Duchamp’s Letters

Affectionately, Marcel: The Selected Correspondence of Marcel Duchamp. Ed. Francis M. Naumann and Hector Obalk. Trans. Jill Taylor. Ghent, Belgium: Ludion Press, 2000.

Marcel Duchamp is arguably one of the most influential artists of the 20th century. I won’t be arguing that point here. He was not a prolific artist and the myth goes that he gave up art in the 20’s for chess. (In actuality he continued creating incisive, playful, and heterogeneous works for the rest of his life (he died in 1968).) He was also not a prolific letter writer. The letters collected in this volume display a business-like man, engaged in the business of art. The majority of the letters deal with exhibits, sales, deals, publications, etc. There is also a great number of banalities and details of location (he was often back and forth between New York and Paris). Very few personal details come through: his first marriage merits only letters announcing the wedding, one mentioning their life (separate apartments), and one mentioning the divorce; his second wife is first mentioned in regards to their wedding. Duchamp did not give much away in these letters (one wonders whether these are all the letters or if there are ones that were held back or destroyed by the recipients). Even his own work merits little commentary beyond business matters.

I mention a few points of specific interest to me:

The one time he goes into any length about someone’s influence on his work it concerns the author Raymond Roussel. In a letter to Jean Suquet concerning an article the latter wrote on Duchamp’s “Large Glass”, he writes:

One important point for you is to know how indebted I am to Raymond Roussel who, in 1912, delivered from a whole “physioplastic” past which I had been trying to get out of. A production at the Antoine Theater of “Impressions d’Afrique” which I went see with Apollinaire and Picabia in October or November 1912 […] was a revelation for the three of us, for it really was about a new man at that time. To this day [1949], I consider Raymond Roussel all the more important for not having built up a following. (283, trans from the French by Jill Taylor)

In reply to an analysis of his “Large Glass” by Michel Carrouges, he offers his own religious perspective:

…in terms of “popular metaphysics,” I refuse to get involved in arguments on the existence of God–which means that the term “atheist” (as opposed to the word “believer”) is of no interest to me at all, no more than the word believer or the opposition of their very clear meanings. For me, there is something other than yes, no and indifferent–the absence of investigations of this sort, for instance. (344, trans. Taylor)/

Can I recommend this volume? Only to the hardcore fan/scholar of Duchamp. I am much interested in Duchamp and his works, but even I mostly stuck with the volume because the letters are transcribed in their original language (French, occasionally English) and then translated, giving me another avenue for practicing my French reading on a non-literary text.