A new online archive allows art historians and enthusiasts to dive into the finer details of the life and work of the revolutionary artist Marcel Duchamp. The website debuted last Monday and features nearly 50,000 images of more than 18,000 documents, photographs, prints and artworks related to the French artist.
The Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA) says in a statement that the archive, titled the Duchamp Research Portal, is the product of a seven-year-long collaboration with the Association Marcel Duchamp and the Paris-based Centre Pompidou. Of the three museums, the PMA currently holds the world’s largest collection of the artist’s works, according to Stephan Salisbury of the Philadelphia Inquirer.
In the wake of World War I, Duchamp turned the art world on its head with what he called his readymades. These were utilitarian, everyday objects such as a shovel or a hat rack, redefined by the artist as art. Among his most famous was the upside-down urinal that he cheekily titled Fountain (1917). At the Smithsonian, Duchamp enthusiasts can visit the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden’s online show “It’s Art if I Say So,” or see some 50 works from the artist’s extraordinary career at the museum’s highly acclaimed ongoing exhibition “Marcel Duchamp: The Barbara and Aaron Levine Collection,” through June 5, 2022 in Washington, D.C.
While Duchamp was well-known for his eccentric art style, the revolutionary artist was also a chess savant with a female alter ego. His close friendships included the famed abstract artists Constantin Brancusi, Salvador Dalí, Florine Stettheimer and many others.
Born in France in 1887, Duchamp emigrated to the United States in 1915. In New York City, he became a fixture of the emergent Dada artistic movement, which prioritized whimsical and nonsensical art as a response to the horrors of World War I. One receipt preserved in the new archive indicates that Duchamp rented a studio apartment at 210 West 14th Street in Manhattan, as Sarah Bahr reports for the New York Times. (He paid $35 rent each month in 1943, the equivalent of about $560 adjusted for inflation today.)
The archive allows viewers to examine Duchamp’s French passport; the license from his first, short-lived marriage to Lydie Sarazin-Lavassor in 1927; and photographs of the artist as a young student in France. Also included are family photographs and artwork by his relatives, including Duchamp’s sister Suzanne, a painter and collagist in her own right. Duchamp himself appears in numerous archival photos dressed as his female alter ego Rrose Sélavy.
Letters featured in the portal offer study into Duchamp’s friendships and relationships, including a postcard he sent to sculptor Brancusi from a ski resort in the French Alps and lengthy missives from collectors Walter and Louise Arensberg, the American couple who eventually donated Duchamp’s estate to the PMA, per Artnet News.
PMA curator Matthew Affron encourages users to “hop around” the portal and experiment with keyword searches. The archive allows users access to “an incredible amount of texture about the life and the connections to other people that that person, Duchamp, had,” Affron tells the Inquirer.
“It can be an incredibly granular level of detail,” the curator adds.
Other online records relate to Duchamp’s love of chess. Dedicated to the game, the artist built his own board and authored a book on the subject. According to Valery Oisteanu, writing for the Brooklyn Rail in 2009, rumors circulated in the 1920s that he publicly retired from art and dedicated himself to professional competition; he never refuted the claims, though he quietly continued work on an enormous Futurism-inspired art piece, The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even, (The Large Glass) (1915-23). The archive contains the handwritten records of a chess game between Duchamp and Man Ray and a 1910 painting by Duchamp of his two brothers engaged in a game of chess, among other gems.
“Definitively unfinished, like the Large Glass at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Duchamp Research Portal echoes the artist’s intercontinental travels, life, friendships, artworks, love affairs and chess games,” says Antoine Monnier, the director of the Association Marcel Duchamp, in the PMA statement.
The director adds: “Through making these archives accessible globally, we hope that Marcel Duchamp’s idea of freedom will inspire visitors to the site and that they will remember that the artist’s life and art were one.”