is the chance encounter of sperm and ovum, which gives birth to a genius. Poincaré was, by most definitions, a genius himself, and it was through observation of his own thought processes that he arrived at his conclusions about the operation of the human mind. According to him, geniuses are equipped with the most perfect “unconscious sieves,” capable of sifting through the vast amounts of random ideas formed in the subconscious and plucking out the most perfect.
These ideas of chaos and selection turn up in the Large Glass in numerous forms, most notably in the unorthodox processes involved in creating the piece. At one point the work was left to lie, perfectly still, in Duchamp’s studio for approximately six months, gathering dust. At the end of this period the dust was photographed. Parts of it were then selectively removed and the remaining dust was coated with a lacquer which preserved it. Within the piece itself, one of the elements comprising the bachelor’s apparatus is a system of sieves, which sift the “illuminating gas” which is represented by the preserved dust. Finally, there was the shattering incident. While being transported on a truck in Connecticut in 1926, the panes were both shattered extensively and had to be repaired by Duchamp, leaving great spidery lines throughout the entire work. Duchamp has insisted always that the cracks vastly improve the piece, which was never finished to begin with. He has stated that he sees in them a “ready made intention” that “I am not responsible for.” Indeed, the lines display a curious symmetry and pleasing form. Could the work be more truly infused with the idea of chance?
Duchamp was only one of a myriad artists in the early 20th century exploring the emerging scientific ideas. But his masterpiece, The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even displays a synthesis of ideas and a playful, exploratory, but deeply informed approach which is unique.
1Henderson, Linda Dalrymple. Duchamp in Context.
New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1998.
Adock, Craig E. Marcel Duchamp’s Notes from the Large Glass. An N-Dimensional Analysis.
Ann Arbor, Michigan: Umi Research Press, 1983.
2Holton, Gerald. "Henri Poincaré, Marcel Duchamp and Innovation in Science and Art.”
Leonardo 34.2 (2001): 127-34.
Shearer, Rhonda Roland. “Duchampian Science”
Art in America 88.1 (2000): 43, 45, 47.