It’s been a really crazy couple of weeks, which has felt like a rollercoaster of highs and lows, set on an ever moving landscape. We all have those times, where it just feels like we are walking on quicksand – everything is moving but not always in the direction that you want. Which is what made me think of this painting.
I have heard many people talk about this piece, and they rarely understand what it is. I hear things like “I like it, but I don’t understand it”. I have to admit on first viewing, it really can feel a little confusing as it doesn’t look like a naked person walking down stairs, in fact it is barely recognisable as a person at a glance. What it presents as is a set of shapes, which essentially what it is.
Created by Duchamp in 1912, this painting was shunned by the Cubist art movement as being too Futuristic, it was also declined a showing at Salon des Independants in Paris at the same time. It was later that year displayed in Barcelona alongside other Cubist work. The next year it showed in the Armoury Show in New York and was subjected to ridicule.
In 1913 this painting was also reproduced by Guillaume Apollinaire in his book “The Cubist Painters, Aesthetic Meditations”. The painting is now in the Philadelphia Art Museum.
What the initial reaction of this painting shows is that very few truly appreciated the rhythmic movement that Duchamp captured within this piece. Ok, so on first look, it does appear to be a gathering of conical and cylindrical shapes bunched together. As your eye adjusts to the unusual formation you should be able to make out a staircase. You then should get a sense of a figure walking down the stairs. Unusual in its presentation as it shows the same figure at different points of its journey.
This painting is less about the individual, which is why you don’t have a fully fledged, beautiful painting of a person, rather the shapes which indicate the body, as this is about the movement.
Painted in muted pallet so not to draw the attention away from the flow of the figure, this, in my opinion is one of the most masterful Cubist pieces of art. The figures movements appear to be rotated counterclockwise from the upper left corner to the lower right, with the colours corresponding accordingly. The figure itself appears at the top of the painting more transparent, to indicate the older movements, with the newer in a less opaque tones.
Duchamp is quite well known for being an eclectic artist, one who dabbled in many different arenas, and he is probably most well known for his “Fountain” (1917) which moved away from the Cubist movement and pushed into the Dadaist school, but this shouldn’t take away from his Cubist work.
To help you fully understand this painting, Duchamp’s studies included long exposure photography of the movements captured within the piece:-
Here you can see Duchamp walking down the stairs in a similar display to his painting. This explores “Simultaneity”, which is the relationship between two events assumed to be happening at the same time in a given frame of reference. Robert Dulaunay and his wife Sonia coined the “Simultaneity” term for the art world in 1910, which was also known as “Orphism” although this was more around the simultaneous use of colour. What Duchamp’s captured was the simultaneous use of colour and movement, to put it all in effectively a single frame.
This has been created as an oil painting and was under fire for it’s too literal title on first presentation. Critics slammed the painting for not showing a nude, or even a person, when the title indicated that is what they should have been seeing. It’s a shame that the couldn’t take the time to fully appreciate this piece at the time. Duchamp said about this piece:-
“My aim was a static representation of movement, a static composition of indications of various positions taken by a form in movement—with no attempt to give cinema effects through painting. The reduction of a head in movement to a bare line seemed to me defensible”
Which when you take the time to really look at the work, it really is what he envisaged.
Regardless of if you appreciate Cubism or not, I think that this piece stands out against the work of others, and is one that I come back to time and again, from the clever use of colour to enhance the rhythm of movement, to the way he has simulated dance like qualities to a painting, it never ceased to amaze me.
What do you think of “Nude Descending a Staircase No. 2”? Why not tell me in the comments? Like this post? Why not share it?
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