Marcel Duchamp: The pioneer of surrealism who traded the studio for the chessboard

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“I’m not dead, I’m in Herne Bay.”

On August 6, 1913, Marcel Duchamp sent this reassuring message on a postcard to his friend, the painter Max Bergmann, from the small seaside resort
Holiday resort in North Kent where his sister Yvonne took up an English dormitory
language course. It hasn’t been the easiest summer for the pioneer of Surrealism, Dadaism and Cubism, making his absence from Paris somewhat worrying among friends.

You needn’t have worried; he was healthy on the tennis court
and explore the delights of the Kent coast. That evening Duchamp could
watched Wilf Burnand’s Impersonations of Contemporary Actors at Central Hall, for example, or The reluctant Cinderella in the big cinema. Herne Bay was a busy place during the last golden summer before
of World War I and proved to be the pick-me-up Duchamp needed.

“The traveler is enchanted,” he wrote to another friend a few days later. “Great weather. As much tennis as possible. A few French for me so I don’t learn English, a sister who is having a great time.”

It’s hard to believe that even as Duchamp dozed off in a deck chair while a military band danced at the nearby bandstand, he was the center of attention
one of the greatest and most controversial artistic explosions in modern culture.

Almost three months earlier he had been at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées
in Paris for the premiere of Igor Stravinsky The Spring Ritual. Choreographed by Nijinsky and performed by Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes, this was a performance so avant-garde and revolutionary that the evening soon descended into a riot, the show almost drowned out by whistles, whistles and loud arguments between the audience. It was epic
moment in 20th century history and there, in the second row, sat a
inspired Marcel Duchamp.

Especially his painting a few weeks before Act descending a
Staircase, No. 2
had shocked the American art world when it was exhibited in the armory of the 69th Regiment in New York in the so-called Armory Show. Many of the works on display were Americans’ first taste of European Impressionism and Cubism, and of all the exhibits, it was Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 that got the most attention, not much of it for free.

A sequence of overlapping figures descending from top left to bottom
to the right of the screen, giving the impression of movement, Naked… is an assemblage of superimposed cones and cylinders that are barely recognizable as individual human figures, but which, when viewed together, produce a recognizable grace in motion.

“My goal was a static representation of movement,” said Duchamp, “a static composition of references to different positions taken by a form in motion, without attempting to create cinematic effects through painting.”

The Americans were both amazed and appalled. That New York Times quotes the story of The Emperor’s New Clothes and likened Duchamp’s work to “an explosion in a clapboard mill”. Despite the painting’s whimsical title, “the canvas is one that might be hung in the Methodist Sunday School, and if it were to do any harm there, it would harm the students’ minds, not their morals.”

Even US President Theodore Roosevelt chimed in, calling a Navajo rug hanging in his bathroom “a far more satisfactory and decorative image… from the standpoint of ornamental value, sincerity, and artistic merit, the Navajo rug is infinitely ahead of that image.” “.

When the exhibit moved to Chicago, the exhibit’s director advised visitors to “spin around three times, bang your head against the wall twice, and if you poke hard enough, the painting becomes perfectly obvious.” When news of the painting’s reception reached Paris, the criticism hit Duchamp hard.

“I am very depressed at the moment and doing absolutely nothing,” he had written in July 1913 to Walter Pach, the Armory Show organizer. “It’s very annoying when things are like this. I am going away in August to spend some time in England.”

His month at Herne Bay had an invigorating effect. While hopping across a tennis court or sitting on the beach gazing out at the North Sea, he felt as far removed from the hustle and bustle of the Armory Show as possible and took the opportunity to rest and take stock.

Promising signs seemed to be everywhere.

On August 7, he was one of hundreds of people who climbed to the top of the cliffs to examine a Short biplane that had landed there, reminding Duchamp of the air show he had attended a few months earlier in Paris, where he admired the design of the plane and said to a friend, “The paint job is complete. Who can do anything better than this propeller?”

As he stood on the cliffs and watched the plane take off, settle across the sea and shrink into a distant speck, he realized that painting would play a much smaller role in what was to come next.


In Paris, a new position as librarian at the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève awaited him, but when he boarded the steamer for Calais at the end of the month he already had four annotated drawings in his holdall, which formed the basic elements of another signature creation. The big glassa summary on two glass panels of 2.60 mx 1.80 m, on which he would continue to work until 1923.

In 1915 Duchamp began producing his “readymades”, which he called “everyday objects elevated to the dignity of a work of art by the will of the artist”. First there was bottle rackthen a snow shovel presented itself as Ahead of the broken armfollowed by his most famous creation, The fountain, a porcelain urinal signed with an artist’s signature ‘R. mutt”.

1919 came LHOOQa reminder print of mona lisa on which Duchamp had inked a cartoon mustache and beard and added the handprinted letters of the title. Speaking aloud, the title sounds very close to “elle a chaud au cul” or “she’s hot in the ass” in French, which is a possible explanation for La Gioconda’s enigmatic smile.

The big glass, turned out to be his last major work after completion, because from 1923 Duchamp left the studio in favor of the chessboard. An excellent chess player, good enough to make him a France international
Team and participate in the International Chess Olympiads, the game continues
him for the rest of his life. He wrote newspaper columns, developed riddles,
carved his own sets and occasionally staged elaborate chess-related scenes
Endeavor: A few weeks before his death, he played the composer John Cage on a board wired to a synthesizer that triggered musical notes with every move.

He still dabbled in the art world and became a well-known exhibition curator, but the last four decades of Marcel Duchamp’s life were almost entirely focused on the chessboard.

“Why isn’t chess an artistic activity?” he asked himself in 1956. “A chess game is very plastic. You construct it, it’s a mechanical sculpture. In chess you can do it
beautiful problems and that beauty is made with the head and hands.”

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