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literary #tbt :: marcel duchamp descending a staircase

dom suggested that i should do a "greatest hits" of blog posts in honour of throw-back thursdays, which seems to be what the kids are into these days. when i pointed out to him that i do periodically re-post content [because i'm lazy], he made the more specific suggestion that i re-post some of the stories and poetry i've published here, since that's kind of an important part of what i do. that seemed like a clever idea, so i've decided to take his suggestion and offer a "#tbt story corner". not sure this will be every week, but it's something i'll be doing from time to time. [if you like it, there's always a permanent page with links to all of the stories i've published here.]

i've chosen the story "marcel duchamp descending a staircase, because it's the thing that i've written that's gotten the strangest reactions. despite the fact that it's tagged as "fiction", i've had a number of people approach me to ask me where i got the information and wanting contact information for the narrator. so let me be really clear about this piece: it. is. fiction. i made it up. there are no letters, there was no mistress [or at least, not the one from the story]. and i'm pretty damn certain that duchamp's famous painting is not an attempt at mockery. sorry if that spoils everything for you.

that said, this is one of the few "funny" stories i've ever written and i've always kind of liked it. i can't remember how the idea came to me, but i'm pretty sure wine was involved.


Dear Graham,

It is with great sadness that I am writing to you in order to return your paper submitted for publication for volume three, issue two of Palette. Our reasons for refusing this piece should be obvious and, I believe, wholly expected. Primarily, of course, we are rejecting your analysis because it bears little to no relation to the piece for which you submitted a research in brief, namely, The Cubist Stair: Duchamp, the Body and the Space of a Modern Masterpiece. (I should add that, given that we published your preliminary research on the subject and had announced that your complete paper would be available in our upcoming issue, this rejection is the source of no small embarrassment for us.)

However, it behooves the editorial committee to explain our decision further. Palette is a journal of painting, examining in depth the history and present of painting as art form and we take our mission seriously. We believe that the arts have a far greater contribution to mundane life than that for which they are given credit. The arts in general are under constant threat from those who seek to denigrate the value of creativity in life and it is part of our mandate to protect the craft and gift we cherish from that attack.

It is not part of our mandate to aid in hurling of slings and arrows by presenting gossip as scholarship or by making mockery out of a piece that influenced so many and continues to captivate the imagination.

Furthermore, while we (with some reservations) encourage you to submit more work along the lines of our original proposal, we do want to warn you that our stylistic preferences tend towards the formal, the academic and not to the sort of personal “journal” style you seem to have adopted. Your own relationship with your subject matter may make for pleasant party conversation, but it does not make for a solid piece of research.

I am enclosing your manuscript and I wish you all the best in the future.

Best regards,
Mauice St. Germain
Managing Editor
Palette: A Journal of the Painted Canvas

My experience with the origins of a masterpiece
Dr. Graham L. Kimberly

When I first set out to research the once infamous, now simply famous “Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2”, I had expected to spend hours reviewing the notes Marcel Duchamp kept at the time he began his initial sketches for what would become a touch-point of the cubist movement (and would mark the culmination of his association with that movement). I had expected that access to recently unearthed papers, Duchamp’s de facto diary, would lead to a revelation on the mindset of this enigmatic, perplexing artist. Writing now, I am amazed at the extent of the revelation, but I am unsure of what my findings will mean to larger research on the subject.

First, I must thank Mlle. Matilde Proulx of Paris for allowing me access to the Duchamp journals and for serving as my translator while I did my research. Her assistance was invaluable and I believe her decision to make public the diaries that she had inherited from her mother will stand as one of the most important contributions to art history of the decade.


Mlle. Proulx’s mother was a woman named Marie-Celeste Develay, a contemporary of Duchamp’s (more on that later). He “entrusted” her with his diaries late in both their lives and she chose (for reasons that shall become apparent) not to share them with anybody. They passed on her death to her daughter, who was unaware of their presence among her mother’s papers  until this year. Then, upon reading them for the first time herself,  she realised that what she had was too important not to be shared with the world. I am happy to be the vessel by which Duchmp’s own viewpoint on his most famous work finally comes to light.

Duchamp’s first sketches for “Nude descending a staircase” date from 1910 and his original drawing on cardboard (the lesser known Nude descending a staircase No.1) from 1911. But for the all-important inspiration, we must go back to 1908. At that time, Duchamp was living in Paris, a part of the artistic circle there, associating with the Cubist giants- Bracque and Picasso. He was, undoubtedly, already an exceptional artist (perhaps more exceptional in his own mind than anywhere else), but he was also a young man in Paris, like many other young men.

While there are reports of numerous affairs during his time in Paris, no woman fired his imagination like Marie-Celeste Develay. She was, by all reports, and from a few surviving photographs, quite a striking woman. Tall and chestnut-haired with dark eyes and strong features, she was a woman of modest means, primarily drawn from an inheritance left to her by her deceased father. She had some artistic inclination, but little talent (something which Duchamp was happy to point out to her on a regular basis, once apparently resulting in her breaking a framed painting over his head). But artist or no, Duchamp was smitten.

She too, enjoyed his company and little wonder. His radical ideas and outspoken nature were a revelation, even in Parisian arts circles. And while she preferred the work of his friend Picasso, it was Duchamp who she came to adore. It was not long before he was living in her little cottage in Paris. Neither of them wanted to marry, they were happy being independent people, people living in the present, without “shackling themselves to a future we cannot control” (Duchamp in his journal, 18 September, 1908).

