Video transcript

(jazzy piano music) - [Voiceover] We're in the Philadelphia Museum of Art looking at a large piece of broken glass. - [Voiceover] A work of art by Marcel Duchamp. This The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even, also known as the The Large Glass. Dates to 1915, but he worked on it till 1923. Made many studies, wrote a book about it, and declared it in 1923, definitively unfinished. - [Voiceover] When he would eventually unpack it after it had been shipped relating to an exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, he found that both large panes had been shattered, he declared it complete. - [Voiceover] And he reassembled all the pieces of glass, and decades later, he installed it here at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. - [Voiceover] This is not a painting. They're not even painted pieces of glass. Instead, he's using lead wire, lead foil, and dust, which he said he cultivated in his apartment in New York City that he used as the pictorial material. - [Voiceover] The trace of glass is a funny one because in Western painting, there's an idea of painting as a window through which we look into a world that's as real as the world that we're standing in. But, this is so definitively abstracted, so unreal. - [Voiceover] But, it's interesting because this work of art is not the kind of abstraction that we think of often when we think of work that's being produced in 1915 by people like Kazimir Malevich or even Picasso. This is not in that tradition of formal abstraction of geometries. This is an abstraction of ideas. - [Voiceover] When we look closely, we do start to see forms that are recognizable. - [Voiceover] Duchamp actually created what he called The Green Box. This was a small container that included notes and clippings that described the meanings and the elements within The Large Glass. But, what's interesting is that The Green Box contained loose pieces of paper that can be read in any order, so that the meaning is always in flux. Nevertheless, he does name specific elements. - [Voiceover] But, we shouldn't look for certainties of meaning anywhere here. - [Voicoever] Absolutely, and art historians have sometimes fallen into a trap of trying to be definitive. Nevertheless, if we start at the bottom, on the left side, we see a series of forms which Duchamp called malic molds. Malic was a word that just simply, for Duchamp, meant male. A word that he made up. He often created linguistic forms. In the center at the bottom, we can see what he referred to as a chocolate grinder. Above that a series of sieves and giant scissors. And to the right, a little bit difficult to see, and seen obliquely, are optical devices. - [Voiceover] So, what are we to make of the female realm and the male realm? The bachelors at the bottom, and the bride at the top, clearly the realm of male and female, but also a sense of sexual desire. The bride stripped bare by her bachelors. We have a sense of male suitors, of male desire, and of the availability of a female form that stimulates that desire. - [Voiceover] Or lack of availability. One of the ways that The Large Glass is read is that it's desire that powers the machinery that activates everything that's been rendered here both in the realm of the female and the realm of the male. But, none of it consummated. - [Voiceover] It feels to me like he's making fun of the way that, especially in the 19th and 20th century, human beings try to make things rational. Try to explain things. Even things as absurd as human desire. - [Voiceover] And the way in which the rational could be dangerous. Think about when this was made. This was made in 1915. This was during the First World War, one of the most violent conflicts in human history. And what was so startling about that war is that it took place with modern machinery. The machine gun, early tanks, mustard gas. There was a level of violence that was thanks to our industrial rational world. And here we see that the reintroduction of the irrational. - [Voiceover] And you could argue too, and of course this is an important part of the Dadaist movement in the early 20th century, that art, in many ways, the sale of art, the marketability of art, the schools of art, all of these institutions were part of a system that led to the violence of the war. And so, how could art be outside of that? - [Voiceover] Well, Duchamp is rejecting oil on canvas. He's rejecting bronze sculpture, marble sculpture, and he's trying to find a way to deconstruct the meanings that have always driven the desire of the art market. And not only were the materials not traditional, but the method of making wasn't traditional either. There was chance that was introduced. There was absurdity in the construction of the object itself. A good example of that can be seen in the holes that are drilled in the upper right corner. And the idea behind this reminds us that there really is interaction between the two realms. The males shoot upward trying to hit those squares that we see in the kind of thought bubble. In the kind of imagination of the female. - [Voiceover] We do have the sense, at the bottom, of churning this endless machine processing. This frustrated desire that's not fulfilled. - [Voiceover] And violence in the male realm shoots towards the female. And the holes that we're seeing that are drilled are actually the result of Duchamp firing a toy cannon at the upper area missing the female form. But then, the artist would drill wherever the toy cannon actually hit the glass. - [Voiceover] So, we have this immediate difficulty because we want to have an idea of art that is something that's intentionally made by the artist that's beautifully crafted. And firing a toy cannon, and then drilling where that toy cannon hits, completely turns that idea upside down. - [Voiceover] And can be seen as a kind of direct attack on the notion of intentionality, and a reintroduction of the idea of the irrational. - [Voiceover] So, how do we not read that as also a making fun of us who are here looking at this art so very seriously that he fired a toy cannon at? - [Voiceover] There's no question that much of Duchamp's work, including The Large Glass, functions as a kind of entrapment for art historians, for the traditions through which we understand art in the Western tradition. Duchamp's approach to creating art would have a profound impact, especially on the second half of the 20th century. People Jasper Johns, or Robert Rauschenberg or so many of the artists of the post-War era that have rethought the foundational ideas that have driven art for so long. When we were looking at this work, I was looking originally for a signature because for Duchamp, the signature was so important in transforming what he called a ready-made into a work of art. That is of transforming a ready-made object in the world, something he had not created, into something that we looked at differently. But, this work is itself inherently a signature. The top is the realm of the bride, and the first three letters of the word in French for bride if mar, M-A-R. The bottom, the first three letters of the word for bachelor would be cel, C-E-L. And together they spell, of course, his first name. (laughter) So, the entire work is, in a sense, a kind of wordplay and a kind of signature. (jazzy piano music)