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Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2

Artist: Marcel Duchamp
Created: 1912
Dimensions (cm): 89.0 x 147.0
Format: Oil on canvas
Location: Philadelphia Museum of Art, USA

Strikingly similar to Duchamp's earlier painting, Sad Young Man in a Train, Nude Descending a Staircase is essentially a study in abstracted movement. The form of the woman is de-emphasized in favor of capturing her motion across the painting. The dynamic movement Duchamp created has become famous, but it was not his idea alone.

It is ironic that such an abstract figure is explicitly identified as a nude woman, but the piece is more grounded in reality than is immediately apparent. Around the time Duchamp painted Nude Descending a Staircase, a kind of motion photography was popular in Europe and North America. Photographers such as Marey and Muybridge would take a photo of a figure in motion, often a nude one. The effect would be a clear image of the subject with a series of trailing after-images, produced as the subject moved while the film was being exposed. Popular themes were sports, dance, and everyday movement like walking or running. Muybridge himself made at least one photo of a nude woman walking down several stairs. Duchamp's image is clearly inspired by such photography.

The woman of the painting is constructed deliberately without definite form. She is made up of overlapping, jostling leaves of warm flesh tones. Each after-image of the woman runs into the next: discerning one position from the next becomes nearly impossible. This decomposes the form and helps to construct movement, resulting in a kind of elasticity of the image. The woman glides across the frame, a large range of her motion captured in a single instant, not unlike a photograph.


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