Duchamp, Man-Ray and Picabia review

    The triple whammy is a cunning exhibition strategy. So cunning, it’s worthy of a sweet shop. The governing idea – that instead of one artist, you get three – is basic greed management. Nothing too revolutionary there. Where it gets exciting is in the combined effect of the three proffered flavours. Turner-Whistler-Monet, at Tate Britain, worked because it allowed you to witness a shared passion for fogginess being passed from one mist-lover to another, as if in a relay. Degas-Sickert-Lautrec didn’t work because the three had so little in common. That’s the final test of the triple whammy. Not, how big are the names? But, how telling is their union?

    Now, Duchamp-Man-Ray-Picabia, at Tate Modern, brings together three mightily awkward modern-art careers from the first half of the 20th century: the heroic years. None of them followed an easily charted creative trajectory. All of them dithered artistically and darted about the place. Yet, by some miracle of the triple whammy, lumping them together works unbelievably well and results not in extra confusion, but in much more clarity. As their various sharings become more obvious, so their individual trajectories become more legible.

    Imagine David Niven and Ray Winstone with Nicolas Sarkozy. That’s more or less what they looked like. Duchamp and Picabia had comfortable French upbringings in confident artistic circles, while Man Ray, born Emmanuel Radnitzky in Philadelphia, was an archetypal wandering Jew. Fate, however – or, rather, the allure of early-20th-century Paris – brought them together, and the two French outsiders joined the sex-mad mini-American in a kind of avant-garde bratpack with ties to dada and surrealism, but actually operating outside all the isms.

    Duchamp you will know about already, because he is the artist most often cited as the evil mastermind behind so much contemporary art, and particularly those difficult conceptual manoeuvrings in which the idea seems to be all there is. Hardly an article gets written on this subject without reference to the infamous porcelain urinal Duchamp exhibited in New York in 1917, which he called Fountain and signed R Mutt. A replica is on show here, of course, and various lump heads in the audience will still imagine it is clever of them to fall about in its presence and ask is that art, without realising this is exactly what Duchamp wanted them to do. What seal tamers do to seals, Duchamp did to modern-art audiences.

    So, he’s clever. No doubt about that. But I’ve always found his cleverness one-dimensional and nerdish, lacking in heart. It’s not that I don’t recognise the impact he had – Duchamp changed the course of art: before his arrival it was one thing, after he left it was another – but until now I’ve derived little pleasure from encountering his work. What this show does is to make him significantly more tangible by comparing him with his buddies. It’s the difference between watching a rabbit trapped in the glare of your headlights and seeing it in a hutch, frolicking with its friends. The others animate him; their presence allows him to be himself. The result is a more nuanced and, thankfully, less stern image of the artist.

    The display licks off with a dynamic array of paintings as all three of them have a go at cubism. But where Picabia and Man Ray are happy to take a hammer to the image and break it up cubistically into big colourful lumps, Duchamp pulls out a scalpel and slices it to pieces much more creepily. His famous Nude Descending a Staircase ignores the nude herself and records only her juddering sense of movement, while the gorgeous but sinister Bride, from 1912, feels as if it is a view of a woman’s innards, of her slithery sexual workings. It’s as if Duchamp has slit open her abdomen and is now peering at her organs of reproduction, noting their similarity to a machine.

    The show plaits together a loosely chronological account of the three careers and then cuts them up into handy themes. They really were a gang: a triumvirate of pranksters, united in real life by their love of a joke and, in this show’s most telling observation, their obsession with women. In all three of their cases, sex is such an insistent preoccupation that it grows into a mystical and maniacal theme. And in all three of their cases, I am not sure I really want to know where their erotic appetites are taking us, because it feels so dark and macho and unreconstructed.

    Man Ray starts out as the lightweight in the mix but grows quietly in stature as the show progresses. He remains the most pleasantly pictorial of the three and, even at his most reductive, seems never to forget his artistic duty to make things look beautiful and strange. When he took up photography, he turned out to have a natural bent for it, and his nudes of Lee Miller and Kiki of Montparnasse are unshakably gorgeous. But he just wasn’t deep. And when he, too, had a go at creepiness, with that notorious iron covered with spikes, or the Venus in bondage ropes, the S&M moods are undermined by an elegant designer softness.

    Picabia is the most awkward and jumpy. Nowhere in the show does his art settle into a recognisable pattern. I had hoped this event would cement his reputation as a true original by allowing us to admire his late works – the infamous suite of naked pin-up paintings – as brazen revolutionary creations. But they turn out to be as bad as people always say they are, and prove Picabia was an artist who mixed a few superb moments with long stretches of ingloriousness.

    So it is, indeed, Duchamp who remains the most vital of the musketeers. If you went through this show counting on all your digits the number of modern-art strategies he invented, you’d quickly run out of limbs. Long before Warhol, he was putting his own face on wanted posters. And as far back as 1919, he preserved a mouthful of French air in a glass bowl, and began cutting out strange shapes in his hair with a tonsorial insouciance worthy of a modern footballer. Dressing up as someone else was second nature to him. The urinal, the bottle rack, the whole idea of the ready-made, were and remain invigorating challenges to the rules of art. But this conceptual bent you know about already.

    By making clear how feeble some of his jokes and puns were (try the pint-sized french window titled Fresh Widow: geddit?), the show seems also to humanise Duchamp and create a less monastic image of the artist. And the constant return to the sex theme darkens his presence considerably. The mysterious Large Glass, for instance, is actually a diagram of a gang rape featuring one mechanical bride and nine tiny mechanical suitors seeking to penetrate her as the brutal laws of the beehive are visited upon humanity.

    The show certainly has its work cut out trying to keep up with this avalanche of ideas. And as the three wilful nihilists explore further and further away from their origins as painters, they come ever closer to the contemporary position, which is that art is whatever the artist says it is.