Man Ray's photograph has been described as one of the most enigmatic images of the 20th Century. A conundrum, a masterpiece but behind the photograph lies neglect, mathematics, a chocolate grinder and probably a game of chess.
Printed in books countless times over the years, I've usually scratched my head and tried to figure out what it was exactly. In every description I've read the photograph sounds so deliberate, so meticulously planned that it has taken on this mythical status. It's always compared to an alien landscape, a moonscape populated by mysterious, deserted architectural ruins. What gives the image this supernatural quality are the strange radiating geometric lines in the top right side of the frame. It gives the image its scale. The amassed dust creating an intriguing contrast to the crystaline landscape it envelops. Not until I read a fairly detailed book on Duchamp's “ Large Glass” did I piece it all together, well my version of it.
Duchamp and Man Ray were old friends and collaborators. They were also avid chess players. Plotting, predicting, scheming, keeping one step ahead of the other. Duchamp more so, dedicating many years to tournament playing.
Duchamp had previously invented his own language which drove everyone insane, devised a new system of measurement which involved dropping random pieces of string on a table (!) but now he'd become fairly obsessed with Mathematics. It sounds nerdy, but Mathemaics in the early 20th C was very sexy, very 'in'. Einstien was everywhere and it seemed that the answer to every conundrum was to be found in mathematics. Duchamp, now bored with painting (retinal art), decided to form mathematical theories and embark on his most ambitious work yet, to build an 'erotic machine' , The Bride Stripped Bare by her Batchelors, Even or the Large Glass.
After a few years sketching and planning he accepted he'd aimed too high and decided to scale the project back and create a 2D, flat plan for the machine, on glass, with wires, metal, varnish and glue… and some dust. The project ballooned. I suspect it quickly became a millstone. For a man who became famous for his readymades, pieces that took no physical act to create, essentially adding his name or more usually a pseudonym to everyday objects, he was now lumbered with piece that would rattle on for another 10 years. It was meticulous, mathematical, artistic and mechanical and probably a right pain in the arse but by this stage the work had become famous in its own right, no doubt there was immense pressure on to complete it, if only to sell the thing.
As Duchamp flitted across the Atlantic over the next 10 years, The Large Glass lay in his New York studio, neglected for long periods quite literally gathering dust. On one of his returns from Paris, Man Ray probably called round for a game of chess. Duchamp probably showed him the accumulated dust and brushed some off the detailed sections to show him the detail below. Man Ray opened the shutter as they set about their chess game.
The picture is taken across of the bottom half (masculine half) of the glass, (before it was smashed), the detail is the 'chocolate grinder' a flat 2D representation of a cocoa bean grinder Duchamp admired in Chocolatier's windows in Rouen. For Duchamp this represented some grinding masculine organ. Beyond that is the 'the glider' representing chance and unpredictability. Confused? So am I and I suspect so was Duchamp. These elements were created using lead or silver wire stuck to the surface of the glass with varnish. Photographs of the Large Glass always fail to capture the intricacy of the detail captured here.
After 10 long years Duchamp finally declared it "definitely and permanently unfinished". Ironically the photograph, taken over a 2 hour exposure, has become more famous than the work itself. In comparison to the 10 years The Large Glass took to (in)complete, the photograph was a virtual snapshot
Checkmate, Man Ray.
Image © metmuseum.org