Marcel Duchamp was born in Normandy in 1887, the third of six children of a notary. His brothers, Gaston and Raymond, were, respectively, twelve and eleven years his senior. A sister, Suzanne, two years his junior, was his special friend; there were also two much younger sisters, Magdeleine and Yvonne. Marcel had red hair; a long, straight Norman nose; a thin, wide mouth; and an overwhelmingly abstract mind. His chief interests were art, chess, and puns, visual and verbal.
The mother of this brood, a talented pianist, had become profoundly deaf and withdrawn. All four elder children found her cold and distant, and disliked her; it may or may not be coincidental that none of the six chose to have a child of his or her own. Relations with their father, by contrast, were cordial.
Marcel was, in a small way, financially independent. The Duchamps were well-off, and as the children reached adulthood their father, in an act of unusual generosity, gave each of them the option of a small income, to be set against their share of what they would otherwise inherit after their parents died.
All four elder Duchamp children were artists. Gaston, who had taken the nom de guerre Jacques Villon, and Raymond, who sculpted as Raymond Duchamp-Villon, both lived in Paris, starting out in Montmartre, and then, when they married, moving out to the then-leafy and respectable suburb of Puteaux. The Section d’Or group, of which they were leading members, met there, and was also known as the Puteaux group. Marcel, who had joined them in Montmartre as soon as he was old enough to leave home, and who in 1908 also moved to Puteaux, was a member of the group, but by default rather than with active enthusiasm. He did not find groups congenial.
In 1912 the group decided to mount an exhibition. Marcel, who was interested in conveying movement on canvas, and whose picture was much influenced by the serial photographic experiments of Etienne-Jules Marey and Eadweard Muybridge, entered his Nude Descending a Staircase (one of Muybridge’s photograph series was, in fact, of a nude girl descending a staircase). It was a Cubist painting but also reflected the fascination with machines and movement that Marcel shared with his inseparable friend Francis Picabia. With Picabia, one of life’s great dilettantes, this enthusiasm manifested largely as a taste for fast cars and visual puns. Marcel, however, was more interested in how to express it graphically. He had been experimenting with them for some time, and his Nude was the latest in a series of canvases that tackled it.
Could he really have been as unaffected as he appeared? It is perfectly possible. The world’s approval was always somewhere near the bottom of his list of priorities.
The painting was rejected by the organizers, ostensibly because they were uneasy about the title, which he had inscribed in the bottom left-hand corner, though probably because its teasing satire of that quasi-sacred artistic concept, The Nude, made them uncomfortable. They felt that the title spelled out not just the picture’s subject but Marcel’s lack of sympathy with the group’s serious aims, and wanted him to paint it out. His brothers were deputed to convey the unwelcome news, which they did dressed in undertakers’ black. Marcel, however, refused to participate in this funereal melodrama. “The general idea was to have me change something to make it possible to show it because they didn’t want to reject it completely,” he remembered. But he had no desire to change anything. “I said nothing. I said all right, all right, and I took a taxi to the show and got my painting and took it away.”
Could he really have been as unaffected as he appeared? It is perfectly possible. The world’s approval was always somewhere near the bottom of his list of priorities. And if he had written in the title because he knew it would annoy, he had triumphantly succeeded. This was the first public display of his particular talent; namely, his unerring ability to slide needles under the art world’s fingernails. His capacity to disturb (and, along the way, to intrigue) was, and would remain, world class.
The rejection of his picture was just the first of the seismic events 1912 held in store for Marcel. The second took place in June, when, with his friends Francis and Gaby Picabia and the poet and cultural impresario Guillaume Apollinaire, he attended a performance of Raymond Roussel’s extraordinary theatrical work Impressions d’Afrique.
Apollinaire, Picabia, and Duchamp were the three wittiest and most iconoclastic players on the Paris art scene. They had recently become inseparable friends, linked in a sort of four-way love affair whose center was Picabia’s remarkable wife, Gabriële Buffet (generally known as Gaby). Unusually, this was a marriage of equal talents. Gaby, the clever and articulate daughter of a prominent intellectual family, was a gifted musician, a pupil of Vincent d’Indy at the Schola Cantorum, while Picabia, half-Cuban, half-French, was a painter of such facility that from the age of twenty he had made a living, and a name, painting Impressionist-style pictures. In 1909, however, he had abandoned Impressionism and joined the Puteaux group, where he had met the Duchamp brothers. He and Gaby married that same year. Picabia’s teeming brilliance so enchanted her that she willingly gave up her career to be with him.
