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Picture Imperfect

Correction Appended

An icon of Dadaism, French-born American artist Marcel Duchamp is famous for his provocative art. In fact, he challenged the idea of relying on the visual when he said in 1968, “Why should we be only interested in the visual side of the painting? There might be something else.—

That idea is well-represented in a new exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery, “Inventing Marcel Duchamp: The Dynamics of Portraiture.—

Duchamp (1887-1968) influenced many American artists such as Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. “His art is really bigger than his name,— said Anne Collins Goodyear, assistant curator of prints and drawings at the Portrait Gallery. “This exhibit seeks to reintroduce Marcel Duchamp to the American public.—

The exhibit’s title speaks in part to the question of who Duchamp was, and in part to the way he changed the portrait as an art form.

“The goal is to demonstrate that portraiture plays an important part in his career,— Collins Goodyear said. “He was sensitive to issues of identity. He used portraits to demonstrate how complex a person is.— The exhibit displays a variety of images from more than 50 artists from 1912 to the present.

The exhibit’s main hall displays photographs by Duchamp himself and some of his followers; the front wall features a screen test of Duchamp made by Andy Warhol. The surrounding galleries continue the chronology and themes of his life. “Duchamp is this living presence,— Collins Goodyear said.

One of Duchamp’s displayed pieces is a “wanted— poster from the Boite Series. Attending a dinner party in 1923, Duchamp saw a wanted poster, Collins Goodyear said. He got the idea to paste in his own pictures — in the traditional front and profile positions — and made the poster into an art piece.

“That is the single most powerful portrait he ever made,— Collins Goodyear said. The poster has inspired a series of variations by other artists such as Gavin Turk (2006) and Richard Pettibone (1966) also on display.

In the 1920s, Duchamp spent his time playing chess, and in the ’30s he worked as a journalist. He later had other commitments. But in 1966, he completed his last major work, “Etant donnés,— a surprise to those who thought he had given up art 20 years earlier.

A part of his recreation of portraiture was inventing a female persona, Collins Goodyear said. In 1921, “he dressed up in drag— and let close friend, photographer and painter Man Ray take his picture. After Duchamp’s arrival in New York, they became friends, also with artists such as Beatrice Wood and Francis Picabia.

Duchamp named his alter ego Rrose Sélavy, a character he continued to use. The name sounds like the French phrase “Eros, c’est la vie— (Eros, that’s life). It could also be read as “Arroser la vie— (to make a toast to life). “He loved puns— and signing with another name “disrupted traditional authorship,— Collins Goodyear added.

Duchamp wanted to “escape traditional boundaries— and intended to show that “everything could be a piece of art,— Collins Goodyear said. He and his fellow artists rejected the existing artistic and social conformity.

The Dada movement was as a protest against Western culture after World War I. Dada grew from combat scenes from the war and pictures of bodies with missing limbs, Collins Goodyear said. The Dadaists questioned the accepted realities.

Many museum-goers were shocked by these new pieces, which stood in contrast to the prior realistic style. “After Dada, a snow shovel could be a work of art. It can be scary and threatening to move away from tradition,— Collins Goodyear said. “Dada used humor as a device to address stressing issues.—

Dada became connected with other movements such as avant-garde, pop art and punk rock. Though the latter had a more aggressive tone, revolting the common art scene, they also shared similar idealistic goals and appeal to the youth, Collins Goodyear said.

Duchamp’s photograph “Tonsure— from 1919 shows a head and neck with the hair shaved off in the form of a star. This could be interpreted in different ways — one with celibacy and Duchamp’s withdrawal at the time, another with the Rose of Venus and Rrose Sélavy.

After World War I, Duchamp stopped painting and began working with installations, Goodyear said. “Fountain,— from 1917, is closely associated with the Dada movement and one of the pieces Duchamp called “ready-mades,— which meant they were made from existing objects.

“He put something to a new context and saw the beauty of a porcelain urinal,— Collins Goodyear said, explaining that in Duchamp’s eyes the urinal could be a piece of art.

After Duchamp bought the urinal, he reshaped and signed it “R. Mutt 1917.—

Then he submitted it to the Society of Independent Artists exhibit where the hanging committee decided it was not art. Almost a century later, in 2004, “Fountain— was voted the most influential artwork of the 20th century by 500 British art world associates.

After World War I, Duchamp left Paris for New York, where his name had become known through the piece “Nude Descending a Staircase.—

Another displayed postcard photo, “Five-Way Portrait of Marcel Duchamp— (1917), creates a kaleidoscopic feeling with multiple versions of the same person. Duchamp was one of the first to explore the different sides of human beings in the arts, Collins Goodyear said.

The exhibit also contains artist Douglas Gordon’s installation “Proposition for a Posthumous Portrait— (2004) showing a skull with a cut-out star in the back and a mirror. This could be seen as a reinvention of Duchamp’s art, Collins Goodyear said, and the question is: “Who’s being depicted?—

As with Gordon, “You never quite know what you get with Marcel Duchamp,— Collins Goodyear said.

The exhibit runs through Aug. 2.

Correction: April 3, 2009

The article reported the wrong date for a dinner party attended by Marcel Duchamp. The dinner party took place in 1923. In addition, the article incorrectly says that Duchamp displayed his last major work in 1966. In fact, he finished his last major work in 1966 and died in 1968, but his work was also displayed after his death.

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