Duchamp in Context: Science and Technology in the Large Glass and Related Works

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Duchamp in Context: Science and Technology in the Large Glass and Related Works, by Linda Dairymple Henderson. Princeton, NJ: Princeton U Press, 1998. Reviewed by Arthur C. Danto, "The Bride & the Bottle Rack," The Nation 269.6 (August 23/30 1999): 29-31. Danto's essay posted on line 14 November 2002, at link, with a subtitle repeating the opening line of the review, "The idea of craft is an unanticipated product of the Industrial Revolution."[1]

Images of Marcel Duchamp's Large Glass can be found at link (when you get to the site, scroll down).[2] The actual image, however, perhaps even the 3-D work itself, may be of less immediate relevance than Duchamp's ideas it moves toward expressing, and the discussion it has elicited.

From the Synopsis of Henderson's study, on the website of Abe Books:

Between 1915 and 1923, Marcel Duchamp created one of the most mystifying art works of the early twentieth century: The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (also known as the Large Glass). [...] Duchamp's declared subject is the relation between the sexes, but his protagonists are biomechanical creatures: a "Bride" in the upper panel hovers over a "Bachelor Apparatus" in the panel below, stimulating the "Bachelors" with "love gasoline" for an "electrical stripping." [...]

[From Duchamp's notes] Linda Henderson provides the first systematic study of the Large Glass in relation to the entire corpus of Duchamp's notes for the project. Since Duchamp declared his interest in creating a "Playful Physics," she focuses on the scientific and technological themes that pervade the notes and the imagery of the Large Glass. In doing so, Henderson provides an unprecedented history of science as popularly known at the turn of the century, centered on late Victorian physics. In addition to electromagnetic waves, including X-rays and the Hertzian waves of wireless telegraphy, the areas of science to which Duchamp responded so creatively ranged from chemistry and classical mechanics to thermodynamics, Brownian movement, radioactivity, and atomic theory.[3]

In his (as often) insightful review essay, Danto notes that in Duchamp in Context," the Henderson as art historian

has undertaken to set Notes and Glass together, as her subtitle announces [...], in the context of early twentieth-century science and technology. It is not Henderson’s claim that tracking down scientific references is “the whole story,” and of course it is not (there may not be a “whole story”). But she captures enough of the science to make clear that much of the inspiration for the Glass derives from what, to us, is a fairly remote period of scientific discovery. Consider the discovery of X-rays. The X-ray is so common a diagnostic instrument that it is difficult to imagine anyone today as thrilled by X-rays as Flammarion, the French science writer, was: “To see through opaque substances! to look inside a closed box! to see the bones of an arm, a leg, a body, through flesh and clothing!” Fearing that they might be “stripped bare” by X-rays, Henderson tells us, women could avail themselves of lead undergarments as modesty shields; and she quotes a scrap of contemporary doggerel: “I hear they’ll gaze / thro’ cloak and gown–and even stays / These naughty, naughty Roentgen Rays.” It somewhat confirms the lubricity of the male gaze feminists have made so central to their reflections on gender, that one of the first applications to occur to anyone was a new way of peering up skirts. It also alerts us to an irresistible connection between erotic humor and scientific concepts, which played so large a role in Duchamp’s sensibility. (Nation p. 29)

For "biomechanicals" cf. and emphatically contrast the work of H. R. Giger.[4]

RDE, finishing, 5Jan22