Marcel Duchamp: Through a Glass, Clearly

Nick Lee

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis


This thesis provides an historical and theoretical account of Marcel Duchamp’s position in the canon of avant-garde French painting. It writes his work into this tradition rather than out of it, in answer Thierry de Duve’s call for a single history of modern art (Pictorial Nominalism p190). This thesis does not start with Duchamp, but ends with him. It argues that Duchamp’s work responds to the epistemological conditions of its time, that Duchamp - unable to fully escape the trappings of the lyrical mode to which he is heir – makes work through an idiomatic language which is also a language that can be said to name the world, to participate in knowledge of it. As an inevitable by-product of this line of argument, it also proposes that painting, as a visual form (language), can no longer fulfil this task.

The study begins with an examination of the implications of the fin de siècle crisis of language and of lyricism as expressed by Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s Letter of Lord Chandos [A Letter] (1902). It then turns to Hermann Broch’s interpretation of this work and his subsequent arguments concerning the relation of aesthetics and ethics. The thesis proceeds by analysing key works by Manet, Cézanne, Picasso and Braque before moving onto a an exploration of Duchamp’s work, with particular attention paid to the ‘invention’ of the readymade as a response to the same set of problems faced by other visual artists of the time (and tradition). It proposes that the history of modern French painting be seen more broadly as a history of lyricism (in its aesthetic and ethical function) and that Duchamp’s work, far from operating outside of that tradition, exists within it and employs linguistic forms that are appropriate to both the epistemological and material conditions of his time. His work provides, in short, a clear mirror to the world, and to the subject that inhabits it.

The significant original contribution this thesis makes to knowledge is through its careful integration of Duchamp’s work into the shifting epistemological structures of his time, through the presentation of his work as a lucid reflection of the world beyond it, and not as an impossibly cryptic verbal-visual riddle. In addition, in a gesture of revolutionary conservatism, the study enacts the writing in of Duchamp from the perspective of the French tradition from which he emerged and not through the filter of the American ‘avant-gardes’ and speculative sexual-psychoanalytical models that followed.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Royal Holloway, University of London
  • Townsend, Christopher, Supervisor
Publication statusUnpublished - 2012


  • Marcel Duchamp
  • Adorno
  • Manet
  • Cubism
  • Walter Benjamin
  • Jean-Francois Lyotard

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