Marcel Duchamp (1887 - 1968)


Marcel Duchamp (28 July 1887 – 2 October 1968) was a French artist whose work is most often associated with the Dadaist and Surrealist movements. Duchamp's output influenced the development of post-World War I Western art. He advised modern art collectors, such as Peggy Guggenheim and other prominent figures, thereby helping to shape the tastes of Western art during this period.

A playful man, Duchamp challenged conventional thought about artistic processes and art marketing, not so much by writing, but through subversive actions such as dubbing a urinal art and naming it Fountain. He produced relatively few artworks, while moving quickly through the avant-garde circles of his time.

1910 The Chess Game

Marcel Duchamp learned to play chess at the age of thirteen. In the same year (1902), he painted his first picture. Both pursuits - painting and chess playing - were activities taught to him by his older brothers, Raymond Duchamp-Villon and Jacques Villon. 1914 Marcel Duchamp, Jacques Villon, and Raymond Duchamp-Villon in the garden of Jacques Villon's studio in Pateaux, France:

In 1910, Duchamp painted The Chess Game (Philadelphia Museum of Art), a large canvas depicting his brothers intently engaged in a game of chess, their wives relaxing in the lush garden setting of their home and studio in Puteaux.

Whereas this picture clearly derives its inspiration from the brushstrokes of Cezanne and the bright palette of Fauvism, Duchamp would soon begin to experiment with the overlapping imagery and planar fragmentation of Cubism. But when he began his experiments with Cubism, Duchamp was not content to blindy emulate the style: ''I wanted to invent or find my own way.'' His solution was to fuse the subject of his earlier painting of his brothers playing chess with the movements and action of the chess game itself, thereby rendering the pictorial representation of a primarily cerebral activity (the opposite approach to most Cubist painting, which usually departed from the visual analysis of a purely concrete form). ''A game of chess is a visual and plastic thing.'' Duchamp explained some years later, ''and if it isn't geometric in the static sense of the word, it is mechanical, since it moves; it's drawing, it's a mechanical reality ... In chess there are some extremely beautiful things in the domain of movement, but not in the visual domain. It's the imagining of the movement or the gesture that makes the beauty, in this case. It's completely in one's gray matter".

1911 The Chess Players

In the fall of 1911, Duchamp emabarked upon a series of drawings that were designed to render the mental machinations of a chess game. Of the five drawings that survive, Study for Portrait of Chess Players appears to be the most complete and resolved, and comes closest in conception and design to the two paintings that were eventually derived from the series: The Chess Players (Musee national d'art moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris)

and Portrait of Chess Players (fig. 1, Philadelphia Museum of Art).

In this drawing, the profiles of Duchamp's brothers - on the left, Raymond Duchamp-Villon, and on the right, Jacques Villon - are envisioned in multiple renditions, while various chess pieces - ''placed at random'' - float in undefined spatial positions throughout the image.

The forms within the composition are organised along the predominant pattern of a large central "X", its lower branches emanating perspectively from the tessellations of a chessboard, while its upper extension serves to define the separate domains of the two chess players. If this formal reading is accepted, then Duchamp must have intended the intersecting lines in the center of the composition to represent the point of conjunction between these two players, in other words, that point where a meeting of minds will determine the ultimate outcome of the game.

1919 Chess Stamps and Chess Set

 On August 13th, 1918, Duchamp boarded to boat from New York City to
Buenos Aires. In a letter postmarked from Argentina on January 7, 1919,
Duchamp wrote to Louise Arsenberg, the wife of his New York patron,
“I am also going to join local chess club down here to try my hand again.
I had made up a set of rubber stamps (which I designed), with which I
set up the games. I’m sending here an example for Walter.”

