Marcel Duchamp

Marcel Duchamp (July 28, 1887 – October 2, 1968) was an influential French/American artist. He was arguably the most important influence on the development of post-war art in Europe and North America, in particular Pop Art and Conceptual Art.


Born Henri-Robert-Marcel Duchamp in Blainville-Crevon Seine-Maritime in the Haute-Normandie Region of France, he came from an artistic family. Of the six children of Eugene and Lucie Duchamp, four would become successful artists. Marcel Duchamp was the brother of:

Jacques Villon (1875-1963), painter, printmaker
Raymond Duchamp-Villon (1876-1918), sculptor
Suzanne Duchamp-Crotti (1889-1963), painter

The Duchamp brothers: Marcel Duchamp, Jacques Villon and Raymond Duchamp-VillonLiving and working in a studio in Montparnasse, Marcel Duchamp's early works were Post-Impressionist in style but he would become perhaps the most influential of the Dada artists. A student at the Académie Julian, his influence is still strongly felt to this day by contemporary artists.

At his eldest brother Jacques' home, in 1911 Marcel and brother Raymond organized a regular discussion group with artists and critics such as Francis Picabia, Robert Delaunay, Fernand Leger and others that soon was dubbed the Puteaux Group. Duchamp enjoyed the companioniship of many women. In 1927, he and Lydie Sarazin-Lavassor married, and divorced a few months later. In 1954, he and Alexina "Teeny" Sattler married, and they remained together until his death.In 1955, he became a naturalized citizen of the United States. The last surviving member of the Duchamp family of artists, in 1967, in Rouen, France, Marcel helped organize an exhibition called "Les Duchamp: Jacques Villon, Raymond Duchamp-Villon, Marcel Duchamp, Suzanne Duchamp." Some of this family exhibition was later shown at the Musée National d'Art Moderne in Paris. Marcel Duchamp died in Neuilly-sur-Seine, France and is buried in the Rouen Cemetery, in Rouen, Normandy, France.

Political Views

In early years, Duchamp had some contact with the Salon Cubists of Paris, but aesthetic as well as political differences precluded closer affiliation. In 1912, he painted Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2, in which motion was expressed by successive superimposed images, as in motion pictures. The work was originally slated to appear in Paris, but the Salon Cubists demanded that Duchamp retitle it to avoid possible scandal. Duchamp removed the work from the exhibition entirely, and, in 1913, it went on to create a scandal at the Armory Show in New York City instead; it also spawned dozens of parodies in the years that followed.

Politically, Duchamp opposed World War I and identified with Individualist Anarchism, in particular with Max Stirner's philosophical tract The Ego and Its Own, the study of which Duchamp considered the turning point in his artistic and intellectual development.

The notorious antiartist seems to have made a significant break with his former concerns just when he was formulating his most important work, The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bacherlors, Even (1915-23), which was, according to the best reconstructions that have been attempted, already in his mind several years earlier when certain commentators, perhaps most notably the Duchamp scholar Francis Naumann, believe Duchamp first encountered the work of Stirner.

Found Objects

Duchamp was one of the first artists to use found objects, readymades, as the basis for his artworks. His work Fountain consisted mostly of a ceramic urinal. His work In advance of a broken arm consisted of an old snow shovel. Another displayed a bicycle wheel.

Research published in 1997 by art historian Rhonda Roland Shearer indicates that Duchamp's supposedly 'found' objects may actually have been created by Duchamp. Exhaustive research of items like snow shovels and bottle racks in use at the time has failed to turn up any identical matches. The urinal, upon close inspection, is non-functional. (However, there are accounts of Walter Arensberg and Joseph Stella being with Duchamp when he purchased the original Fountain at J. L. Mott Iron Works.) The artwork "L.H.O.O.Q." which is supposedly a poster-copy of the Mona Lisa with a mustache drawn on it, turns out to be not the true Mona Lisa, but Duchamp's own slightly-different version that he modelled partly after himself. If Shearer's findings are correct then Duchamp was creating an even larger joke than he admitted.

Société Anonyme

Escaping service in the First World War on the pretext of a dubious heart condition, he travelled to the United States, where he befriended Katherine Dreier and Man Ray, with whom he founded the Société Anonyme in 1920. Duchamp's circle also included Louise and Walter Arensberg, Beatrice Wood and fellow Frenchman, Francis Picabia, as well as other avant-garde figures

Abandons Art for Chess

During 1923, Duchamp virtually abandoned his career as an artist to play chess, a habit-forming stategy game which he played for the rest of his life to the near exclusion of all other activity. Duchamp's obsessive fascination with chess can be traced back much earlier to the themes of his major art pieces. The most immediately obvious of these is the chess position known as "trébuchet" (the trap), which gave its title to the Readymade of 1917: a coat rack with four hooks, which is nailed to the floor, hooks uppermost.

Not only did he design 1925 Poster for the Third French Chess Championship, but he finished the event at fifty percent (3-3, with 2 draws), and thus earned the title of chess master. During this period his fascination with chess so distressed his first wife that she glued his pieces to their board, which possibly contributed to their divorce four months later. He went on to play in the French Championships and also in the Olympiads from 1928-1933, favoring hypermodern openings like the Nimzo-Indian. In spite of his efforts he was unable to move from the rank of a strong French master to the rank of a strong international grand master. Sometime in the early 1930s, Duchamp realized that he had reached the height of his ability and had no real chance of winning recognition in top-level chess. Over the following years, the intensity of his participation in chess tournaments declined but he discovered correspondence chess and became a chess journalist writing weekly newspaper columns.

In 1932 Duchamp teamed up with fellow chess theorist Halberstadt to publish "L'Opposition et Cases Conjugees sont Reconciliées" (Opposition and Sister Squares are Reconciled). This pataphysical treatise describes the Lasker-Reichelm position, a unique and extremely rare position that can arise in the endgame (or third and final phase) of a game of chess. In conclusion, the authors observe that the most Black can hope for is a draw. Given accurate play by White, Black can only succeed in delaying the progress of events, ultimately loosing to White. They demonstrate this fact by plotting the game play on enneagram-like charts that fold in upon themselves. Grasping the central theme of this work, the endgame, is an important key to understanding Duchamp's complex attitude towards his artistic career. While his contemporaries were achieving spectacular success in the art world by selling their visions to high society collectors and trend setters, Duchamp observed "I am still a victim of chess. It has all the beauty of art - and much more. It cannot be commercialized. Chess is much purer than art in its social position."

During his later years, many people attempted to lure Duchamp back into the art world. His theme of the endgame was picked up by British playwrite Samuel Beckett who used it as the narrative device for his commercially successful 1957 play of the same name, "Endgame". One of Duchamp's most notable chess games occured in 1968, at a concert called "Reunion" at Ryerson Polytechnic in Toronto. His opponent was the avant-garde composer and event organizer John Cage. The music was produced by a series of photoelectric cells underneath each square of the chessboard which were sporadically triggered during normal game play.

On choosing a career in chess Duchamp had this to say: "If Bobby Fischer came to me for advice, I certainly would not discourage him - as if anyone could - but I would try to make it positively clear that he will never have any money from chess, live a monk-like existence and know more rejection than any artist ever has, struggling to be known and accepted."