An opportunity to visit Philadelphia meant being able to see the work of two great artists; one French, the other American – Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) and Thomas Eakins (1844-1916).
Today, works of Art can be viewed in the comfort of your own home at the touch of a button but how close to the original are these reproductions? The size and scale of the picture or sculpture might be indicated but the viewer will be looking at a photograph or a transparency whose colour has been enhanced and which is denied a sense of age or physicality.
The other advantage of viewing paintings in American Museums is that they do not routinely glaze their pictures. This means that you can see the colours and textures as originally intended and not through a reflection behind glass. However, travelling to see the original can also be fraught with difficulties and disappointments. What tourist has not arrived in a city to find that the attraction they wish to see has been covered in scaffolding or the picture removed for exhibition abroad?
Marcel Duchamp is the father of Conceptual art and probably the greatest influence on students in Britain today. Thomas Eakins was a highly influential artist and teacher whose reputation has altered with time but is now considered to be America’s greatest portrait painter.
Marcel Duchamp’s early masterpiece is called ‘The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors.’ 1915 -1923 and commonly known as the ‘Large Glass’.
The work was conceived and constructed on two glass panels which unfortunately cracked into many pieces while being transported from its first showing in the Brooklyn Museum. Duchamp left it for a number of years before painstakingly reconstructing it and placing it between two panes of glass for support. If you want to see the original you have to go to Philadelphia where it is to be found in a room containing many of the artists original artworks including his last work the tableau ‘Etant Donnes.'(1944-64).
Duchamp is represented in galleries around the world. However these are replicas or recreations mostly of the readymades which Duchamp created at the beginning of the last century. The originals were either discarded or lost but because of the importance of theses object to art history, Duchamp had replicas made that are now in museums around the world. The Urinal signed R.Mutt 1917 is a well known example but only two replicas of the Large Glass have been made and the one by Richard Hamilton can be seen in Tate Modern. It has been faithfully executed from the original notes but this time using toughened glass. Although approved and signed by Duchamp it is still a work by Richard Hamilton albeit done with the permission and support of the original artist.
The original artwork does not disappoint. In a room dedicated to his work it stands heroic, fragile and enigmatic, an iconic survivor or relic from another time, a major example of twentieth century art. Executed on glass in a deliberate attempt to break away from conventional painting and done in a symbolic, pseudo scientific manner, The Bride in mechanical form is in the top panel represented partly by a cloud which hovers above the Bachelors’ or ‘nine malic moulds’ as they are called, who are forever out of reach. It is an erotic encounter, a tantalising and ambiguous humorous depiction of the frustrated sexual desire between men and women.
If there is a connection between Duchamp and the painter Thomas Eakins it is to be found obliquely in photography.
Eakins not only used photography as an aid in his paintings but also assisted Eadward Muybridge and independently took multiple exposure chrono-photographs showing people in motion. This process was developed by Etienne-Jules Marey (1830-1904) who in turn influenced Duchamp’s painting ‘The Nude Descending a Staircase No2’ 1912.
It is Thomas Eakin’s great masterpiece ‘The Gross Clinic’ 1875 that is the attraction at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art. This picture caused controversy when it was first exhibited because the blood on the hands of the surgeon depicted was seen as distasteful in a work of art. Here unfortunately was a case when the traveller discovers that the picture had been temporarily removed from exhibition and disappointment was keenly felt. However, a later masterpiece his ‘The Agnew Clinic’ 1889, came as a surprise.. Having seen it in reproduction it seems disappointing but in real life the opposite was the case. It is Eakins largest work and again the explicit subject matter of an operation with the surgeon’s hands covered in blood discouraged its exhibition. An example of scientific realism, the painting in reproduction does not show that picture at its best. In a photograph, the tonal contrasts of the figures in front are hard to reconcile with the darkened figures in the background. The same problem seemed to have existed in Eakins’ day as he painted a monochrome version in black and white specifically for the purposes of photography. In reality the power of the painting is undeniable, the careful colour contrasts and harmonies providing no problems to the naked eye.
Digital technology and the Internet have given us instant access to the world’s museums but in the end we are still looking at a photograph, which at best distorts and at worst lies. There is no substitute for seeing an original work of art.