Duchamp’s Nude Descending Staircase: Painting as Dream (1912)

Jane and Kimberly approach Duchamp’s famous painting of Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 as an awakening perceptual woman and descend with the nude figure as if the painting were a dream.  

 Marcel Duchamp’s Descending a Staircase, No. 2 was a wake-up painting for me. I saw it for the first time in the Philadelphia Museum of Art when I was a college student and immediately related to it as a perceptual paradox; absolutely static as a painting; absolutely in motion as an experience.

 A perceptual paradox is a perfect way to describe this painting. The first thing I felt upon seeing this piece was similar. It immediately reminded me that the body is not just the physical flesh shell containing the beating heart, and existing on this plane, but also the mental, subconscious, and spiritual bodies that are always, silently, and invisibly, accompanying that

 I’d recently participated in a psych experiment that helped me make sense of what I was experiencing. In a dark room, I was shown a single pinpoint of light projected on a black wall and then, as I watched, the light began to move and leap around on its own. I was sure that I was being tricked. But no, the lights came on and the point was, as it had been, single. Then I was shown two points, equidistance from one another, and, when the lights were turned out, instead of two dots of light, I saw a thread of light. Lights on, just two pinpoints, but yes, a trick. They had been turned on and off at a regular speed, like bulbs on a neon sign, to be perceived as a steady stream of light. Now, Duchamp. A flow of golden light, at once moving and still. This eventually led me to an insight into cinema, each frame singular and still like a photo but moved at a particular speed, perceived as a flow of motion.

While some may see this painting as a study in abstract motion, I went more along the same path as you. I felt myself remembering experiences I have had with the doors of perception, with mind-altering substances like LSD, marijuana, and mushrooms, early on in my energetic psychology group training. While under the effect of these “medicines” – taken in controlled settings with facilitators and co-students, I experienced many expansions of the self that led me to conclude a few things. One, that as human beings in waking life, we are led more by the ego than the inherent spirit. It is as if a door has been shut inside that allows us only to see, feel, and participate in our concrete circumstances in real life as they occur—a very static rendition of experience, that is then, of course, filtered through the mind with its constant flow of thoughts. Experience and thought drive us, and in some respects, keep us away from fully inhabiting our connection with the “other” –the spirit, the unconscious, the universal. I smoked marijuana once before yoga and had the most intense yogic practice that day, where it seemed all my senses, seen and unseen, were fully open and absorptive. I could feel my deep breaths inflating every single molecule of my body as I stretched and managed to accomplish poses I had not been able to attain only the day before. I was so immaculately present in my body, mind chatter turned off, that I experienced all my bodies. I have long since stopped using these sort of substances but have always strived to find that state of absolute presence where all my bodies, manifest and non-manifest, might integrate. Perhaps that isn’t possible, but it is what this painting visually showcased for me—the total experience of fully bloomed consciousness.

 Now I take the painting another step into the psyche as a dream, a way of knowing oneself. I enter the Duchamp painting as a dream to find what awaits me, awakened from my unconscious, one more time, many years after my fledgling revelations about the power of perception. I become a woman with a single identity in motion, no contradiction, and all a matter of perception.

“I am at the top of a staircase, a little sleepy without a nightgown but I feel a flow of air around my body. I am quite alone, in a flurry of motion, in a hurry, golden and glowing in the dark, descending downward, without feet, gliding, head bent, to a drumbeat rising from my own body. I feel confused that I could be of such variety while so much the same. I’d like to turn and look out but I’m aware that I am being seen and must keep still. Yet I am a flurry, perhaps attempting not to be seen because I am naked, not dressed and the movement will clothe me, give me cover. As I descend I come more into the light and assume more shape, know myself more as a woman. I am confused to be in such a rush and yet so slow. I am surprised to be so many selves and yet just one. That thought keeps coming to me. Will I ever adjust? I will forever be a contradiction, joyous and sad, descending and emerging, lit and dark, a conglomerate of golden beiges upon a dark background in a flurry of motion while absolutely still, flat upon a page. I’m beginning to feel amused and to wake as if from a trance. I can hear a bit of music playing around me as if rustling through my arms and legs. Yes, like a banjo, I’d say. I had almost no idea of who I was when I began descending but now, almost like looking back from another place in the room, I am strong, armored by my own body. I can’t really stop even as I am quite sure I’ve hardly moved. I am comfortable fully naked and yet dressed in an obscurity that is completely protective. I drop my head to be sure of my footing and then I’m gone, awake and left remembering. “

 It is really poignant what you say about seeing yourself as both a constant contradiction and an entity of multiple selves. I had a similar experience. Instead of imagining the painting as a dream, I actually performed an experiment where I looked at the painting three nights in a row before going to bed, hoping to conjure a real dream. I asked myself, before falling asleep, “How does this painting relate to me as a woman?” After waking up in the morning after the third night, although I couldn’t recall the dream, I had a very clear answer come to me. I saw myself as a woman who at any given point in time, is experiencing an equal shedding of something that no longer serves me, feeling present in something which presently serves me, and putting forth projections toward something that I desire to become; experiencing my sense of womanhood as a constantly morphing butterfly.

 As I reflect on my dream, what strikes me most is the natural simultaneity of experiencing oneself as singular and multiple selves. I’m left with a precious appreciation of human consciousness and a joyful feeling of being a woman. I’d say that’s a good dream. To know the darkness as background and footing, even as lines of definition brings forth an elusive certainly that would all disappear if all was lit, all was light.

 I was left with a great sense of relief and remembrance that life is never cemented, that we have the great tool of transformation, motion, and change.

 Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase is awakening me to an appreciation of the gift of consciousness, one more time.

As Double-Mirror introduces the idea of enlivening paintings like “Andromeda and Theseus” and “Nude Descending a Staircase” paintings with a dream or a poem, we’d like to invite others to join us.  Here are two poems by writers, Sharon Mosier and Regina O’Melveny. Regina is the author of The Book of Madness and Cures and a much-published poet. We hope you’ll feel inspired to add one of your own in the comment box.  

Unveiled by Sharon Mosier

Descending the staircase,
Each raw step casting
Prior selves.
Intimations of what once was
A formidable cascade
Holding one to the other

Year upon year
Selves shedding
Like snakeskin
Not quite falling away
Not quite collapsing to dust.

Over there,
With no ordinance
Mind clicking
In fractions
Ill-informed visions

Over here,
Looking down,
Past selves squeeze together
Will the next step
Or will all shadows
To some bottom
Like a jagged, ragged ball
Tangled at last
Into one

Nude Descending a Staircase by Regina O’Melveny

Nude Descending a Staircase

Nude Deep-ending a Spare Cage

Nude Apprehending a Bear Cave

Nude Defending a Lair Space

Nude Pretending a Scare Face

New Declension As Flair Cape

Nude Extending Her Hair Case

Nude Ascending a Prayer Trace

Nude Portending a Rare Place

Nude Intending to Wear Lace

Nude Depending on Bare Grace

Nude Descending a Staircase





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