Circle and Line

mōbəl or mōˌbīl? The Etymology of the Mobile (kinetic sculpture)

Corie HumbleComment

Is it mōbəl or mōˌbīl? I tend to pronounce it mōbəl to have some type of distinction between a kinetic sculpture and a cell phone. When people ask me my profession, replying I’m a mobile designer is  always confusing. The name mobile for kinetic sculpture makes sense and seems rather conventional by today's vernacular, but I  wondered about its etymology.

Turns out Marcel Duchamp, godfather of conceptual art, who had a penchant for wordplay was the originator of the word.  Visiting Calder’s studio in the early 30’s he called the sculptures mobiles, which is a pun in French meaning both “to move” and “motive.”  

Incidentally, Jean Arp, visiting Calder’s studio, sarcastically commented that his grounded kinetic sculptures should be called stabiles. Calder immediately adopted the name. Although the word stabile is not necessarily common day vernacular, the word mobile, in association with kinetic sculpture, is everyday.

 

 alexander calder, hanging spider (c 1940)

alexander calder, hanging spider (c 1940)

 alexander calder, untitled (c 1934)

alexander calder, untitled (c 1934)