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“Coeurs Volants” by Marcel Duchamp


Coeurs Volants (also known as Fluttering hearts or Flying hearts) is a collage Marcel Duchamp made in 1936 for the cover of an issue of Cahiers d’art which contained an essay by Gabrielle Buffet-Picabia (ex-wife of the Dada artist and close friend of Duchamp Francis Picabia, ed.) on Duchamp’s optical machines and experiments, entitled ‘Coeurs volants’. The collage is composed of three hearts, one inside the other, in alternating colours of, red, and blue that create the optical illusion known in French as ‘coeurs volants’ because the contrasting colours of blue and red appear to ‘fly’ towards the viewer.” 1.

Watched through stereo-glasses the image becomes three-dimensional, possibly Duchamp’s intention. Apparently, however, Duchamp never told anyone that this effect would occur when the artwork is seen through such glasses.

Many contemporary artists cite Duchamp as a founding father, the creation of Coeurs volants certainly was a milestone for pop art, op art, and other contemporary reflections on iconic imagery and perception. Duchamp pioneered the use of science in art, not merely sticking to the discipline of art. In doing so, he is an important model for contemporary interdiscplinary artists.

Duchamp was fascinated by the human perception of motion, and much of his work shows this. He thought that movement, next being physical, also was social. While many of his artworks actually moved, Coeur Volants does not, so there seems to be little resemblence between them. Many of these works however, like Coeur Volants, are also examining the perception of motion. An example of this is the appearance of concentric circles on the spinning plates of Rotary Glass Plates (Precision Optics). Moreover, in his early days Duchamp created another artwork that only suggested and did not actually move; this inspiring piece is Nude Descending a Staircase. The artwork itself is inspired by Eadweard Muybridge’s chronophotographic motion sudies, it is based on a studies showing a naked woman descending a staircase. When looked upon Nude Descending a Staircase does the same thing as Coeur Volants, it appears to actually move.

Naum Gabo, like Duchamp, was also fascinated by the perception of motion. In his Kinetic Construction (Standing Wave) an undulation is induced in a standing pole, the high frequency makes it appear like a solid object. Both Coeur Volants and Kinetic Construction (Standing Wave) demonstrate that human perception is restricted and does not always reveal pure reality.

Asociation Arte Concreto Invención and Lucio Fontana were undoudtedly influenced by Duchamp and his art based on perception when they wrote their manifestos, both argue in favour of motion in art. (AEM194-195) In the Inventionist Manifest, dating 1946, AACI argues that the essence of representational art is illusion, among others they explicitly mention the illusion of movement. Their slogan, “Exalt the optical” reinforces Duchamp’s work, as this is very much in the spirit of Coeur Volants.

1. Source: ‘Marcel Duchamp in Newark’ by Helmut Wohl, in The Burlington Magazine, vol. 145, no. 1198, pp 36-39.