At the beginning of August 1913, Marcel Duchamp arrived in the Kentish seaside town, Herne Bay, and spent a month here with his younger sister, Yvonne, who was attending English classes at Lynton College. Duchamp came to East Kent as a figurative artist so depressed by his life and the critical reception to his work that he was contemplating giving up art all together.
The Duchamp who came to Herne Bay had already begun to question his own means of expression. A month before arriving in Kent, Duchamp wrote to his friend Walter Pach, saying ‘I am very down at the moment and doing absolutely nothing. It’s very irritating when it’s like this. I am going away in August to spend some time in England.’
In March of 1913 his painting, Nude Descending a Staircase No.2 had caused a stir in The Armory Show in New York, contributing to the impact the exhibition was to have upon modernism in the United States. The hostile reception the painting received in New York may have been one reason for Duchamp’s desire to stop and reflect.
The Armory Show exhibited art by over 300 avant-garde European and American artists including fauvist and cubist works, but it was Duchamp’s painting which was singled out for criticism. It was dubbed ‘Staircase Descending a Nude’ by one critic and ‘an explosion in a shingle factory’ by another. At this time Duchamp was known as a painter more associated with the Cubist movement than with Dada. That radical group of contrarians was still to come, born out of disgust at the horrors of the Great War and holding up to question all aspects of a world that had made such a war possible.
Nude Descending A Staircase was the last major painting Duchamp completed. He had wanted to show it in Paris at the Cubist Salon des Independants the previous year, but jurist Albert Gleizes asked Duchamp’s brothers to persuade him to paint over the title and Duchamp withdrew it in protest. The rejection by the Cubists confirmed to Duchamp that he had done with painting. He was in any case becoming bored with the practice, declaring in later life that ‘all the filling in was tiresome’. Duchamp was essentially a line man, drawing interested him more than painting. The debacle with the Cubists also resulted in his resolve to avoid groups and be his own man, schools of painting that preached revolution by replacing one set of constricting rules with another were nowhere near radical enough.
This is the young man who came to Herne Bay in 1913, with the feeling of being ‘liberated from the past’. Already he had begun working and thinking his way into what was to become one of his major works, known as The Large Glass or The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors. This was what consumed his mind that summer.
The decision to work on glass began with the observation of the glass palettes he used while painting. It was transparent, while canvas was opaque, and colour remained clean and pure. The elements were drawn unfashionably, using a mathematically constructed perspective, like engineering drawings.
There was no underlying grand idea, Duchamp described it as ‘a sum of experiments, an ensemble piece’. Every decision on this path came from his ‘mania for change’ in a search for a completely new aesthetic. The nature of Duchamp’s contrarianism was to seek out a place that was aesthetically and intellectually in opposition to whatever he perceived as the accepted practice of the time.
He would go on to submit Fountain, the famous urinal for exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists in 1917. It’s rejection by the committee, caused a furore among Dadaists and it’s reputation was assured. It must be the only example of an unexhibited piece triggering a major art movement, it being generally regarded as the starting point for all the conceptual art made over the last hundred years. In 2004, a survey of 500 artists, curators, critics and dealers, commissioned by the sponsors of the Turner prize, selected Fountain as the world’s most influential piece of modern art – beating Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ and Matisse’s ‘The Red Studio’.
It may be too much to claim that Duchamp’s month in Herne Bay influenced the course of art history in any major way. But it is important that Duchamp had a brief respite here when he needed time to reflect and time to think. With The Large Glass he knew he had years of work ahead of him. Amongst the notes he made about the proposed piece he describes it as “An electric fête recalling the decorative lighting of Magic city or Luna Park, or the Pier Pavilion at Herne Bay…
Duchamp clipped this photograph to his note. It was taken by Fred C. Palmer and showed the Grand Pier Pavilion illuminated on its opening night 3 August 1910, three years before. It was widely available in Herne Bay and appeared in the local paper, as a postcard and on other printed material.
Marcel and his sister Yvonne, arrived in Herne Bay at the beginning of August, probably directly from their family home in Rouen via either Dunkirk or Boulogne. He had celebrated his 26th birthday a week earlier. Yvonne was 17, and needed to be chaperoned during her stay in Herne Bay where she was enrolled in a summer school to learn English at Lynton College in Downs Park. At this time, the August bank holiday in England fell on the first Monday of the month. In 1913, this was August 4th and Marcel and Yvonne were already in Herne Bay, because he wrote a postcard from the town (featuring a picture of Central Parade) to Max Bergman in Germany and posted it on August 5th.
Dear Friend, I am not dead : I am staying for a month in Herne Bay, England with my sister. Very pleasant weather and nice countryside. I am going to Paris on 15th September. Write to me here until the end of the month.
During the month Marcel and Yvonne Duchamp spent in Herne Bay, while she attended classes, he played tennis, walked along the coast and explored the area. In the evenings they probably strolled along the promenade or attended concerts at the very recently opened Kings Hall on the Downs. Duchamp was already making sketches and notes towards The Large Glass, and at least four of these are attributed to the time of his stay in Herne Bay. Pendu Femelle and Wasp, or Sex Cylinder, were deemed important enough to be included in the Green Box (1934).