W.T.G.A.: Da Vinci vs Duchamp
Both Leonardo and Marcel could be considered the elder statesmen of art. They are a thinking person’s artist. Their ideas transcended their products. As it turns out, the world has a scarce amount of products from the both of them to ogle at in our cultural institutions. In the case of Leonardo he only completed 15-16 paintings over the course of his life. I find it funny that not even art historians can agree on the exact number, as well it seems lost Da Vincis keep resurfacing all the time. Duchamp’s output was minimal as well because he divided his time between art production and chess. He famously turned the game into performance art on a lecture circuit with his friend Man Ray. We are only left with a handful of pieces, but oh what a handful. They both had too much to think about, rather than spending all their time fabricating. When they did make things, their touch was masterful. Both of them changed art forever; not just the process of making art but nothing short of the idea of art all together. But who is the greater artist?
He was born out of wedlock, as a young man he was arrested for sodomy and as an old man died in the arms of a king: Leonardo da Vinci is probably the most recognized artist in the history of mankind. He is definitely the author of its most famous painting. But why that painting? A more appropriate question might be: why not that painting? Of the 15-16 paintings he completed over the course of his lifetime is it even his best? Does the most famous painting in history have to be the best painting in history? Is there any way to actually quantify that or who the greatest artist of all time is for that matter? (Probably not… but let’s crack on shall we.)
If Leonardo’s Mona Lisa is the world’s most famous piece of art than Marcel’s Fountain would be the world’s most infamous. Almost a hundred years old and it can still offend and infuriate. So called art lovers will throw their hands up in disgust. This is the ultimate ready-made: a urinal tipped on its side signed by the fictitious R. Mutt. Duchamp didn’t even make it, he didn’t have to, but his power as an artist made it art. The role of the artist was irrevocably changed . He had turned lead into gold.
Leonardo on the other hand had no desire to dabble in the alchemy of the natural world. He believed man could not replicate nature but rather should observe it and possibly create inventions and understandings to better navigate it. His explorations into medical science and aerodynamics among others are centuries ahead of their time. It was his thirst for knowledge and excellence that helped to define the Renaissance. A favourite story I can neither confirm nor deny is: Leonardo was a workaholic and knew he had too much to do and discover and found sleep just got in the way of this. To prevent himself from sleeping too long he devised a special bed. The bed was hooked up to large weights on one end that would slowly be filled with water. When the weights were heavy enough they would tip the bed forcing the occupant up and out of it. An ancient alarm clock that delves into the realm of mythology but is aligned with the larger than life persona that is Da Vinci.
The illustrations on the The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors Even (The Large Glass) evoke Leonardo’s diagrams for future machines. Duchamp’s machine painted on glass, that runs on love gasoline is planted more in the arena of satire than science. He painted it on glass so it would constantly change depending on what’s on the other side. The glass was broken during transportation in 1927. Instead of discarding the broken piece, Duchamp famously glued it back together claiming the accident had vastly improved it.
A piece we have lost to time is Leonardo’s Battle of Anghiari. The mural may in fact lie behind another fresco by Giorgio Vasari in the hall of Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio. This is a testimony to Leonardo’s power. Art historians were willing to remove and damage a centuries old masterpiece in the off chance that a Da Vinci lies behind it. The original plan for the hall was to have facing frescoes, one by Leonardo and the other by Michelangelo. That would have been some room, but alas it did not come to pass.
With no more than a postcard and a pen Duchamp delved into the iconoclastic. By subverting Leonardo he only gave him more power. Dada exclaimed that the artist only need to recognize something as art in order for it to be art. So in this little contest Duchamp himself tips his hat to the victor. Marcel Duchamp’s contribution to art changed the game completely and injected a much needed sense of mirth and play. Marcel elevated art to the heights of what it is capable of being and Leonardo shone a light on what mankind is capable of achieving.
Winner: Leonardo da Vinci