The Picabias, who by 1912 had two children, became a sort of second family for Marcel, who was eight years Francis’s junior (and six years younger than Gaby). “Marcel was much less liberated than one imagines,” Gaby said years later. “He had remained a provincial young man, very attached to his family and his brothers, for whom he had great respect, while at the same time he was a revolutionary at heart. Clearly he felt that with us he could be himself, which was impossible for him when he was with his brothers. Francis’ influence on him was extraordinary, and mine too, given the customs of the time: a woman who dared to have her own ideas… I believe that it was I who extracted Marcel from his family.”
Roussel, one of literature’s more bizarre figures, had chosen to devote his strictly abstract mind (like Marcel he was a gifted chess player, and also composed music) to the distinctly un-abstract business of making books and plays. He explained his methods in a booklet entitled Comme j’ai écrit certains de mes livres. He would begin by selecting two almost identical words—the examples he gave were billard (a billiard table) and pillard (an African chieftain). He then constructed two sentences in which all the words except the near homonyms were the same, but in which all the meanings were different:
1. Les lettres du blanc sur les bandes du vieux billard . . .
2. Les lettres du blanc sur les bandes du vieux pillard . . .
In the first sentence, lettres means “typographical signs,” blanc is white chalk, and bandes, edges. So the sentence means, “The white letters chalked on the edges of the old billiard table.” In the second, lettres means “missives,” blanc is a white man, and bandes are armies. This sentence means, “The white man’s letters about the African chief’s armies.” The next stage, Roussel explained, was to write a story beginning with the first phrase and ending with the second. This was the basis for Impressions d’Afrique, whose action begins with “a stormy night in equatorial Africa” and ends with “the fête given by the members of the Club des Incomparables, with its sideshows: the wind clock from the Land of Cockayne, Monsieur Bex’s thermo-mechanical orchestra, the earthworm which plays the zither…” Roussel paid for the play to be put on (the title can also be read as a pun: à fric means “at his own expense”).
Marcel was enchanted. “It was tremendous,” he remembered. “On the stage there was a model and a snake that moved slightly—it was absolutely the madness of the unexpected. I don’t remember much of the text. One didn’t really listen.” Roussel’s work excited him in a way that painting never had. The notion that abstract complexities and elaborate jokes might become artistic tools struck an immediate chord with his own complicated and joke-inclined intellect. The fact that the audience had to work out for themselves what was going on also appealed to him. In the artistic philosophy he would develop over the coming years, the artist provided only what he described as “raw art,” a sort of artistic molasses which it was then the spectator’s job to refine into sugar. His art, like Roussel’s, was about ideas, and as ideas are infinitely open to discussion, the viewer was no mere spectator but played an active part in the creation of the artwork.
It was perhaps inevitable that Marcel would fall in love with Gaby. The Picabias were his ideal couple, and as well as being kind and welcoming (he now spent much of his life in the Picabias’ apartment), she was the cleverest woman he knew, and very attractive. Shortly after the Roussel adventure, he telephoned her to confess his feelings.
Gaby’s great-granddaughters, in their biography of her, suggest that she returned his affection. Indeed, it’s not unlikely. Although the Picabias had been married only three years, and Gaby was and would remain in love with her fascinating husband, it is perfectly possible to love two people at the same time. Marcel was the Picabias’ closest friend: witty, talented, and (at that time) disarmingly beautiful. Who would not love such a person? However, she did not encourage him. Unlike Picabia, Gaby took marriage very seriously; not only was she determined to remain faithful to her husband, she was even prepared to discount his multitudinous infidelities, of which she was only too well aware. She felt sure that whatever the body’s vacillations, they would remain united in spirit.
And in any case, she disliked what she called “these clandestine things.” Marcel decided to go away to Munich, where an acquaintance had offered him a quiet place to live. He asked to meet Gaby before he left, but she refused. She agreed, however, that he might write to her in Kent, where she proposed to spend some weeks with her two young children.
Marcel left Paris for Munich on June 21. He spoke no German, and all he said about his stay was that “Munich had a lot of style in those days. I never met a soul and had a great time.” The important thing about Munich, however, was not its style, but that it freed him from the distractions of Paris and gave him time to collect his thoughts. The Section d’Or’s rejection of his picture had crystalized his dislike for artistic groups in which, unless one was a big name, one lived precariously from sale to sale, thus reducing art to product for the market. Hence his otherwise inexplicably unperturbed reaction to the refusal of his Nude.
His art was about ideas, and as ideas are infinitely open to discussion, the viewer was no mere spectator but played an active part in the creation of the artwork.
Not that he meant to give up art. But from now on he would work entirely to please himself. Released by his inability to speak German from the temptations of social life, he began to sketch out some new ideas. Unsurprisingly, given recent developments in his love life, they involved an unattainable woman and male desire. He made a drawing with the legend “Première recherche pour: La mariée mise à nu par ses célibataires,” two drawings entitled Virgin, and a small painting, The Passage from the Virgin to the Bride.
