Tag Archives: Hector Obalk

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


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