Marcel Duchamp Descending a Staircase

Marcel DuchampOn this day in 1887, the great French artist Marcel Duchamp was born. He is hard to talk about though. Because I use the term “artist” in its widest possible sense. He worked in most mediums, but he was also a writer and eventually a chess player. In his early 30s, after a very successful artistic career, he decided he wanted to play chess. He went on to be a Master level player—for those of you who do not know, that means he was better than you can possibly imagine. But he is better know for his writing about chess theory.

Duchamp was born into a rich family. This allowed four of his parents six surviving children to go on to be successful artists. The family was very much into culture, so it isn’t surprising. It does make me wonder about what I see as the modern American rich who seem only to be interested in creating a new kind of aristocracy. The Koch brothers looked at their lucky fate and said, “I want to just make more money and influence politics so that even more comes to me.” The Duchamp children used their lucky fate to do something interesting. And all the Duchamp children did compelling work. What will the Koch children leave us? Oh, that’s right: a potentially catastrophically changed climate. I guess I’m forced to admit that the Koch’s legacy will be more profound than that of the Duchamps, even if it is a tragic legacy.

When I was a kid, I was never that much into modern art. The painting that really turned me onto it was Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase. I love the use of line, the movement (not surprisingly from the early days of film), and the limited palette. It works as well for me today as it did 35 years ago:

Nude Descending a Staircase - Duchamp

Most of his other work is more conceptual in nature and not as interesting to me. Part of the problem is that once he started playing chess, he didn’t pursue art all that much. Still, he was still very much part of the art world. There is a great quote from him, however, “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.” I understand the feeling, although as a sport it has managed to be commercialized. But it certainly indicates that his love of art was pure and he didn’t like the way it became commodity.

There is an interesting story about his personal life. He married Lydie Sarazin-Lavassor, but couldn’t stand the confinement of marriage, so they divorced six months later. But Duchamp and Sarazin-Lavassor continued their relationship for the next two decades until she died. That’s right out of Scenes from a Marriage. And very sweet.

Happy birthday Marcel Duchamp!

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