Tag Archives: Francis M. Naumann

Duchamp’s Letters

Other people are a mystery that we attempt to solve by creating a story based on what we know about them. These biographies attempt to understand a person but will always fail. And they will always be subject to revision due to new evidence. Providing new documentary evidence on Duchamp is Affectionately, Marcel – the selected correspondence of Marcel Duchamp, edited by Francis M. Naumann and Hector Obalk (Ludion Press, 2000)

As a Duchamp aficionado reading his selected correspondence subtly altered my view of him again. Duchamp research had already reached a fever pitch when I finished my thesis in 1991 and continued through the 90s. Academic careers have been built on studying Duchamp. Affectionately, Marcel raised some controversy even before it was published: “Duchamp Scholars Face Off in Art in America Hate Mail” by Jeffery Hogrefe, (10/1/99) New York Observer 

Affectionately, Marcel is exceptionally annotated, transcribed and laid out with care; with sidenotes including mini-biographies of people mentioned in letters. Most of the letters are in French (translations are provided), Duchamp arrives in New York unable to speak English but later letters show a developing confidence in English.

There is no dirt; the hot love letters to Marie Martins are not included in this book, her family still wishes to keep them private. The letters to his family, friends and other artists provide details about his life and loves. Duchamp is surprisingly patriotic in WWI and although unfit for military service does volunteer work at the French Embassy in New York. His letters tell more about the effect of Prohibition or WWII on his life than art.

Duchamp’s correspondence demonstrates that for most of his life he did not think of himself as an artist. Paris, 19 Oct. 1923  “All painting and sculpture exhibitions make me sick. And I would like to avoid being associated with them.” These letters are about Duchamp as trainee librarian, French teacher, cinema cameraman, chess player, businessman, exhibition organizer and art dealer.

There is some new information in the book about Duchamp’s art. There is a letter to his sister Suzanne describing the Fountain scandal attributes its creation to a female friend. Signing his letters Rrose Selavy, Rose-Mar-cel, Duch etc. Duchamp states that Rrose Selavy’s date of birth is 1920 and it is apparent from the letters that Rrose Selavy was a business name for some of Duchamp’s ventures.

However the information most of interest to art historians concerns Duchamp’s dealings with other artists, collectors and museums. He writes many letters about arranging exhibitions, loans of art, and importing art to the USA (including when Brancusi sculptures were classified as “not art” by US Customs). There are plenty of details about the art business even though Duchamp is continually making disparaging remarks about art dealers.

Duchamp would have preferred emails; he wishes that telegrams were not so expensive. There are a few telegrams in the book including the well-known “Pode Bal” telegram to Tzara regarding Duchamp’s non-participation in Salon Dada. Not so well known is that it is addressed to Jean Crotti.

“It’s very hard to say in just a few words, especially for me as I have no faith – religious kind – in artistic activity as a social value. Artists throughout the ages are like Monte Carlo gamblers and the blind lottery pulls some of through and ruins others. To my mind, neither the winners nor the losers are worth bothering about. It’s a good business deal for the winner and a bad one for the loser. I do not believe in painting per se. A painting is made not by the artist but by those who look at it and grant it their favors. In other words, no painter knows himself or what he is doing.”

Marcel Duchamp to Jean Crotti 17 August, 1952

Stencil Art 1930s

Here are a few details about stencil art techniques in 1930s gleamed from the letters of Marcel Duchamp. At that time stencils were used as an alternative to expensive color printing processes to produce add colors at an affordable price. Duchamp was using professional stencil men in 1934 preparing a stencil reproduction of the Large Glass for his Green Box and, in 1937, to arrange printing of Katherine Dreier’s 40 Variations.

To Henri-Pierre Roché, Paris, 18 May 1934 “…with my stencil man. We’re having a lot of trouble and I have to make him another tracing of all the stencils he’s to make in order hopefully to achieve a result.” (p.189)

To Katherine Dreier, Paris 25 June 1937 “The news are good but slow – Naturally the printing in black of the lithograph was finished long ago – and the 3200 prints taken to the ‘colorist’ who expected to finish in a month. I called him up yesterday and I am to see, in a few days, half of the whole work cut our and ready for color-brushing. This means that his main work consists of cutting out in the zinc foil the areas for each color – The actual brushing of the color does not take much time. Anyway we will have to wait until August before his work is finished.” (p.212)

It seems safe to assume that a “colorist” and a “stencil man” (“homme du pochoir”) are the same. The use of “zinc foil” for the stencils makes sense given the number of prints to stencil and plastics were still being invented. The color is brushed through the stencil and not sprayed because aerosol paint cans were not invented until 1949.

All quotes are from Affectionately, Marcel – the selected correspondence of Marcel Duchamp, edited by Francis M. Naumann and Hector Obalk (Ludion Press, 2000)

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