Have you ever played a game of comparisons where you match up persons or things and try to decide which you prefer? I know we can’t or won’t really say who is the better artist but it is fun to take two artists who are contemporaries and match them up.
Pablo Picasso was born in 1881 and died in 1973. Picasso is my favorite artist, and he is one of those rare artists who completely changed everything that came after him. He destroyed form and altered how we view the picture plane. He was a child prodigy, and a classically trained artist, who threw away the constraints of being an academy painter and spent the rest of his life exploring and changing styles and media at will. With Georges Braque he invented cubism and papier collé. He was one of the first to use found objects in art. He was a master of painting, sculpture, print making, ceramics, and drawing.
Though he constantly explored new styles and media, he had a limited range of subject matter. Most of his paintings are scenes of mythological subjects, still lifes, portraits, or reworkings of paintings by past masters. He also was not a great colourist and rarely deviated from a narrow palette. Famous as the blue period paintings might be, they were blue paintings because he claimed not to be able to afford more expensive colours. He opened the flood gates of modern art but he has few if any significant inheritors.
Marcel Duchamp was born 1887 and in died 1968. I’ve always been indifferent about the work of this playful Frenchman. Though I find the ideas behind much of his work interesting, I often find myself wondering if he took his own work as seriously as generations of future art students would. There are pieces by Duchamp that I consider to be great and exciting, The Large Glass of 1915-23 being an example, but they have never really appealed to me on an aesthetic level.
His greatest contribution to art was the idea of the Readymade. Readymades were found objects presented as art, the most notorious example being a urinal that he signed “R. Mutt” and entitled Fountain. After 1923 Duchamp was considered to no longer be an active artist. Claiming to have given up art in favour of chess he worked as a consultant to artists, art dealers, and collectors.
In the 1950s he was rediscovered by younger artists such as Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. He had several exhibitions of his work in the 1960s that solidified his position as an influencial artist with younger generations.
Duchamp surprised the art world with his final major art work. Entitled Etant donnés: 1° la chute d’eau / 2° le gaz d’éclairage (“Given: 1. The Waterfall, 2. The Illuminating Gas”). Duchamp worked in secret in his studio on the piece from 1946 to 1966 while even his closest friends thought he had ceased to work as an artist.
While Picasso is my favorite artist, and Duchamp is an artist whose work doesn’t really appeal to me, I do have to give this match up to Duchamp. Duchamp’s influence on later generations of artists is simply too great to ignore, while Picasso has become someone artists have to rebel against and avoid to escape being labeled as derivative artists.