By designing a rubber stamp set in order to facilitate the prospect of
playing chess by mail. Duchamp initiated one of the first postal actions
incorporating the use of the rubber stamp medium. Design try outs:

During the trip to South America, he designed a chess set about which there's been some debate. The commonly accepted idea is that he made the set himself except for the Knight, which he hired a local craftsman to carve by hand. However, Larry List, who documented the Imagery of Chess Revisited show in 2003, argued quite convincingly that all the pieces but the Knight were obviously turned on a lathe. While Duchamp created machine and kinetic art, he never used machines to create the art. As a matter of fact, Duchamp liked to create with his hands. List suggests, even insists, that Duchamp hired a local to turn the pieces on a lathe, while he himself carved the Knight by hand. Duchamp's chess set:

Duchamp's White Knight:

1923 - 1933 Semi Chess Professional

By 1923, Marcel Duchamp had established himself as a singular force in the avant-garde art communities on both sides of the Atlantic. Then, suddenly, after two decades of unparalleled innovation and considerable controversy, he was reported to have quit making art in order to focus on his new passion: chess. Of course, Duchamp never quit being an artist; he was, however, thoroughly engaged in a radical redefinition of art that favored-much like chess-a more conceptual approach. He designed the poster for the 1925 French Championship, played in Nice.

Following a brief excursion to Buenos Aires during 1918 and 1919 where he became a self-described "chess maniac," his interest in the game grew far beyond an idle pastime. He soon made it his objective to win the French Chess Championship. 1927 Duchamp is 4th from left, standing in the background:

Between 1923 and 1933, chess dominated Duchamp's life as he competed in tournaments across Europe. Following several respectable performances, including a first-place finish at the Chess Championship of Haute Normandie in 1924, he was awarded the title of Chess Master by the French Chess Federation. Marcel Duchamp, circa 1930:

Though his objective of winning the French championship would never come to pass, Duchamp did succeed in representing France in numerous tournaments and Olympiads. He published a book on endgame tactics,

extensively revised a classic analysis of opening strategies by the International Grandmaster Eugene Znosko-Borovsky, authored a chess column in the Paris daily newspaper Ce Soir, and became one of the most respected players of correspondence chess in the world.

His participation in tournament play slowed dramatically after 1933, though he remained engaged with the professional chess community for the rest his life. He became a valued ambassador for the game through the various honorary positions he maintained, as well as his charitable effort, the Marcel Duchamp Fund of the American Chess Foundation. His legacy also includes playing a pivotal role in introducing the theme of chess in art to a wider public through his involvement in the organization of two historic exhibitions, "The Imagery of Chess" at the Julien Levy Gallery in 1944 and "Hommage a Caissa" at Cordier & Ekstrom in 1966.

1924 Chess games of the rich and famous: Duchamp - Man Ray

Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray, playing chess, in Paris. The photo is a still from the 1924 René Clair movie, with a very modern, surrealist music score added.

Part of the movie:

1943 Exhibition The Big End Of The Opera Glass

In 1943 gallery owner Julien Levy invited Marcel Duchamp, Joseph Cornell and Yves Tanguy to present a selection of miniature artworks in an exhibition entitled Through The Big End Of The Opera Glass. Asked to each submit an image for inclusion on the exhibition announcement card, Duchamp - a world-class chess player - created the problem shown above, printed backwards with the instruction 'White to Play and Win'. To an even moderately experienced player it seems as though White will surely be able to win (crossing the pawn currently positioned on the B7 square to gain an advantage by promoting to a queen). Problem with no solution; white to play and win:

Printed on the reverse Duchamp included a hand-drawn image of Cupid, it's arrow pointing to the B file when one follows the written instruction, "Look through from the other side against light," and the images are overlaid with the chess board now right-side round (a black square in the bottom left - below). However, rather than indicating a solution, this merely adds to the image's ambiguity. Attracting much analysis, many experts have concluded that this problem, in fact, has no solution. Exhibiting his trademark mischievous and playful sense of humour, the artist clearly anticipated the hours many chess journalists and even Grandmasters would spend pouring over the quandary to no avail.

1944 Exhibition Imagery of Chess

When "The Imagery of Chess" opened at the Julien Levy Gallery in New York in December 1944, it was hardly an epochal show. Oddly enough, it doesn't even feature in the dealer Julien Levy's own memoirs, except for a note, without further explanation, that it happened. Levy was, so to speak, the American point man for Surrealism in New York. He didn't depend on sales for a living; he had an inheritance - a small one - from his mother. He put on the city's first Surrealist show in 1932. Various artists and writers in the Surrealist group had fled to New York from the Nazis, but only one dealer was regularly giving gallery space to Surrealist art, and that was Levy, who represented neo-Romantics like Eugene Berman as well as tougher and more radical artists like Salvador Dali and Max Ernst. Thirty-two artists - the number was no accident: there are 16 pieces to a side on a chessboard - had been corralled to exchange takes on one of the world's oldest and most durable games.The opening featured a game organized by Marcel Duchamp, in which an acknowledged master, George Koltanowski, played blindfolded against seven artists concurrently, beating all of them except the visionary architect Frederick Kiesler, who fought the maestro to a draw.

