Found Objects
Definition, Characteristics, History of "Objets trouvés".

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Found Objects (20th Century)


What Are Found Objects? Definition, Characteristics
Origins and History
Famous Found Objects in 20th Century Art
Controversy and Criticism

Examples of Found Object Works

Contemporary Collage
of "found" cigarette butts,
by Dan Mountford.

Head of a Bull (1943) By Picasso.
From cycle handle-bars and saddle.
(Musee Picasso, Paris).

What Came First? (2013)
Sculpture made from "found"
eggshells, by Kyle Bean.

What Are Found Objects? Definition, Characteristics

In modern art, the term "found object" (a translation of the French phrase "objet trouvé") is used to describe an object, found by an artist, which - with minimal modification - is then presented as a work of art. The idea is, that the artist believes that the discovered object possesses a certain aesthetic quality - stemming from its appearance, social or personal history - and therefore displays it for the appreciation of others.

Typical "found objects" include natural materials like sand (see Sand Art), earth, stones, shells, curiously shaped pieces of wood, a human skull; or man-made items such as newspaper cuttings, photographs, pieces of glass, fragments of scrap metal, pieces of textile fabric, an unmade bed, a bicycle handlebars, and so on.

"Found objects" have been used in many different types of art, including painting, various forms of sculpture, including assemblage and installations. The Spanish painter and sculptor Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) was one of the first to publicize the idea when he affixed a printed image of chair caning onto his picture titled Still Life with Chair Caning (1912, Musee Picasso, Paris). The idea was fully developed by the experimental French artist Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968), who coined the term "readymades" shortly after the famous Armory Show (Spring 1913), to describe his signature style of "found object", as exemplified by his work entitled Fountain (1917), a standard porcelain urinal inscribed "R. Mutt 1917", which Duchamp submitted to the New York Society of Independent Artists exhibition (1917).



Origins and History

Despite the fact that the terms "found object" and "objet trouvé" were coined in the 20th century, there is some evidence to suggest that such objects were used in prehistoric art during the era of Paleolithic culture. According to the zoologist Desmond Morris (b.1928) the Makapansgat Pebble (University of Witwatersrand, South Africa), a famous skull-shaped stone which has been dated to 3 million BCE, was in fact a "found object", since it did not belong to the cave in which it was unearthed. Instead, it appears to have been discovered by Stone Age 'artists' (Australopithecines) at a geological site three miles away, and brought back to be displayed as a piece of ancient art. Three million years later, "found objects" were popularized by Duchamp and the Dada movement, and then cultivated by Andre Breton and the Surrealism movement. Indeed, by the mid-30s, Surrealist artists had identified a whole new set of categories, including: "natural objects", "interpreted natural objects", "incorporated natural objects", "mathematical objects", "perturbed objects" and "American objects".

Post-war modern art movements continued the tradition. Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008) and Jasper Johns (b.1930), for instance, incorporated "objets trouvés" into their work during the early phase of Pop art, as did Robert Indiana (b.1928) and Jim Dine (b.1935). They were followed in the 1960s by George Maciunas (1931-78) and his Fluxus movement, as well as Arte Povera (c.1966-71) led by Mario Merz (1925-2003), Pino Pascali (1935-68) and Michelangelo Pistoletto (b.1933). Later, "objets trouvés" were also used in Postmodernist art, notably by Young British Artists determined to shock the establishment.

Famous Found Objects in 20th Century Art

The most famous series of "found objects" were Duchamp's "readymades", an early form of junk art, including works like: Bicycle Wheel (1913), Bottle-Rack (1914), and Fountain (1917, a urinal) both in the Musee National d'Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris; and In Advance of the Broken Arm (1915, Replica in Moderna Museet, Stockholm; a regular snow shovel on which Duchamp had painted its title, together with the words "from Marcel Duchamp 1915").

Duchamp distinguished his "readymades" from other "found objects" by stating that, whereas "found objects" are chosen for their interesting aesthetic qualities, "readymades" are mass-produced objects transformed into art by the artist's mere act of selection - thus no exercise of taste is required or implied. But Duchamp has his critics. According to the art historian Rhonda Roland Shearer - Duchamp may have fabricated his readymades: even the urinal is non-functional. If so, Duchamp was not simply "finding" an object, he was "making" it: which is not the same thing at all.

