BY MARINA VAIZEY
yv.ts, LN THIS huge exhibition of small things on two floors of the grand Palazzo Grassi in Venice (until 18 July, for the only showing anywhere) Marcel Duchamp must be having the last laugh, echoing into emptiness. As a fellow artist said of him, Duchamp (18871968) "reversed the signposts of value so that they all point into the void".
Duchamp himself appears smiling at times almost coquettishly in an Andy Warhol film which interminably concentrates on Duchamp's elegant, handsome face. There is a row of television sets, each projecting various Duchampian films in flickering black and white, often looking as old, battered film will as though the images have been grievously interfered with.
There are several rooms of early paintings in which a small talent is displayed with gusto, a talent at that point alive to the vibrancy of colour, very French, and definitively minor key.
The works which were to become 20th century icons the passages of brides, moustached Mona Lisas, the ready-mades and the reconstructed Large Glass are on view in a meandering installation which eschews chronology for affinities.
Duchamp also liked summaries, pausing from time to time to produce an anthology of his own work and activity: the large painting Tu'tnn does just that, collecting Duchampian images and idioms on one big surface.
Duchamp's role, either chosen or thrust upon him. was and even posthumously, remains to question everything. He was the creator, in the eyes of his peers and the public, of the concept and activity of the "ready-made"; the object seized, or perhaps just loosely grasped, from the real world: a bottle-drying rack, a urinal, a bicycle wheel. The originals of the ready-mades often no longer exist and, if not, are shown in the current retrospective in facsimile, replica or reconstructed form. The bicycle wheel attached to its kitchen stool, comes complete with a fixed pencilled shadow on the wall; a touch of kitsch which improbably acts as a kind of subdued shriek in the limbo of ghastly good taste to which Duchamp is assigned in this exhibition.
He once announced that "the choice of these 'readymades' was never dictated by aesthetic delectation. The choice was based on a reaction of visual indifference with a total absence of good or bad taste ... in fact a complete anaesthesia."
Duchamp has become a cult. It is not only what he did and said but the meanings ascribed to his work by followers, disciples and other artists that form the Duchampian legacy; his achievement is defined by its interpretation, particularly in the post-war period that moved him from minor to major mode.
This meaning makes the notion of the exhibition, the idea of looking at things, unusually difficult. Duchamp is to be read, not seen, and this is true even of his objects. Most characteristic is the multiple he made of the Boite-en-Valise, a museum in miniature of his work.
It has little aesthetic allure, but is entrancing: its miniature scale, the sense of power contained in miniature, its precious nature and the preciosity of the reproductions. This is apparent in the clinical atmosphere of the Palazzo Grassi, a series of opulent spaces made for enjoyment and the enrichment of the senses, even in the Miami Vice colours of aquamarine-turquoise and pink chosen by Gae Aulenti for the Fiat-financed art palace.
The Fiat programme, which has brought major blockbusters to Venice Futurism, Arcimboldo, Tinguely, the Phoenicians, 20th century Italian Art, Warhol, the Celts, and Leonardo has been of major importance. It is not readily grasped in America and other western European countries how little, beyond its own incomparable treasury of art, is seen in Italy of the art of the past of others.
Thus the Duchamp show has a crucial importance for not only Venice, but Italy, that it might not bear in London, New York or Paris. The Palazzo Grassi is described by Fiat as "an efficient place for cultural encounters".
However, the Duchamp compilation seems to me flawed on two counts.
So elegant, so intelligent, so unexpected is the gamesplaying Duchamp that scholars who deal with his career
are over-awed, I believe, into attempting to show him in his own terms, or what may be construed as Duchampian logic. Venice itself is in one sense a Duchampian city, and its glorious beauties and glorious absurdities stifle competition. Thus, it may be Duchampian to provide the chronicle of Duchamp's life in an order corresponding to the signs of the zodiac. The premise is that, in the words of Walter Arsenberg, Duchamp's chief patron: "All art is autobiographical!... It is the same with a picture by Duchamp". Duchamp played chess all his life; he trained not only as an artist but as a librarian; he lived comparatively modestly and was remarkably free to do what he wanted. Archivist, games player, but above all master psychologist, and a consummate tease, he was a mirror which reflected whatever others wanted to see.
He nurtured mystery, in deadpan manner. He was an ideas-merchant. The physical results for all his long life are curiously slight, but he was the shaman that a crucially influential axis of the art world needed. On the visual evidence of the current exhibition, he seems to have done surprisingly little as a maker or anthologist of physical things.
Perhaps in oar own age of horror, distinguished from other periods of human atrocity by the scale of the destruction, and our greater awareness of those horrors that have been self-inflicted, it is all too appropriate that, for this viewer at least, the overwhelming reaction to this retrospective of Duchamp is one of exasperation.
His is an art )f futility and helplessness, and when viewed in its totality, strikes one more and more as unappealing nonsense.
Marcel Buchanp, Palazzo Grassi, Venice, until 18 July.