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Review of Alchemist of the Avant-Garde: The Case of Marcel Duchamp by John F. Moffitt, SUNY Press, 2003. [First published in Rain Taxi Review of Books.]


Was the noted artist Marcel Duchamp an alchemist? John F. Moffitt argues that he was-not a dabbler in beakers and test tubes, but an insincere alchemist who used the imagery of that esoteric philosophy purely for his own artistic purposes. His book is organized like a legal argument in which the "case" against Duchamp is made.

Moffitt begins with a detailed history of modern occultism, tracing its roots back to Swedenborg in the late 18th century and delineating the evolution of esoteric beliefs throughout the 19th century. By the time of the Symbolists, he shows, occult ideas had become widespread among many artists in France. Duchamp?s early training in art thus took place in this heady atmosphere in which spiritualism, Theosophy, the tarot, alchemy, and other occult sciences were commonplace.

In fact, Moffitt argues that occultism and the avant-garde shared several key concepts, particularly a belief in visionary experience beyond the realm of science and rationalism. Modern artists came to believe themselves similar to mystics and mediums, capable of seeing things behind the veil of material illusion. The Symbolist use of images to suggest higher philosophical concepts or hidden feelings was derived from such beliefs; later, surrealist imagery evolved from these same ideas. Even more abstract art movements like Futurism, with its interest in invisible "lines of force," drew on the occultist milieu for inspiration.

Given this shared perspective, Moffitt claims it was only natural that Duchamp would turn to one of the occult sciences to give his work a more serious base. He dates this change as taking place in late1911, when the ambitious Duchamp realized his technical shortcomings as a painter and sought for "a gimmick: self-propelling, philosophical subject matter, a major statement as it were. . . . Alchemy seemed to have it all: a major statement propelled by unique, already pictorialized or ready-made topoi." Alchemy's special focus on transformation and the joining of opposites, and its use of graphic symbols and images, made it ideal for Duchamp's artistic purposes-or so Moffitt argues in the remainder of his book.

Duchamp himself rejected the notion that his work had any occult foundation, so Moffitt necessarily make assumptions based on somewhat flimsy evidence: books that Duchamp "might have" read or owned; associates in the art world, including early patrons, who had esoteric beliefs and could have shaped the subject matter of his work; and readings of individual paintings to show their similarities with alchemical symbology. The famous "Large Glass" is analyzed, as are the ready-mades. Moffitt claims suggestively that Duchamp's drag queen alter-ego "Rrose Selavy" had its roots in alchemy's fascination with the hermaphrodite, symbol of the joining of chemical opposites.

But why has this alchemical aspect to Duchamp's work gone largely unnoticed? Moffitt explains that by the time Duchamp gained critical stature, the avant garde had moved beyond its infatuation with occultism and few critics were familiar enough with the subject to notice it. Similarly, the culture's growing obsession with celebrities allowed Duchamp-always successful at self-advertisement-to draw attention to himself and away from his artwork.

Moffitt, an unbeliever in occultism, is nonetheless well read in the field; he also has a remarkable ability to place Duchamp's career within a larger historical context. At times, the book seems to be more an insightful historical survey than a study of a particular artist, and it gains strength because of that. Despite some shaky examples, Moffitt's unhurried hammering away at the numerous examples of alchemical images to be found in Duchamp's work will cause most readers to give a verdict in support of his well-made case.

--Thomas Wiloch


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