The Dada artist and photographer Man Ray (1890-1976) also produced a number of interesting "found objects", including: a domestic iron in his work Gift (1921, Museum of Modern Art, New York); horsehair and carved wood in Emak Bakia (1927, Private Collection); a metronome in his work Metronome (Object to be Destroyed) (1932, Kunsthalle, Hamburg).

Kurt Schwitters (1887-1948), the great German Dadaist, used "found objects" in his lifelong career of making collage and assemblages, although his extraordinary Merzbau construction - made from refuse, wood and plaster - used objects that were too altered to qualify as "objets trouvés".

Surrealist artists asserted that presenting a "found object" completely out of its normal context might trigger a new psychological understanding in the mind of the observer. True or not, they produced a number of interesting "found objects" which speak for themselves, including: Lobster-Telephone (1936, Private Collection) by Salvador Dali (1904-89), and Fur-lined Teacup (1936, MOMA, New York) by Meret Oppenheim (1913-85).

Never to be outdone, Pablo Picasso produced the simplest and most striking example of the "found object", when he created Head of a Bull (1943, Musee Picasso, Paris) out of a bicycle saddle and handlebars.

The maverick Fluxus artist Joseph Beuys (1921-86) used a host of commonplace objects (sometimes modified) in his installation art and other works, during the 60s and 70s, including: blocks of fat, a van with sledges trailing behind it, blackboards, various industrial metal objects, and many others. In fact, one is easily overwhelmed by the oppressive commonplace quality of Beuys' installations and assemblages.

In contrast, the giant-size replicas of commonplace objects created by Pop sculptor Claes Oldenburg (b.1929) - in effect, a parody of 1960s consumerism - have a huge visual impact, despite their innate triviality. See, for instance, the self-explanatory Trowel (1971, Kroller-Muller Sculpture Park, Otterlo).

Some of the most controversial "found objects" were presented by Young British Artists (YBAs), who - thanks to the patronage of Charles Saatchi - swept onto the art scene during the 1980s. Examples include: My Bed (1999, Saatchi Collection), by Tracey Emin (b.1963), which consisted of her own unmade bed complete with stained sheets, slippers, stained underwear and other personal detritus; The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991), comprising a glass tank containing a shark preserved in formaldehyde, by Damien Hirst (b.1965). Another of Hirst's modified "found objects" is a lavishly decorated human skull, entitled For the Love of God (2007, Private Collection).

Controversy and Criticism

The controversial works of the YBAs triggered a major criticism of the validity of "objets trouvés" as works of art. It concerned the motivation of the artist. As stated above, the artist should see an aesthetic element or creative quality in the object which he/she selects. But, say critics, the intention of many artists today is altogether more mercenary: they aim simply to shock, thus acquiring marketable notoriety for themselves and their work.

Putting this criticism into context, it is important to note that, after 400 years of Renaissance-dominated aesthetics - which decreed that painters and sculptors produce works of art from exclusively noble (and thus highbrow) subjects - the idea of creating art from trivial, commonplace objects was irresistibly appealing to Dadaists and their heirs. To call a urinal a "work of art" was instantly subversive, and totally "modern" - quite sufficient for most modern artists who were still interested in creating works of art, however commonplace the ingredients.

The difference today, critics say, is that postmodernist artists have tended to see "shock value" as an end in itself - not least because shock-value gets headlines. Art, in other words, has become entertainment - no different to a violent Punch-and-Judy show, or a no-holds-barred Reality TV show.


Pioneers of "objets trouvés", like Duchamp and Picasso, had a huge impact on a variety of modern art movements, including Surrealism, Pop Art, and 1980s BritArt, as well as new genres like Performance Art, Happenings, Trash Art, "Poubellisme", and Commodity Sculpture. Undoubtedly, their influence will extend into Computer Art, where photographic images can be modified, replicated and re-used at the click of a mouse. Nonetheless, given today's "anything goes" liberalism of the arts establishment, one wonders what sort of constructive role remains for "found objects" and the like.

Found objects can be seen in some of the best art museums around the globe, notably the French Musee National d'Art Moderne, in the Pompidou Centre in Paris; the Saatchi Gallery, London; as well as the Samuel R Guggenheim and the Museum of Modern Art, in New York.

Art Appreciation Resources

- How to Appreciate Sculpture
- How to Appreciate Modern Sculpture

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