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Humanities Institute

James Housefield on “Starry Messenger: Marcel Duchamp’s Comet Haircut and Astronomy”

Event Date: Tuesday, April 27th, 2010

Time: 4:10 PM – 6:00 PM
Location: Art 210D

James Housefield on “Starry Messenger: Marcel Duchamp’s Comet Haircut and Astronomy”

Marcel Duchamp shaved a comet into his head in 1921, transforming himself into a living artwork that influenced body art in the 1960s and 70s. This talk examines Duchamp’s haircut as a sign of his interest in astronomy and as an avant-garde act. With his gesture, Duchamp embodied Galileo’s title of the 1610 “Sidereus Nuncius,” transforming himself into a “starry messenger” upon the streets of Paris. Duchamp’s haircut commented upon the Romantic image of the artist as dandy. At the same time, the human comet made “celestial activity” perceptible to the human eye, much as Galileo described the ability of the telescope to make visible the invisible.

Galileo’s treatise concerns the relationship of optics to our perception of the cosmos, a subject that inspired many of Duchamp’s works. Duchamp’s interest in optics is well documented, spanning from his time as librarian at Sainte-Genevieve, Paris (1913) through the unveiling of his final work, Etant donnés (1944-68, on display in the Philadelphia Museum of Art since 1969). Little attention has been paid to the ways these interests coincided with his fascination with popular astronomy. This talk situates Duchamp’s interest in astronomy in the context of literature (Stephane Mallarme), his fellow artists (Joseph Cornell), and contemporary developments in astronomy, including the construction of the Einstein Tower observatory near Potsdam, Germany, by Erich Mendelsohn (1919-21). Duchamp’s interest in popular astronomy tells us much about the modern fascination with watching the skies in the decades preceding the race for space and the lunar landing of 1969.

This event is sponsored by Art History Program

For more information please contact: katharine burnett, kpburnett@ucdavis.edu

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