Rhett Gérard Poché

A blog devoted to the study of art, art history, and visual literacy.

FRESH WIDOW (not French window)

I am confident that my Visual Literacy students will be up to the challenge of discussing Duchamp’s readymades.  In fact, I think Duchamp’s work will provide us with an excellent exercise in reading and analyzing visual rhetoric.

Duchamp’s readymades investigate the notions of authorship, originality, and craftsmanship (or lack thereof).  They challenge biases that favor more “traditional” approaches to art.  Moreover, and more to the point, love him or hate him, one must note that Monsieur Duchamp was certainly generous to his viewers.

I contend that within the framework of his readymades, Duchamp allows viewers to step into the art-making process to complete his work.  In essence, viewers can embody Duchamp much like he embodied his female alter ego, Rrose Sélavy (Rrose is a discussion for another time).  Therefore, if viewers are part of the act of creation, if viewers relpace the artist himself, then their interpretations, ANY interpretations, become part of the work of art.  Their interpretations ARE the work of art.  In short, one can make Duchamp’s work mean whatever he or she wants it to mean.  The possibilities are endless.  That’s not so challenging, is it?

To prepare for the Visual Literacy discussion of Duchamp’s readymades, I would like to share a few common interpretations of Duchamp’s Fresh Widow—a piece he would have labeled “readymade aided”—a found object that was altered via the application of text and/or an art object that was created by hired craftspeople according to Duchamp’s specifications.

Fresh Widow is a miniature French window made from a painted wood frame and panes of glass covered with black leather.  The windowsill features the text: FRESH WIDOW—COPYRIGHT—RROSE SÉLAVY—1920.  This piece was reproduced.  Various versions exist.

© 2012 Artists Rights Society, New York/ADAGP, Paris/Estate of Marcel Duchamp

Here are links to resources that provide common interpretations of Fresh Widow:

Tout-Fait: The Marcel Duchamp Studies Online Journal provides an interpretation of Fresh Widow HERE.

MoMA’s interpretation can be found HERE.

Both MoMA and Tout-Fait provide a bit of history and, more importantly, possible interpretations, particularly gendered and Freudian interpretations, of Duchamp’s Fresh Widow.  Although I do agree with these gendered interpretations and, to some extent, their Freudian implications, Fresh Widow, like any other readymade, should be seen from various perspectives.  So, let’s move on.

In 2012, Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf examined Fresh Widow in an exhibition and catalog titled Fresh Widow: The Window in Art since Matisse and Duchamp.  More information can be found HERE.  Obviously, there is something important about the nature of Fresh Widow as a miniature French window.

Fresh Widow is not an actual, life-sized French window.  As a miniature representation of a French window, one cannot enter or exit Fresh Widow with ease.  Given that this window is merely a representation of a window, it is likely that Duchamp intended to draw a parallel to other representations of windows or representations that are like windows—paintings and other works of two-dimensional art.

In accordance with the conventions of two-dimensional art, such as linear perspective, we can visually/metaphorically “enter” images as if they are windows onto actual spaces.  Yet, we cannot visually enter Fresh Widow.  The windowpanes are blocked with black leather.  The expectation of an image/scene beyond the glass is eliminated.  The window’s purpose is negated.  It is useless.  The view (the image) is vacant and “dead.”

Could these ideas be part of a visual metaphor that predicted the supposed “death” of painting during the late twentieth century?

The Duchampian notion of “trope as title” also provides additional possibilities for interpretation.  This is one of the reasons why I think his work is so appropriate for a visual literacy course.

Consider the meanings that are derived when we, like Duchamp, rearrange and/or reinterpret the descriptive term, “French window”

FRESH WIDOW=NEW WIDOW/WIDOWER (whose partner has died):

Perhaps the “new widow” is the artist himself/herself.  Perhaps art as we know it, has come to an end.  Art has died.  The widow/widower, Rrose Sélavy/Marcel Duchamp, is left without a partner (his or her art).  Additionally, we could also see this as the art left behind after the passing of the artist.  Can the widow/widower (as the art or the artist left without a partner) remarry?  Does this second marriage represent the theory that viewers can replace Duchamp (the irrelevant or “dead” artist) in the art-making process?