Marcel Duchamp's submission: Pocket Chess Set with Rubber Glove:

1963 Eva Babitz - Marcel Duchamp playing chess

Photo Cult Icon

In 1963 Duchamp posed with American writer Eva (or Eve) Babitz for photographer Julian Wasser during a retrospective of his works at the Pasadena Museum of Art. There was also a movie completed "Jeu d'echecs avec Marcel Duchamp" by Jean-Marie Drot. During the opening of the exhibition Wasser had photographed Walter Hopps, the curator of the exhibition, and Duchamp playing chess in the galleries. The first gallery featured the "Large Glass" surrounded by the readymade replicas and related works in the Duchamp exhibition. For the exhibition Hopps had placed the early chess-related drawings and paintings in the second gallery, which also featured chess paraphernalia (presumably the chess table, board and clocks). Wasser and Duchamp staged this game before the "Large Glass"in order to emphasize its composition or even in a sense to perform it. Babitz's hair has fallen over her face in her absorption in the game, erasing her as an individual adversary from the scene, adding to the effect.

Eve Babitz was a female friend of Hopp's. The Babitz - Duchamp match was a chance event that cannot be traced to any one person, neither to Wasser nor to Hopps, but was an idea that Duchamp agreed to. It seems a highly deliberate, coordinated and meaningful decision to have moved the playing table into the next gallery and to have staged there, for the camera and before the "Large Glass," a chess game between Duchamp and a female nude named "Eve,". Bailey makes a convincing case that The Large Glass does indeed contain more than a haunting hint of chess.

Duchamp had already related the female nude to the movement of chess pieces across the board: with a nude "Eve" depicted within his earlier painting " Paradise " (1910-11), which featured a nude model posing as Eve, a painting which further became the verso of "King and Queen Surrounded by Swift Nudes."

Eva Babitz

Eve Babitz who posed for the original photograph was 20 years old at the time.

She has since contributed to several magazines (Ms Magazine, Harper's Bazaar), published several books on the icons of fashion, Hollywood cinema (Eve's Hollywood [1974], L.A. Woman [1978]) and design.

In 1981, she published a books on Ettore Sottass and the Fiorucci label. She has also written several novels, such as Sex & Rage in 1979, on female surfers in California in the 1960s. She has also produced numerous album and magazine covers. Becoming herself something of a Beverly Hills style underground icon. The following is an amateur video of the song Strange Idea of LoveIdea of Love sung by Eva Babitz at the London nightclub The Lost Society.

1964 Ode to Max Ernst

1966 Marcel Duchamp in his New York apartment behind a chessboard with pieces designed by Max Ernst. Duchamp is playing a game with the viewer. Both the board (lower left field should be black) as white and black are reversed. Making it a surreal ode to his friend Max Ernst.

Max Ernst  had ideas about board design as well, and created a "Strategic Value Board" with squares colour-coded accordingly. This photo shows Version 2 of the board, together with the Ernst-designed chess pieces. Notice the pawn on h3.

1968 Chess concert Reunion by John Cage

In an auditorium at Ryerson Polytechnic in Toronto with his wife Teeny at his side, Duchamp was again photographed at play in a chess game in two parts against John Cage (he lost one, but Teeny won the second). The game was also titled " Reunion " by Cage, a musical composition, and the chessboard was connected to both light and sound sensors that issued sounds corresponding to the moves of each player.

2007 Chessboard auction

The chessboard on the photo was made by Duchamp in 1946 in New York and went on auction at Sotheby's in London, in 2007. For a promotional photo British artist Peter Blake and actress Carol Holt recreated the scene of 1963. The chessboard was estimated to go for GBP 200,000.

