Dada and Chess: Echoes of Duchamp in Kantor
#photography & visual arts
small, Dada and Chess: Echoes of Duchamp in Kantor, - Marcel Duchamp, photo from George Grantham Bain Collection / CC / Wikimedia; Tadeusz Kantor, photo by Marek Suchecki / Forum, duchamp_kantor.jpg
Unravelling some lesser-known details about an international art revolutionary, we acquaint you with the figure of another. Marcel Duchamp, the outstandingly influential, idiosyncratic figure of 20th century art allows us to get closer to some of the motivations behind the input of a later art revolutionary – Tadeusz Kantor.
Duchamp is considered by many critics to be one of the most important artists of the 20th century, and his output influenced the development of post-WWI Western art. The first global conflict of our modern times, a terrifying event at the threshold of modernity as such, constitutes an unsurpassable point of reference in the creative act of Duchamp. For Tadeusz Kantor, it is the later trauma of World War II, and the unprecedented experience of death that gives rise to many of his artistic ideas and obsessions.
Duchamp, who challenged conventional thought about artistic processes famously rejected the art market as it emerged in its contemporary form. He dubbed a urinal art and named it Fountain and his subversive invention of the ready-made is not without echoes in the art of Kantor.
Dada or Dadaism was an art movement of the European avant-garde in the early 20th century. It began in Zurich, Switzerland in 1916, spreading to Berlin shortly thereafter. Dada was born out of the repulsion felt towards the horrors of World War I. Dada rejected reason and logic, prizing nonsense, irrationality and intuition. The movement primarily involved visual arts, literature, poetry, art manifestoes, art theory, theatre, and graphic design, and concentrated its anti-war politics through a rejection of the prevailing standards in art through anti-art cultural works. In addition to being anti-war, Dada was also anti-bourgeois.
In his work as painter, author, stage designer, theatre director and producer, Kantor was deeply influenced by Dada iconoclasm.
Kantor’s frequent recourse to the Aristotelian tradition of thought links the issue of trespassing on the threshold of the visibility of forms with the unknown side of reality, which Kantor termed "matter". For him, although the "nothingness" of primal matter, as something impossible par excellence, cannot be grasped, it nonetheless directs and orients his search beyond the normativity of inherited "forms".
The most prominent example of Duchamp's association with Dada was his submission of Fountain, a urinal, to the Society of Independent Artists exhibit in 1917. Although the artworks in the Independent Artists shows were not selected by a jury, and on principle, all submitted works were displayed, the show’s committee insisted that Fountain was not art, and rejected it from the display. This caused an uproar amongst the Dadaists, and led Duchamp to resign from the board of the Independent Artists.
The Ready-mades and Reality of the Lowest Order
Among Duchamps’ hallmark inventions, as well as a key influence on contemporary art was his concept of the readymade object. He created these out of contempt for what he called retinal art, which only sought to please the eye and limited themselves to the visual dimension of their existence. His ready-mades are also a unique sign of the time, conceivable only in the era of mass-manufacturing of goods. Ordinary, fabricated items of daily use were selected by Duchamp, at times somewhat modified, but raised to the dignity of art simply through their selection, titling, and signing.
The idea was to question the very notion of Art, and the adoration of art, which Duchamp found "unnecessary”. Of his own motivation, he said
My idea was to choose an object that wouldn't attract me, either by its beauty or by its ugliness. To find a point of indifference in my looking at it (…).
There is a clear point of convergence between the ready-made and Kantor’s fascination with what he called The Reality of a Lower Order. Already in the early phase of his work on clandestine performances created during the War, Kantor began to produce works in non-theatrical spaces. Thus, like Duchamp and other artists of the avant-garde, he was already on the path of questioning the limits of form. For his productions, Kantor not only moved outside of the theatre, but he also incorporated ready-made, everyday objects into his work.
Kantor’s focus on the object did not, however, aim to part with its ‘adoration’. He insisted that the prop, and a piece of set design may have an autonomous life beyond its function as scenic object. In his Letter to the Authorities, Kantor explicitly asks for a legal judgment “1.That recognizes those objects as works of art and 2. Establishes their price, thereby guaranteeing their preservation and conservation in a museum.”
