Painting at the Time of its Fall: The Invention of the Readymade

Nicholas Lee

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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This thesis provides an historical and theoretical account of Marcel Duchamp’s position in the canon of avant-garde French painting. 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 therefore offers an account of the decline of European easel painting seen through the lens of the decline of traditional metaphysics as identified by Nietzsche, Adorno and Broch. The readymade is seen to occupy a unique place within this specifically European development.

The study begins with an examination of the implications of the fin de siècle problem of language and of lyricism as expressed by Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s Letter of Lord Chandos (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 works by Manet, Cézanne, Picasso and Braque before moving onto 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 avant-garde 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.

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
Thesis sponsors
Publication statusUnpublished - 2015


  • Marcel Duchamp
  • Manet
  • Hermann Broch
  • Adorno
  • Nietzsche
  • T.J. Clark
  • Cézanne
  • Art History and Theory
  • Metaphysics
  • Lacoue-Labarthe

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