“Nude Descending a Staircase” by Marcel Duchamps A highly innovative artwork John Welford

Updated: May 4

“Nude Descending a Staircase” by Marcel Duchamps

A highly innovative artwork

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John Welford

Dec 12, 2021·4 min read


Marcel Duchamp (1887–1968) was one of the 20th century’s most influential artists but also one of the most puzzling. He refused to be pigeon-holed into any artistic category and rejected every convention that was current at the time during his long life as an artist. He therefore experimented with Impressionism, post-Impressionism, Fauvism and Cubism, before plunging into the anti-art world of Dada.

Throughout his life he teased the critics with a series of statements concerning the nature of art, such as: “What the artist chooses to be art is art” and “It is the spectators who make the pictures”. He is widely regarded as the father of conceptual art, in which ready-made objects can be exhibited as art. He believed in continual experimentation and in being open-minded and adventurous.


His “Nude Descending a Staircase (No 2)” was, as the title suggests, the second attempt by Duchamp to portray this subject, the first being a preparatory study made in 1911. There was also a “No 3”, created in 1916, which was a copy of No 2 using different media and colouring, the original having been sold. All three versions are now held by the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

The painting proved to be controversial within weeks of its completion. Duchamp submitted it for consideration by the Salons des Indépendants in Paris but, despite its clearly Cubist antecedents and the fact that the hanging committee was dominated by Cubists, including the artist’s own brothers, they rejected it as being out of keeping with their ideas of what was suitable subject matter for a Cubist work. To quote one of his critics: “A nude does not descend a staircase, she reclines”. They also objected to his having inscribed the title of the work on the painting itself.

Duchamp withdrew the work, although it was exhibited twice in 1912, at Barcelona in May and at the “Section d’Or” exhibition in Paris in October.

However, it was when the painting went to New York to be shown at the “Armory Show” in February 1913 that the real sensation arose. This show was designed to introduce modern European art to an American audience, and many people simply failed to appreciate the huge strides that had been made in Europe in terms of developing artistic styles.

So what was so unusual and provocative about this picture? It is an image based on the techniques of multi-exposure photography, as demonstrated by Eadward Muybridge and others. If a series of photographs of an action are taken at rapid intervals, and are then superimposed on each other, the result will be similar to Duchamp’s work. Of course, if the images are flashed on a screen, one at a time in quick succession, the result will be a “moving picture”, such as citizens of the United States were already appreciating with the recent birth of the cinema.

In “Nude Descending a Staircase” it is the descending rather than the nude that is important. One can make out arms and legs, but no other discernable body parts, so the figure could be either male or female. It is not a figure study but a portrayal of pure movement, conveyed through repeated panels of colour, slightly changed in their orientation and shading each time. To emphasise the movement there are even curved lines, such as one might see in a comic strip, and dotted lines to indicate the swinging movement of the pelvis.

The result is highly original and effective, in that Duchamp has adapted the principles of Cubism to suit his own ends. He would later take the technique forward in a number of other works that used mechanistic imagery to display human forms, before moving yet further in the direction of conceptual art and abandoning the traditional tools and techniques of painting altogether. Indeed, although “Nude Descending a Staircase” was regarded as a revolutionary work when first exhibited, it was one of the last “conventional” works of art that Duchamp would produce, despite having many years of productive work ahead of him.

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Originally published at https://vocal.media.

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