The new Duchamp Research Portal went live last Monday, thanks to a seven-year partnership between the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA), Association Marcel Duchamp, and Centre Pompidou. It is host to 18,000 digitized documents and almost 50,000 photographs related to the life and works of Marcel Duchamp, whose “readymade” white porcelain urinal “Fountain” (1917) is widely considered one of the most influential modern works of art.
The digitized ephemera form an exhaustive record of the material remnants of an illustrious 20th century artist’s life — from exhibition announcements and correspondence with famous artists, literary figures, and patrons to the unglamorous bureaucratic paper trail of passports, loan receipts, and catalog cards. Early studies, sketches, and written notes for pieces that would rock the art world, such as “Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2” (1912) and “The Large Glass” (1923), abound. Photographs of Duchamp standing behind the glass panels in a gallery and sitting beside “Fountain” in an austere nook are excellent in their own right. So is a photograph that provides us a window into Duchamp’s 33 West 67th Street studio between 1917 and 1918, furnished with a bicycle wheel standing upside down on a stool. The bicycle wheel is now lost, but it is often considered a precursor to Duchamp’s Readymades, which questioned the distinction between art and life by proffering found objects as art.
Duchamp was a lover of Cuban cigars, and the portal turns up 22 results for the search term “cigar,” which show the artist posing, reading, reclining, and interviewing with them in hand. “Chess” turns up a whopping 170 results, including his US Chess Federation membership card, a pocket chess set he designed for an exhibition he co-organized called The Imagery of Chess, and photographs of him playing the game.
“The Duchamp Research Portal echoes the artist’s intercontinental travels, life, friendships, artworks, love affairs and chess games,” Antoine Monnier, head of the Association Marcel Duchamp which represents the artist’s estate, said in a statement.
Duchamp was born in Blainville-Crevon in Normandy, France in 1887 to a musically and artistically inclined family. His grandfather Émile Frédéric Nicolle’s paintings and engravings dotted the walls of the house, and the family regularly played chess, read, and made music together. Two older brothers, Jacques Villon and Raymond Duchamp-Villon, and one younger sister, Suzanne Duchamp-Crotti, would become artists too, and Marcel’s work was occasionally exhibited alongside theirs. In early adulthood, Marcel and his brother Jacques hosted a salon at Jacques’s home in Puteaux, bringing together a cohort of Cubist artists, poets, and writers.
Around this time, Duchamp completed his first major painting, “Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2,” and exhibited it at a Cubist exposition in Barcelona in 1912. When it was later shown in New York City at the sensational “Armory Show” in 1913, which displayed a variety of styles associated with the European avant-garde, it provoked scandal and controversy.
“Take the picture which is for some reason called ‘A Naked Man Going Down Stairs,’” said former President Theodore Roosevelt in the Outlook in 1913, apparently exploring a second career as an art critic.
“There is in my bathroom a really good Navajo rug which, on any proper interpretation of the Cubist theory, is a far more satisfying and decorative picture,” Roosevelt continued. “Now, if for some inscrutable reason it suited somebody to call this rug a picture of, say, ‘A Well-dressed Man Going Up a Ladder,’ the name would fit the facts just about as well as in the case of the Cubist picture of the ‘Naked Man going Down Stairs.’” The quote is cited in an article about a 1963 exhibition commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Armory Show, which is preserved in the new portal.
In 1915, Duchamp immigrated to New York and found himself positively giddy. A New York Herald Tribune reporter made note of the artist’s interest in everything from “musical comedy to Coney Island,” gushing about Duchamp’s dress, his handsomeness, and his “blond, curly hair.” Duchamp himself complained about the perfection and orderliness of Paris, preferring that in America he found “a people yearning, searching, trying to find something.” His comparative assessment of the artistic landscape of each city lends insight on why he might have been so keen to move: “If only America would realize that the art of Europe is finished—dead—and that America is the country of the art of the future, instead of trying to base everything she does on European traditions!”
Duchamp made fast friends in New York, including collectors and patrons Walter and Louise Arensberg, who would eventually bequeath their collection — which comprised many of Duchamp’s works — to the PMA. Over the decades, other friends included Man Ray, who photographed Duchamp extensively; surrealist writer and poet André Breton; experimental composer John Cage; Dada writer Henri-Pierre Roché; and Los Angeles writer Eve Babitz, who was photographed playing chess in the nude with Duchamp.
In 1918, Duchamp renounced painting, and by the 1920s, he had withdrawn from the art world. Still, his rejection of the artistic scene didn’t prevent him from continuing to create art. Unbeknownst to everyone except his wife, he began work on “Étant donnés” in 1946 in secret — and would keep working on the piece for two decades, completing it in 1966. A vast trove of notes, photos, studies, and even a certificate of insurance for the work are viewable on the portal.
Monnier says in a statement that the portal is “definitively unfinished,” which suggests that it may continue to expand. Supported by National Endowment for the Humanities grant funding, the DRP is unusual in the thoroughness of its item-level descriptions. Archivist Marge Huang, who spent four years examining every item entering the DRP, tells Hyperallergic that usually archivists only have the time and resources to provide descriptions at the folder level. In this case, she says, she was able to “capture the date of every document, label the artworks referenced in the text, and identify the location correspondence was sent for,” which “enhances the user experience.”
“The vision of this portal was to make these things more accessible than they are. For so long, to be thorough in your research [on Duchamp], you’d have to travel to Philadelphia or Paris,” Huang explains. Just in the past week and a half, visitors from over 100 countries have visited the site.
“This demonstrates that it’s doing what we intended for it to do,” she says.