FRESH WI(N)DOW=FRESH PAINTING=NEW FORM OF ART:

Theoretically, as mentioned earlier, paintings can be seen as analogous to windows.  Perhaps the “fresh painting” is a new form of art—art that does not require manual craftsmanship because it is made with the mind, not with the hand (like a readymade).  Could this allude to the advent of purely conceptual art?

FRESH WIDOW=CLEVER WIDOW=CLEVER ARTIST (whose art has died):

Duchamp wanted viewers to consider the word play almost always evident in the titles given to readymades.  Readymades can be seen as intellectual games and Duchamp was the cheeky gamemaster.  We should play along.

To recap the above interpretations, I have created a “Visual Essay” that I think represents and explains many of the aforementioned theories regarding the meaning of Fresh Widow.  In some cases, images do speak more loudly than words.  Please feel free to comment.

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• Marcel Duchamp. Fresh Widow. Miniature French window, painted wood frame, and panes of glass covered with black leather. 1920. Museum of Modern Art, New York.

• Artist Unknown. Woodcut from Eyn schön nützlich büchlin und underweisung der kunst des Messens (A Fine, Useful Booklet and Instruction in the Art of Measurement) by Hieronymus Rodler, 1531.

• Film still from Rear Window. Dir. Alfred Hitchcock. 1954. Paramount Pictures.

• Andrea Mantegna. St. Mark. oil on canvas.1447-1448. Städelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt.

• René Magritte. The Human Condition. oil on canvas.1933. National Gallery of Art, Washington DC.

• Jan Van Eyck. Madonna of Chancellor Rolin (detail). oil on panel. 1415. Musée du Louvre, Paris.

• Illustration from De pictura. Leon Battista Alberti. 1435.

• René Magritte. The False Mirror. oil on canvas.1928. Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Filed under: Visual Literacy

Why are you L.H.O.O.Q-ing at me like that?

In conjunction with a lecture titled, “What is Art?/Is it Art?,” my Visual Literacy students will be discussing the readymades of Marcel Duchamp.  They will also be making their own readymades and blogging about their projects—Holy Cross College Visual Literacy Blog Project.

While I fully expect a classroom full of open eyes and minds, I know this will be the first time many of my students, especially the non-art majors, will ever see Duchamp’s work.  I also know that introductions to Duchamp can be a bit challenging, to say the least.  In response to Duchamp’s readymades, I often receive comments like:

“That dude made art out of a TOILET!”

“If I doodle on a picture of Mona Lisa, does that make me an artist too?”

“Poché, are you serious?”

Yes, I’m totally serious.

Duchamp’s readymades tend to activate certain biases that favor more “traditional” art.  Many students attempt to disregard Duchamp by summoning visions of Van Gogh, Picasso, and—sigh—Thomas Kinkade.  They were “real” artists…right?  They made art about things people actually care about.  More importantly, their works of art were handmade.  Anyone can turn a urinal upside down and call it art—NO SKILL REQUIRED!…right?

Like I said, challenging, to say the least.

Stay tuned for more on this topic.

Image courtesy of the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam.

Filed under: Visual Literacy

Visual Essay

To continue my explanation of Visual Literacy and open a discussion that will mirror those common in my Visual Literacy class, I would like to encourage readers (that’s you) to flex their skills of interpretation.

Please read my “visual essay.”  You will find it in the slide show (below).  I composed this essay with seemingly disparate images that appear to be unrelated.  Yet, I contend that these images are related and that they can be interpreted (individually or collectively) as presenting a common theme.

The slide images are numbered #1 to #3.  If I were you, I would see these images like words in a sentence.  Read them in order (from #1 to #3) and consider the meaning of each individual image.  Then, put the images together.  Form a “sentence” that interprets the images as a whole.

I suspect your interpretation will be similar to my own.  Yet, it is quite possible that you will have a COMPLETELY different understanding of what my visual essay says.  I am open to any and all interpretations.  I would really like to see where our interpretations match and where they differ.

