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‘I am not dead – I am in Herne Bay’

Rosie Lavan

Herne Bay Museum and Gallery
Introducing Mr D
1 to 17 August 2013

The visitor to Introducing Mr D could not have hoped for a more appropriately surreal prelude to the exhibition than the sight of a giant urinal on wheels parked at the end of Herne Bay’s pier—and particularly because no one seemed to be paying much attention to it. It stood there biding its time until taking its place as the principal float in a carnival organised, like the exhibition, to celebrate the centenary of Marcel Duchamp’s visit to this seaside resort in Kent.

With brilliant creativity and great good humour, the community interest company Bayguide organised Duchamp in Herne Bay, 1913 – 2013, a programme of events in August to mark this most unlikely anniversary. The curiosity value of the story which prompted this festival was certainly part of its charm. In 1913 Duchamp’s sister Yvonne came to improve her English at Lynton College in Herne Bay. At home in France, Marcel had been irritated by fellow Cubists who rejected his Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2) (1912) from the Salon des Indépendants exhibition on the grounds that its title was too literal, so he left behind the passion and egos of avant-garde Paris to chaperone the 17-year-old Yvonne in Kent. The world he found there, carefully recreated in Introducing Mr D, seems touchingly tame by contrast.

In the small exhibition space, David Cross, the curator, reconstructs Edwardian Herne Bay through photographs, letters, and newspaper clippings. We find the respectable John Wilson and his unmarried daughters Dot and Nellie, who ran Lynton College. Postcards sent home by happy holidaymakers recall how cheerful and cherished a town Herne Bay was at the time. Duchamp was among those correspondents, reassuring his friend Max Bergmann in August 1913 that ‘I am not dead – I am in Herne Bay’. Jan Cross’s collage of newspaper clippings and photographs sets Duchamp’s visit in the context of major world events—war in the Balkans; the arrest of Emmeline Pankhurst; the invention of stainless steel; the first performance of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring.

Duchamp would make a career out of winding people up and watching them go, but the significance of his contribution to art in the twentieth century—not least to the pop and conceptual art of the 1950s and 60s—is undisputed. These connections were emphasised in a 1966 BBC document (which was included in the exhibition and worth pausing to watch in full), made just before a major Tate exhibition of Duchamp’s work curated by the British pop artist Richard Hamilton. Those interviewed about Duchamp’s work included the artist Robert Rauschenberg and the composer John Cage.

The rest of the exhibition highlighted key moments in Duchamp’s life, and care was taken to explain works which seem to have been created in part to defy interpretation. The most famous pieces were represented, including Fountain (1917)—the Dada-defining urinal to which the carnival float paid homage—, one of the famous objet trouvés or ‘readymades’, and L.H.O.O.Q. (1919), his defaced postcard of the Mona Lisa which, through a pun based on the sounds of the letters in French (èl ache o o qu = “elle a chaud au cul”) finds Da Vinci’s enigmatic subject worthy of compliment. Herne Bay takes its place among these works: Duchamp kept a newspaper photograph of the illuminated Grand Pier Pavilion with some of his most important notes for his seminal work The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass) (1915-23).

Hopefully, the exhibition and the festival will have introduced many people to Herne Bay, as well as to Mr D himself. Like many other seaside resorts, the town has slipped into decline. The seafront arcades and cafes, and the incongruous New York-themed nightclub, still try to insist that there is fun of all kinds to be had, but the proud eighteenth and nineteenth-century architecture is tired and depressed, literally crumbling beneath the weight of economic hardship and neglect. In its permanent exhibits the museum celebrates the town’s faded glories, and the nostalgia which it captures is understandable, given that the town’s final heyday in the 1960s is well within living memory. But the imagination and wit behind this special exhibition indicate that the visitor can expect, and enjoy, much that is unexpected here too.

Rosie Lavan is reading for a DPhil in English at St Anne’s College, Oxford. She is Executive Editor at the Oxonian Review.