2006 Zugzwang Monument in Folkstone

In Folkestone, England, where Duchamp played in his last major event, they are commemorating Marcel Duchamp with a project called, Zugzwang. The project in Folkestone was a series of six tables and twelve benches to commemorate that it was here that Marcel Duchamp played his last major chess tournament, the 1933 Chess Olympiad. Each table represents one game he played; upon each top are three etched stainless steel plates:one for Duchamp and one for his opponent, on which their respective chess moves are displayed in chess notation; and a chess board upon which is etched the final position of the pieces at the end of the game. (Duchamp lost most of the games, which is perhaps why it was his last major tournament.) It's almost an inversion of a readymade. They were 'specially-mades' which strive for invisibility, rather than a readymade that becomes newly visible.

2007/2008 Exhibition Duchamp in Buenos Aires

Duchamp in Buenos Aires, FNA 2007/2008. All the artists created their works specially for this show. With reference to Marcel Duchamp and after a thorough personal research process, a unique document will be presented (for the first time to the press and public).

This document has been kept undisclosed in Argentina. It was a gift from Tistán Tzará to a surrealist Argentinian writer, then to a well-known journalist and artist, Hermenegildo Sábat.

We are talking about the technical file of the chess match between Marcel Duchamp and the argentinian chess player Valentín Fernández Coria, the 19th of July of 1924 in Paris. This was the only Oympic International Chess Championship that ever existed. This manuscript, in which are written all the moves that were played in the match, is signed by the artist Marcel Duchamp on the first page and on the opposite side of the document. This material has the signature of the Argentinian player also and will be disclosed along with a certificate that proves its authenticity. The importance of this document lies in Duchamp´s activity during his stay in Buenos Aires: playing chess almost every night. As he said, here is where he became a "chess maniac". In the exhibition catalogue, I describe how Duchamp maintained his contact with Argentina after living in this country, even when he wasn´t living in Buenos Aires any more.

2009 Exhibition The Art of Chess New York

Francis M. Naumann Fine Art, New York, on Oct. 30, 2009



 Status  Link
Sarah Cohen Imagery of chess: Marcel Duchamp
Dutch site with info about cubism