20th century polish theatre
And, while Duchamp himself explains that he sought out objects that he felt indifferent, Kantor was rather constantly drawn to the debased object. According to him, the Reality of a Lower Order,
"continuously demands that I examine and express issues through base materials, the basest possible, materials that are poor, deprived of dignity and prestige, defenseless and often downright contemptible."
Duchamp’s indifference, neutrality are not quite the same as contempt.
Towards Art and… Away
Every stage in Kantor’s work in the theater corresponds to a development in his work as a visual artist. His vision in both areas underwent major transformation in the 1950 and 1960s. It was then that he turned entirely turned away from abstract art and illusionist painting, focusing on a conceptual aesthetic oriented toward physical objects - umbrellas, bags, crumpled rags and pieces of paper, common garbage - transposed from everyday life to the world of art.
With his constant fascination with the Aristotelian echoes of the "nothingness” of primal matter, it is not surprising that Kantor's insistence on the In-formel is essentially linked with his reflections on the "end of art".
As revolutionary as he was, Duchamp produced relatively few artworks, while remaining mostly aloof of the avant-garde circles of his time. He went on to pretend to abandon art and devote the rest of his life to chess, while secretly continuing to make art.
While Duchamp’s contemporaries and colleagues were achieving spectacular success by selling their works to collectors, Duchamp observed,
"I am still a victim of chess. It has all the beauty of art—and much more. It cannot be commercialized. Chess is much purer than art in its social position."
Here, it is worth to evoke two factors. Kantor lived and worked in a Communist Poland, within a totalitarian system of socialism. Within this political frame, there was no room for the art market as it was beginning to exist in Duchamp’s time and milieu – notably in the United States. This is one historical and contextual reason for a different stance towards the art in its institutionalized context. There is, one happening that nonetheless reveals a tongue-in-cheek position of Kantor with respect to the commercial dimension of art. His 1970 Multi-part toyed with the idea of reproduction of art, it commercial value, as well as notion of a spectator’s participation in the creative work – an idea which Kantor found had become conventionalized. Guests of the happening were invited to buy nearly identical canvases with umbrellas attached to them, objects into which they were invited to intervene on condition of allowing their later display.
Duchamp also elaborated on his choice of chess over art in the following words:
"The chess pieces are the block alphabet which shapes thoughts; and these thoughts, although making a visual design on the chess-board, express their beauty abstractly, like a poem. ... I have come to the personal conclusion that while all artists are not chess players, all chess players are artists."
Duchamp, Kantor, and the Subversion of Performative Art
The theme of the "endgame" taken from chess is a point of reference for Duchamp's complex attitude towards his artistic career. In 1968, Duchamp played an artistically important chess match with avant-garde composer John Cage, at a concert entitled Reunion. Music was produced by a series of photoelectric cells underneath the chessboard, triggered sporadically by normal game play.
This engagement makes for a meeting point between the highest form of conceptual art, a game, and a performance. As much as he disliked art’s merely ‘retinal’ forms, Duchamp started his career in the visual arts, to finish entirely devoted to chess. He even left a legacy to chess in the form of an enigmatic endgame problem he composed in 1943. It remains an unsolved one for chess masterminds to date.
Kantor, on the other hand, insisted,
"When somebody says that I am a theater director, I don't agree. When he calls me a painter, however, I agree, because it's an old term with an enormous tradition behind it - but 'director'? Only about two hundred years…”.
Painting was for Kantor an actual laboratory of ideas, a private scene of dialogue with tradition, the avant-garde, and the whole world. Yet, it was always through a confrontation with the performative that he managed to push the limits of art in both the genres he engaged with.
In a light-spirited, revolutionary and very much dadaist spirit, he authored the first happening art piece in Poland. The Panoramic Sea-happening took place on August 23, 1967 in Łazy, a small town near Osiek. It was the most spectacular and complex of all of Kantor's happenings. Organized for only a couple of participants (mostly for members and friends of the Foksal Gallery), it had an enormous audience among tourists relaxing on the beach. The happening consisted of four parts, and the first Sea Concert had an audience seated on deckchairs by shore, while a man dressed in a tuxedo was conducting the waves while standing on a platform submerged in the water.
And one cannot help but wonder what the encounter of a theatre legend-conductor of sea-waves and the dadaist chess champion would have looked like.
Authored by Paulina Schlosser, March 2015
Sources: Tadeusz Kantor, the book by Jan Kłossowicz, Tadeusz Kantor