Duchamp, Man Ray, Picabia

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Tate Modern, London, until 26 May

Just before the First World War the cultural world was rocked by a series of dissident artists. They were self-conscious rebels out to shock. They fought convention on many fronts. They used new non-art materials, selected new subject matter, scrapped the conventions of naturalism like perspective, depth and realistic colour, and in general tried to break down the boundaries between art and everyday life.

They have become known as modernists, and the three featured in this exhibition were among the most controversial.

These artists were working at a time before photography and film came to dominate visual arts. Official salon exhibitions were still important society events and so these kinds of rebellion had a real impact.

Modernism was not a movement but a collection of very different responses to a rapidly changing world. The artists were reacting to technological developments and to the huge social upheavals that were sweeping the world. They were also grappling with the invasion of the market and mass production into every aspect of life including the art world itself.

One of the preoccupations of these three artists in particular was to represent three dimensional movement on canvas. Marcel Duchamp achieved this triumphantly and shockingly with his Nude Descending a Staircase No 2, a painting that stirred up a storm at a New York exhibition in 1913.

Another was the machine. As Picabia said in 1915, "It flashed on me that the genius of the modern world is machinery." All three artists took reproduced industrial design and all brought moving pictures into the gallery. Picabia and Man Ray used experimental photographic techniques to generate 3D images on flat surfaces.

Most shockingly in 1917 Marcel Duchamp challenged the status of the artwork itself by placing a urinal in a gallery signed "R. Mutt".

All of these experiments challenged the complacent art establishment and raised questions about the role of art in modern society. There was a democratic spirit implicit in much that they did, against elitism and in praise of the everyday. They brought a whiff of the mass rebellions against war and capitalism into the galleries.

At the same time, the work of these three artists, all close friends and collaborators, feels insubstantial compared to that of some of their contemporaries. It's hard not to feel they lacked the angst or passion of some of the great modernists, whether recording their own alienation or reaching outwards towards political engagement.

Towards the end of his life Marcel Duchamp's obsession with sex and the female form has an uncomfortable feel, while Man Ray's experiments shaded off towards fashion photography. They were rebels in their day, but also perhaps precursors of Brit Art with its sometimes pointless novelty, a little too easy for the mainstream to co-opt.