Marcel Duchamp speaks about his work 1 of 3

Marcel Duchamp speaks about his work 2 of 3

Marcel Duchamp speaks about his work 3 of 3

Eno et Duchamp: A Delay in Celluloid


 Year  Event
 1904  Marcel Duchamp joined his brothers in Paris and attended Académie Julian.
 1909  He started working on Cézanne-inspired painting. He was close to Gleizes, Metzinger and other “dissident cubists”, who congregated regularly in his brother Jacques Villon’s house in Puteaux, outside Paris.
 1912  Nude Descending a Staircase was removed from the Salon des Indépendants and exhibited at the Salon de la Section d’Or, organised by the Duchamp brothers, in Paris. Duchamp started working on The Large Glass.
 1913  Nude Descending a Staircase was exhibited at the Armory Show in New York. Duchamp emerged as one of the French avant-garde movement’s main exponents.
 1915  He travelled to the United States to meet his friend Francis Picabia, and met Man Ray who became a lifelong friend.
 1917  Duchamp submitted his Fountain to the Society of Independent Artists’ selection committee (which he belonged to) using a pseudonym, Richard Mutt. It was declined, sparking a string of articles explaining the concept: The Richard Mutt Case.
 1919  Joins chess club in Buenos Aires and plays constantly, to the point where he refers to himself as a "chess maniac...."
 1919  He returned to Paris and worked with the Dadaists.
 1920  He returned to New York. Man Ray, Katherine S. Dreier (a rich philanthropist heiress) and Duchamp founded an organisation to promote contemporary art by buying works by young artists. The association was named Société Anonyme, after a joke by Man Ray.
 1920  Joins the Marshall Chess Club, New York
 1921  Duchamp teamed up with Man Ray to publish the first and only issue of New York Dada (a “dadadate”, as Man Ray put it).
 1923 Duchamp abandoned his Large Glass.
 1923  Travels to Brussels in March, where he spends several months, during which he participates in his first major chess tournament. His passion for chess involves serious training and professional competition, which absorb increasing amounts of time for about the next ten years
 1924  He took part in René Clair’s avant-garde film Entr’acte. In the opening scene, Duchamp is seen playing chess with Picabia on the roof of the Champs-Elysées theatre.
 1925  French Championship at Nice, for which he designs a poster.
 1926  The Large Glass was exhibited in the Brooklyn Museum. That was when it was cracked.
 1927  French Championship at Chamonix
 1927  Championship of Paris
 1928 Chess Olympiad at The Hague
 1928 French Championship at Paris
 1929 Paris Team Cup
 1929 International Master Tournament, Paris
 1930 International Tournament, Nice
 1930 International Tournament, Paris
 1930 Chess Olympiad at Hamburg
 1931Important chess tournament in Prague. Becomes member of Committee of French Federation and its delegate (until 1937) to the International Chess Federation.
 1932 Duchamp played for the French Chess team. He and a fellow chess player wrote and published a book about ending games.
 1932 Wins Paris Chess Tournament, a high point in his chess career.
 1933 5th Chess Olympiad at Folkstone, his last major tournament.
 1935 Presented his Rotoreliefs at the Lépine innovation contest.
 1938 Produced 300 Boxes in Valises containing miniature replicas of his works.
 1939 Published Rrose Sélavy, a compendium of deliberate spoonerisms and puns.
 1942 Worked with New-York-based surrealist refugees, in particular André Breton, with whom he organised the First Papers of Surrealism exhibition. For it, he lined the rooms with two kilometres of intertwined thread.
 1947 Duchamp organised the second international surrealism exhibition, Le Surréalisme en 1947, in Paris with Breton. He produced Please Touch for the catalogue cover.
 1953 Life magazine ran an article on Duchamp, propelling him to celebrity.
 1954 He married Alexina “Teeny” Duchamp whom he had met in Paris in 1923.
 1954 The Philadelphia Museum of Art opened, thanks to Louise and Walter Arensberg, who were friends and patrons of Duchamp and donated their collection. The museum counted 43 of his works.
 1958 Marchand de Sel, the first anthology of Duchamp’s writing, was published.
 1959 Robert Lebel published the first essay about Duchamp.
 1964 Milan’s Schwartz Gallery recreated 13 lost readymades, with eight copies.
 1966 London’s Tate Gallery organised Duchamp’s first major retrospective.
 1967 The Paris Museum of Modern Art hosted a Raymond Duchamp-Villon/Marcel Duchamp exhibition.
 1968 Marcel Duchamp died on 2 October in Neuilly, France.
 1973 The Philadelphia Museum of Art and the New York Museum of Modern Art hosted a Duchamp retrospective.


  • The 1914 Box, 1914
  • Rongwrong, 1917 (ed. by M.D., Henri-Pierre Roché, Beatrice Wood)
  • The Blindman, 1917 (ed. by M.D., Henri-Pierre Roché, Beatrice Wood)
  • New York Dada, 1921 (ed. by M. D. and Man Ray)
  • L'Opposition et les cases conjuguées sont réconcilées, 1932 (with V. Halberstadt)
  • La Mariée mise à nu par célibataires, même, 1934 - The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even: Towards a Typographical Rendering of the Green Box, n.d. (ed. by Richard Hamilton)
  • Rrose Sélavy, 1939
  • Box in a Valise, 1941
  • Prère de coller, 1953
  • Lettre de Marcel Duchamp à Tristan Tzara, 1958
  • Possible, 1958
  • Marchand du sel, 1959 - Salt Seller: The Writings of Marcel Duchamp, 1973 (ed. by Michel Sanouillet and Elmer Peterson)
  • Quatre Inédits de Marcel Duchamp, 1960
  • A l'infinitif: Notes of 1912-20, 1966
  • Entretiens, 1967 (with Pierre Cabanne) - Dialogues
  • Notes and Projects for the Large Glass, 1969 (ed. by Arturo Schwarz)
  • Duchamp du signe, 1976 (rev. ed. of Marchand du sel)
  • Ingénieur du temps perdu: Entretiens, 1976 (with Pierre Cabanne)
  • Notes, 1980 (ed. by Paul Matisse)
  • Letters to Marcel Jean, 1981
  • Affectionately, Marcel: The Selected Correspondence of Marcel Duchamp, 2000 (by M. D., Francis M. Naumann, Hector Obalk, Jill Taylor)

Other sources