The intellectual and artistic journey of which these were the first intimations would find its expression in La Mariée mise à nu par ses célibataires même (The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even). This work, also known as The Large Glass, would occupy him, on and off, for the next decade. If a thought could be formulated, he reasoned, then it should be possible to give that thought solid form. The thoughts themselves were noted down as they arose. Marcel was creating a new world—one where, in Gaby Picabia’s words, “machine organisms have extremely human adventures”—and it needed a user’s manual.
Unlike the headlong Picabia, who was also fascinated by the world of useless machines, but who favored quite simple visual puns—thus La Nourrice Américaine was a drawing of a lightbulb with a nipple-shaped protrusion—Marcel’s machines were part of a complex and subtle intellectual exploration. He proposed, he said, “To strain the laws of physics . . . My approach to the machine was completely ironic. I made only the hood. It was a symbolic way of explaining. What went on under the hood, how it really worked, did not interest me. I had my own system quite tight as a system, but not organized logically.”* It included chance, different perspectives, the fourth dimension (a quasi-mystical idea then fashionable, and distantly related to a physics that has since acquired many dimensions), all with overtones of lubricious double entendre. In Henri-Pierre Roché’s unfinished novel about Duchamp, Victor, Marcel/ Victor explains that his work is an “epic of desire, a fairy-tale and a mechanical ballet.”
From Munich, Marcel wrote Gaby two letters that she found very moving. He said he badly wanted to see her alone, and compared their situation to that described in André Gide’s very Protestant novel, La Porte étroite, a study of sexual frustration that had been published to great acclaim in 1909. In the novel, two sisters are in love with the same boy, who loves only the elder of the two. The sister he isn’t in love with sadly marries another; the elder sister perversely withholds herself, turns to religion, and fades away into an early death.
It would be hard to imagine anything less like the uproariously anti-conventional Francis/Marcel/Gaby threesome than Gide’s religiose drama of pointless self-sacrifice, but it was clear enough what he meant. Gaby replied from her mother’s house in the Jura, where she and the children had by this time moved on from Kent. She told him she proposed making a brief trip to Paris. There would be an hour or so between trains at a station called Andelot, where the branch line from her mother’s village met the Paris main line. If Marcel wished, he could meet her there. Munich is seven hundred kilometers from Andelot: a ridiculously long way to come for such a brief meeting. But to Gaby’s astonishment, when she arrived at Andelot Marcel was waiting for her on the platform. He had been traveling forty-eight hours, from Munich to the border at Lake Constance, through Austria and Switzerland, and finally to Lake Geneva and the French border. “It was utter madness to travel from Munich to Andelot just to spend a few hours with me.”
They spent the night in the station, talking on a wooden bench. The Paris train left at two in the morning, but Gaby didn’t take it, waiting instead for another that came later. Although visibly consumed with desire, Marcel didn’t touch her. “It was somehow slightly inhuman, to be sitting beside a man who you know desires you that much, and yet not touch each other… I thought, I must be very careful with everything I say to him because he understands things in quite an alarming way, in an absolute way.” But her answer remained No.
It was Marcel’s third great rejection. Maternal love had failed him; painting had failed him; now romantic love had proved as treacherous as the rest—though one can’t help wondering if he would have risked such self-exposure if he had thought he would be required to act on it. However much he loved Gaby, he was and remained devoted to Picabia, whose unbridled mind and hedonistic lifestyle of fast cars, opium, and drink he envied and admired. Always interested in entering other skins, perhaps his courting of Gaby was really a way of trying out another life possibility: that of being Picabia.
He returned to Paris, moved into a studio in the rue Saint Hippolyte, installed a bicycle wheel on its fork that when he turned it reminded him of the flickering open fires he loved at home in Normandy, and took a job at the Bibliothèque Ste-Geneviève, a post obtained for him through Picabia, whose uncle was the library’s director. His hours were 10:00–12:00 and 1:30–3:00, and he was paid five francs a day.
In his copious free time he made the most of the library’s collections, including such rarities as La perspective curieuse, ou magie artificielle des effets merveilleux, published in 1638 by Jean-François Niceron, in which Niceron demonstrates various mathematically exact but wonderfully unsettling perspective effects. He also began work on the layout of what would become his The Large Glass, on the perspective of the Bride, hovering on top, and the quite different perspective of the eight Bachelors beneath—one that would fit them all into the frame (so comfortably, in the event, that he went on to add a ninth).
He would not risk love again for thirty years. Henceforth, he would be “antimarriage, but not antiwomen. Quite the contrary, I was exceedingly normal.” By which he meant heterosexual: normal was not a word anyone would otherwise use to describe Marcel Duchamp.
Excerpted from Spellbound by Marcel: Duchamp, Love, and Art by Ruth Brandon (Pegasus).