Please feel free to share your interpretations in the “Leave a Reply” section (public) or in the “Comment” section (private).  You could even offer potential titles for my visual essay.  After I receive a few comments, I will likely provide my own title and interpretation.

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F.Y.I.—These are the images you will find in my visual essay…always give proper credit where credit is due:

#1. Félix González-Torres. Untitled (Perfect Lovers). clocks, paint on wall. 1991, The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of the Dannheisser Foundation, © The Felix Gonzalez-Torres Foundation, New York

#2. Damien Hirst. The Kingdom. tiger shark, glass, steel, silicone and formaldehyde solution with steel plinth. 2008, Image: Photographed by Prudence Cuming Associates, © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved, DACS 2012

#3. Käthe Kollwitz, Death Seizing a Woman. lithograph 1934, © 2012 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

Filed under: Visual Literacy

What is Visual Literacy?

If you are a visitor to this blog who is not a student in my class, you are probably asking yourself—“What is Visual Literacy?”  I’ll do my best to explain.  Yet, before I do so, I would like to direct you to the International Visual Literacy Association (IVLA).  The IVLA’s website features a thorough definition of Visual Literacy in addition to various resources devoted to this very important skill.

Here is how I see Visual Literacy:

Visual Literacy applies to many different disciplines and is essential to living a well-rounded life of the mind.  In fact, the pluralistic nature of Visual Literacy mirrors the common human need to understand the images we encounter on a daily basis.

If we are unable to decode or “read” images, we fall victim to a form of illiteracy that is similar to the inability to read the written word.  Visual Literacy is a skill that gives us the capacity to understand the language of images so that we may recognize and appreciate the important cultural concepts they present.  Furthermore, I think Visual Literacy affords individuals the opportunity to view visual culture (art, design, film, advertising, websites, etc.) from three distinct perspectives—as spectators, critics, and/or artists.  The visually literate, despite their roles in the making or viewing of visual culture, are able to understand visual information from all three perspectives.

As spectators and critics the visually literate view images with a critical eye.  They can interpret or “read” images with an expanded knowledge of the artistic processes, cultural concepts, and historical factors that shape their creation.  Moreover, those who are not image-makers are able to place themselves in the position of artists.  They understand the relationship between craft and content, and learn to appreciate the artist’s ability to create with his or her hands as well as with his or her mind.

I love teaching ARTS 100—Visual Literacy:  How to “Read” Art and Culture.  Creating and teaching this course has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my academic career.  My job is to provide students with the keys to unlocking and demystifying art—to show them that they have complete access to the “secrets” of visual information.  It really is akin to teaching a second language.  I savor the moment when students realize they are fluent in art and other forms of visual culture, and that this very special language will enrich their lives for years to come.

On another note, I must also confess that I do take great pleasure in using my course to recruit potential Visual Arts majors and convert those who have declared themselves as majors of a more “practical” discipline—I’m talking to you, Business majors.   You know, a double major in Business and Visual Arts sounds like a good idea to me.  Maybe even a Visual Arts minor?

Filed under: Visual Literacy

Welcome

This blog is part of the Holy Cross College Visual Literacy Blog Project.  My name is Rhett Gérard Poché, and I am the creator, instructor, and blogmaster of ARTS 100—Visual Literacy:  How to “Read” Art and Culture.

I consider blogs to be a perfect marriage between the visual and the textual.  Moreover, blogging fosters the expression of personal opinion and open discussion.  It is an excellent exercise in thoughtfully sharing one’s ideas within a visual medium.  I also see blogging as a tool that could aid my Visual Literacy students in formulating their own voices as interpreters of visual culture.  Therefore, my Visual Literacy students at Holy Cross College will be writing blog posts that discuss their experiences as creators and interpreters of visual culture.  In doing so, they will also present their own critical insights into the various topics discussed during class.  My hope is that the students also see their blogs as vehicles for creativity and self-expression.

You will find links to my students’ blogs (under STUDENTS) at the home page of the Holy Cross College Visual Literacy Blog Project.

Filed under: Visual Literacy

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