Marcel Duchamp in München
31st March - 15th July 2012
Director: Timo Vuorensola. Release: April 2012.
Currently showing in Munich cinemas.
One of the most celebrated works in early 20th century art is on display in an U-Bahn station in Munich. Nude Descending a Staircase No. 2 is an absorbing modernist fusion of form, colour and energy, and forms the centrepiece of the first solo exhibition of Marcel Duchamp to be held here, currently to be seen in the Kunstbau in Königsplatz. The painting caused a minor scandal in Paris in 1912 when rejected by the Salon des Indépendants (the self-styled Cubist revolutionaries apparently told an outraged Duchamp that nudes could not descend stairs but only recline) and as a result played a transformative role not only in the artist's personal story but also that of art itself. Disgusted at the conservatism of those who considered themselves to be avant-garde, Duchamp made the ultimate dramatic gesture of modernist artists and took himself in a huff into exile. Whereas other refugees from the hothouse of Parisian cultural politics chose Tahiti or New York, Duchamp spent the summer of 1912 in Munich. Here, he drank beer in the Hofbräuhaus and Alter Simpl, sipped coffee in the Schelling Salon, marvelled at the Cranach paintings in the Alte Pinakothek, scoffed at what a poor imitation of superior French originals Nymphenberg was, and changed the course of modern art (apparently rounding it all off with a quick visit to Oktoberfest).
"My stay in Munich was the scene of my complete liberation", he was later to write. Munich was the catalyst for concepts that Duchamp had already been developing but which he first gave full expression to here, a new approach that would colour the language of 20th century art. Fascinated by the exhibits on display in the Deutsches Museum (then still in its early home before the current edifice on the Museuminsel appeared), he incorporated the machine architecture of pistons, engines and generators into his work, creating a set of powerful images in which human feeling and desire were wedded to industrial energy. "Painting is at an end", he declared after examining an early aeroplane on display in the museum, "is there anything more complete than such a propeller?" Duchamp understood that the modern world could not be adequately represented in conventional art, because the modern world had changed the rules of representation. Something with the intricacy, mystery and latent potency of an aeroplane propeller was for him more powerful than any conventional painting that could seek to depict it. Modernity had changed the human experience, and art must reflect that fact, or cease to be relevant. "Art is not about itself but the attention we bring to it", he said, inaugurating one of the defining principles of modern aesthetics: in our fractured and dynamic new society, the work of art can no longer be complete in itself, but must rely for meaning on its interaction with the viewer.
In the following years, Duchamp would follow the logic of his own declaration and abandon painting for the conceptual art of which he is one of the acknowledged founders. He presented everyday objects as art (the "readymades"), famously displayed a urinal in exhibition (entitled Fountain), and over his long career worked with the likes of John Cage and influenced key modern artists such as Andy Warhol. What is striking about the Kunstbau exhibition is that we are given the rare opportunity to see the last paintings before he embarked on his new approach, and also to contemplate works on display that represented the first statements of an artistic voice that would echo throughout the 20th century. All the works from his brief Munich period are presented together for the first time in what is surely one of the most fascinating exhibitions to be staged in the city this year.
The midway point between Marcel's first visit to Munich in 1912 and his second and final in the year before his death in 1967 was not a happy time for degenerate artists in this city, and a certain 1930s aesthetic is currently on show in Munich cinemas. Iron Sky is the most ambitious example to date of the small but much loved (to followers of cult sci fi) "Space Nazi" genre. Think Leni Riefenstahl meets Quentin Tarantino and with a script by Ricky Gervais. The result is not subtle, as no movie that has a Sarah Palin-esque president stand in the Oval Office and loudly proclaim "I'm just like FDR, except that obviously you all know I'm not a spastic" could claim to be.
The plot, such as it is, involves an American lunar mission in the year 2018 accidently uncovering a Nazi base on the dark side of the moon. Having secretly fled there at the end of the war in art deco rockets which look as if they have been stolen from Wallace and Gromit, the last remnants of the 3rd Reich have spent the intervening years practicing the goose step in zero gravity and plotting their triumphant return to earth under the leadership of the Mondführer (Udo Kier, who earns his paycheck by managing with great élan to look both sinister and confused at the same time). A narrative thread I won't even bother trying to explain involving an African American male model, a pretty blonde Aryan schoolmistress who thinks that Charlie Chaplin was Hitler's greatest fan, and a smartphone with a dead battery provokes a Moon Nazi mission to earth whose participants are meant to pave the way for the great invasion but who, in the event, find themselves running president Any-Resemblance-to-Sarah-Palin-is-Purely-Coincidental's re-election campaign. All of this takes place in the first 30 minutes, and from that point onwards it begins to get confusing.
There is perhaps little point in stating that Iron Sky is not great cinema. The motley crew of German, Finns and Australians who made it did not set out to rival The Godfather. What they did bring with them to the project, however, is a cineaste's knowledge of the language of popular cinema, and the movie is a visual treat as well as having enough comic moments to just about justify the entrance price. It very cleverly re-enacts some of the motifs of sci fi throughout the decades in chronological order: the early scenes are shot in evocative lunar black and grey glowing in shimmering phosphorescence reminiscent of old Buster Crabb Flash Gordon movies from the '30s and '40s; we then move onto 1950s flying saucers landing in rural backwaters; and the action culminates in a spectacular space battle (involving rival fleets led respectively by the SS Götterdämmerung and the USS George W Bush) that is part Star Wars, part Independence Day. There is some satiric content (aimed not so much at 1930s German as more contemporary American politics) but this is a movie that is more interested in the history of movies than the history of the 20th century. When the first Space Nazi appeared in vacuum-customised Stahlhelm, I heard someone in the audience whisper: "he looks like Darth Vadar", which only served to remind me that the iconic image of the Dark Lord of the Sith and his stormtroopers was itself modelled on the black steel helmets on parade at Nuremberg. It all comes full circle, or, as Karl Marx never said, "history repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second time as high camp Wagnerian space opera".