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Figure 1: Undated photograph of Marcel Duchamp
sporting a Reverse Mohawk
Figure 2: Image of a coffee mill in perspective and projected forms from a French school text book of artistic training.
(Paris: Laurens 1887, p 27.)
What would happen if you changed the focus of an entire country's art education system from imitating nature and the human body to mastering the art of technical drawing and creating diagrams ?
By the time the French artist Marcel Duchamp was born in 1887, the French national education system had undergone a systematic overhaul and just such changes were already in place in the art departments of each state funded public school. (1)
Students of art were no longer expected to study and mimic classical sculpture, the old masters, or the art of the renaissance. Instead, the aim of the new curriculum was fluency in a measured, mechanical drawing style that was refined, skeletal and precise.
Referred to as the 'language of industry', this was a whole-sale promotion of a new national, visual language of science, technology and culture in the age of mechanical production. In other words, second only to the epic encyclopedic projects of the 1700's, this was the new dawn of the diagram at the heart of French Culture.
In her essay titled 'The language of Industry', Molly Nesbit describes how "by and large this was a language meant for work, not for leisure, and certainly not for raptures or poetic, high cultural sighs. This language was pre-aesthetic, a public culture based upon mechanical drawings, sans colour, sans nature, sans body, sans the classics, some would have said sans everything." (2)
Within the class rooms, drawing courses were divided in to depicting objects in perspective (objects reproduced the way they appear to the eye) and in projection (objects depicted as ideal forms, independent of a human observer and the optics of our two human eyes).
Because of this distinction, French art students were taught to make a fundamental distinction between apparent and true representation, just as Duchamp himself would later make a similar distinction between what he called retinal and non-retinal art.
Figure 3: Moulin à café (Coffee Mill), Marcel Duchamp,
Oil paint and graphite on board, 33 x 12.7 cm
Duchamp's 1911 painting 'Moulin à café' already shows signs of the lasting influence his training in diagrammatic image making would have upon his life's work as an artist. It also contains traces of cubist techniques such as fractured lines and multiple projected view points.
Duchamp described how 'Moulin à café' was "based on the idea of dismantling the grinder", and gave the painting to his brother, the artist, Raymond Duchamp-Villon as a wedding gift. (3)
Even in this early work, Duchamp was already making sexual puns and innuendos to counter-balance the clinical, sterile and idealised qualities of the pure diagrammatic form.
The symbols within 'Moulin à café' eventually evolved in to the element known as the 'Chocolate grinder' in Duchamps master-work 'The bride stripped bare by her bachelors even', otherwise known as 'the Large Glass'.
In a series of notes written to accompany 'The Large Glass', Duchamp explained that, “The bachelor grinds his chocolate himself”, suggesting that the Coffee Mill is a metaphor for masturbation. (4)
Duchamp later commented that: “Always there has been a necessity for circles in my life, for, how do you say, rotation. It is a kind of onanism.” (5)
Figure 4: The Large Glass, 1915 - 1923, Glass, foil, varnish, oil paint, wire, 277.5 cm × 175.9 cm
Figure 5: Sketch for the Large Glass, 1913,
Pencil on tracing cloth, 30.8 x 25.4cm.
The following diagrams were scanned from the third book in the series "Nouveau Cours de Dessin géométrique", compiled by Professor V. darchez of the state-funded secondary school in Lyon. The director of the Beaux-Arts School in Paris at the time, the sculptor and critic Eugène Guillaume, elaborated upon the new program of diagrammatic training:
"Drawing is by its very nature exact, scientific, authoritative. It images with undeniable precision (to which one must submit) things such as they are or as they appear. Not one of its configurations could not be analyzed, verified, transmitted, understood, realized. In its geometrical sense, as in perspective, drawing is written and is read: it has the character of a universal language." (6)
1) The 'Ferry Reforms' of the French national school system were established during the 1970s and 80s.
2) Nesbit, M. The Language of industry (1991). In: The Definitely unfinished Marcel Duchamp, MIT Press, 1991, p.356.
3) Duchamp, M. interview with Dorothy Norman, first published in Art in America, Vol.57, July -Aug. 1969. p38.
4) Duchamp, M. In: Schwarz, A. The Complete works of Marcel Duchamp, revised and expanded edition, New York, 1997, p.573.
5) Duchamp, M. In; Ades, D., Cox, N., Hopkins, D. Marcel Duchamp, london, 1999, p.75.
6) Nesbit, M. The Language of industry (1991). In: The Definitely unfinished Marcel Duchamp, MIT Press, 1991, p.372.