Spellbound by Marcel: Duchamp, Love and Art

Yet another group biography! This, (to be published in February, 2022), will be my fourth. You can find out why I love them so much, and so much enjoy writing them, if you visit my choice of the best group biographies on https://shepherd.com/best-books/group-biographies

This book was originally going to be a film.  Marcel Duchamp is famous now as the person who invented conceptual art, which he did when he was in New York, escaping from the World War 1. So I suggested to a film director friend that we do a film to coincide with the centenary in 2017 of his Fountain, the urinal that was the original conceptual art piece.  The film didn’t come off, as so many films don’t, but when I was researching it I came across the unpublished diaries of Duchamp’s two closest friends in New York at that time, Beatrice Wood and Henri-Pierre Roché. As well as an inside view of the Fountain goings-on, these diaries gave an extraordinary and intimate picture of a three-cornered love affair – an account utterly different from the versions Wood and Roché wrote years later.  I thought the story was far too good to waste, so I decided to write a book about it.   

Unlike the film, which would have been strictly about 1917, the book follows Marcel, Pierre and Beatrice through to the end of their lives.  And unusually, these were all U-shaped lives: wonderful at the beginning and the end, but with a deep dip in the middle – an unusual pattern, because most people’s lives tail off towards the end.

Duchamp’s painting Nude Descending a Staircase was the scandalous hit of the 1913 Armory Show that introduced America to modern art. When he arrived in New York, in 1915, to his astonishment he found himself famous. But after the Fountain affair he dropped out of the public eye for more than forty years. Then in the 1960s he became famous again as the father of conceptual art, and in 2004, Fountain was named the most influential artwork of the twentieth century.

Beatrice was an exceptionally sparky and talented girl; everyone that met her instantly recognised this and loved her for it.  But when the New York party ended, which it did when America entered the war, and since she did not have independent means and interesting jobs for women did not then exist, she had to find a man to support her.  She was in love with both Duchamp and Roché, but Duchamp didn’t do love, and Roché didn’t do fidelity; and the man she found turned out to be a scoundrel. So her life fell apart, until eventually she found a way to make a living via pottery – a craft that offered a reliable and socially acceptable route to income in a way that writing books or painting pictures, unless you were exceptionally lucky or talented, did not. She became a famous ceramicist, who could live life on her own terms.

As for Roché, he spent his last years writing novels about the three-cornered love-affairs of his youth. One of them, Jules et Jim, caught the eye of François Truffaut, who made it into one of the all-time greatest movies.

Unlike a film, which is often more like a short story, writing a many-stranded book like this lets you see patterns: how the contrast between the day-by-day diary accounts and the memoirs shows the utter unreliability of memory; how in the days before universal air travel, voyaging to another continent was really like entering another world; and how in that other world, you could be a quite different person.   Thus, nobody much had heard of Marcel in Paris – but in America he was already famous when he arrived, and everyone wanted to know him.   For a lot of American women, by contrast, travel in the opposite direction, from America to Europe, brought freedom from home constraints.  In America they were expected to be respectable daughters, but in Paris they could live their own lives.  So Teeny Sattler, daughter of a Cincinnati surgeon, could break into the artistic circles of her dreams: she married, first, Pierre Matisse, son of the great painter, and later, Marcel.  

Obviously this book is about art, though more of it seems to be about sex.  But of course sex and art are deeply intertwined.  Marcel Duchamp’s creativity was intimately linked to his experience of being in love, which was a quite different thing from his sex life.  He first fell in love when he was very young; it didn’t get anywhere and he didn’t risk it again – though he had lots of sex – until more than thirty years later.  And each of these love-experiences resulted in an artwork, while the gap between them, or so it seems to me, explains the decades during which he made nothing new and mostly played chess.  This isn’t anything I’ve seen discussed by art historians.  So perhaps gossip can throw a new light on art.

Marcel Duchamp, Francis Picabia, Beatrice Wood, Coney Island, 1917

Some reviews:

With clarifying details, Brandon places Duchamp’s art in the context of his affairs
and marriages; exhaustively chronicles Roché’s obsession with conducting simultaneous love
affairs, and tracks Wood’s nightmare marriage to a heartless con man and ultimate triumph as a
renowned ceramicist. With singular characters and rare sexual specificity and candor, this is
fresh and revelatory art history. – Donna Seaman, Booklist

Wood entrances me as the Arensberg circle’s most outstanding echt American, other than Man Ray. Her untrammelled appetite for experience complemented Duchamp’s strategic hermeticism, to their mutual pleasure. Setting her apart from others in the group was an idiosyncratic rather than a vicarious motive for rising to the bait of a bedazzling newness. Her involvement personalizes developments that are otherwise divided in collective memory between arid art history and fatuous mythologizing. Sometimes the marginal witness to an epoch defines it more vividly than its supposed leading lights. I like thinking about Beatrice Wood.  – Peter Schjeldahl, The New Yorker

“Spellbound by Marcel” is a delicious and deeply researched portrait of its time – Lauren Elkin, New York Times