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View Marcel Duchamp

Type: Art Prankster.
Summary: Throughout his career, French artist Marcel Duchamp was known for playing outrageous pranks on the art world.
Posted by: Elliot Feldman

Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) always held the snobbishness of art collectors and gallery owners in disdain. While he was a revolutionary artist with at least one eternal masterpiece (“Nude Descending a Staircase”), he was also a supreme prankster to those few who “got the joke.”


His first major prank on the art world occurred in 1917 at a prestigious New York exhibition. Here he submitted a porcelain urinal signed “R. Mutt”. Since he had already established a name for himself in the art world as a painter, the sponsors of the exhibition went along with Duchamp and put the urinal on display. Of course, the piece raised a storm both inside and outside the art world, not dissimilar to the storm of reaction to Robert Mapplethorpe’s homo-erotic photographs in the 1980s. Duchamp defended himself, claiming to have discovered a new art genre, “found art”, and a new medium, “readymades.” And the art world bought his explanation.

In recent years, however, scientist (the late) Stephen Jay Gould and Dada scholar and Duchamp collector Rhonda Roland Shearer (Gould’s wife) have offered scientific proof that Duchamp’s urinal as well as the rest of his “found art” were actually handcrafted original works made from scratch by Duchamp. Gould and Shearer also extablished a research center in New York dedicated to studying Duchamp’s work.

The Tzanck Check

Duchamp’s next prank happened in 1919 when he gave his Parisian dentist, one Dr. Daniel Tzanck, a hand-drawn check for a $115 dental bill. The “check” was “drawn” from a bank called “The Teeth’s Loan and Trust.”

Having second thoughts about spending time in jail for forgery, Duchamp bought his fake check back from the dentist at a price greater than $115.


Also in 1919, Duchamp bought a cheap reproduction of da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, and added a moustache and goatee. Duchamp’s inscribed title for this altered readymade was the initials “L.H.O.O.Q”, roughly meaning in the English translation from French slang: “She has a hot arse.”

“Rrose Selavy”

In 1921, Duchamp himself posed for a series of photo portraits by Dada master Man Ray. What’s most unusual about this series was that Duchamp posed for the photos in full female drag under the assumed identity “Rrose Selavy.” (The name sounds like “Rose, c’est la vie”)

A side note: Marcel Duchamp wasn’t a practicing transvestite aside from these photos.


In 1923, he crafted a New York City police “wanted” poster with front and profile photos of his face. Among the aliases listed on the poster were “George W. Welch”, “Bull”, “Pinkens”, and, of course, “Rrose Selavy.” By 1923, he had attained such fame that the critics, collectors, and others had become used to his pranks. The poster was immediately put on display in a gallery.


For the rest of the twenties and part of the thirties, Marcel Duchamp left art and devoted his life to learning chess.

After his excursion into the world of championship chess, Duchamp determined that he was only a medium-weight player.


For decades, Marcel Duchamp and his work fell out of favor and were considered pass