Unfortunately, the idyll did not last. By the next year, there were troubles, public quarrels and even one incident where Duchamp was taken up by police constables when, in a drunken rage, he punched Develay in the face and chased her through the streets threatening to kill her. The tempestuous couple were reunited for some time afterwards, but Marie-Celeste eventually packed her belongings and moved to another part of the metropolis. She left- and this was something which upset Duchamp considerably- while he was out at dinner with friends. He simply came home and she had removed all traces of herself from their home.

Duchamp was uncharacteristically distraught and made several appearences near Marie-Celeste’s new home, where he was repeatedly driven off by the police. He made one very public scene in a cafe where his former lover was dining. While this must have been embarrassing and even frustrating for her, Marie-Celeste perservered and moved on. Within a few months she had taken up with a businessman named Jacques Proulx. Marcel Duchamp was a thing of the past for her.

Realising that he was getting nowhere, Duchamp stopped his assault on Develay. While his bitterness continued- evinced by several lewd, malicious poems he wrote in his journal about her- he made no further move to contact her. Life moved on and Duchamp continued to develop as an artist. Then, in February 1910, Marie-Celeste Develay married Jacques Proulx.

To be fair to Duchamp, she made a point of coming to a cafe he frequented to “accidentally” run into him and give him the news. Perhaps she considered it payback for the late night episodes, or the threats or for the infidelities of which she had apparently suspected him. We have no insight into her mind, only into that of Duchamp (and that belatedly). And what we now know, thanks to the discovery of his diaries, is that the announcement of Marie-Celeste’s marriage burned in him like acid. Publicly, he said nothing about its toxic effect, but privately he fumed. Privately, he conceived of a sort of revenge.

One morning, during the happier part of their relationship, Marie-Celeste had attempted to surprise him by descending to their main floor in the nude. Duchamp had been downstairs when he saw her at the top of the staircase. As she came down, she slipped on some water from a leaking roof , fell back a slid ignominiously down to the bottom of the stairs. Even at the time, Duchamp reported that he cried with laughter at the sight of his normally poised, elegant amour reduced to a graceless heap. It is perhaps the only moment in their relationship when he did not feel intimidated by her and the memory stuck with him.

Now, that memory became something he replayed not for its admitted humour value, but in order to turn Marie-Celeste herself into a joke. Her sketched the scene, eventually made a cardboard version of it and then, finally, seeing the opportunity to humiliate her publicly, painted the scene for an exhibition at the Salon des Artistes.

Viewed from this perspective and with the inestimable assistance of Duchamp’s own notes, Nude descending a Staircase No. 2 becomes quite a different piece. The painting is actually meant to begin at the right, with the figure still erect. The image depicts her falling backwards (next to the knee joint at the centre of the picture, he has scratched in crude movement lines to show the action of her legs as they swept out from under her. The left side of the painting, where the figure becomes considerably more abstracted, shows the final “descent” of Marie-Celeste, flipped on her back and sliding down the stairs. As if preserving the moment were not enough, Duchamp chose to make Marie-Celeste’s body a subject of ridicule as well. While the female body had long been a source of inspiration and had been held with almost sacred reverence by artists throughout the ages, Duchamp made his female nude an ugly, stiff collection of blocks, a joke at Marie-Celeste’s squared-off features. In one of the preliminary sketches now revealed in his diary, Duchamp sketched himself standing next to the staircase and laughing. He eventually considered this too obvious and removed it from both the draft and final versions.

He submitted the painting to the Salon exhibition, but it was rejected. The art world was appalled by the painting and found it crude and ugly. Robbed of the chance for his revenge, Duchamp submitted the painting for another exhibition. He was expecting much the same reaction- after all, the painting was a joke (although one that borrowed quite cleverly from the styles of his contemporaries) and why should it not be treated as one? Nonetheless, Duchamp got some enjoyment from watching the art world puzzle over what he was trying to accomplish, unaware of what they were really evaluating.

However, at the second Salon Exhibition, something odd happened. Rather than being rejected as ugly, crude and disrespectful to the female form, Nude Descending a Staircase became a hit. The art community praised it for its groundbreaking approach to movement and its unorthodox presentation of the female figure. Duchamp’s joke at the expense of his ex-girlfriend was receiving respect and accolades as being groundbreaking, as revolutionising painting of the time. His work was compared to the work of the Cubists, but he was in particular singled out for praise for his groundbreaking presentation (although, unbeknownst to critics, a rather unflattering one) of movement.

All along, Duchamp had intended to reveal the source of the painting’s inspiration to a few friends, so that they might share in the joke. However, he now began to have second thoughts. The painting garnered him respect and recognition, something any artist would have been hard pressed to reject. He realised that if he revealed the painting for what it was, he would lose that approbation, likely forever. None of the critics in the community would have forgiven him for having duped them and nothing he did would ever have been taken seriously again, a possibility that he could barely bring himself to contemplate. In his notes from the time, he visualised himself having to become an accounting clerk or a shopkeeper, having been expelled from art’s Garden of Eden. Needless to say, these fantasies proved sufficiently disturbing to him that he chose to keep his secret, confiding only in the diaries he kept. (And, interestingly, the existence of these diaries was kept secret from even those close to him.)

The incident did mark Duchamp. He realised that he had gotten away with one at the expense not of Marie-Celeste, but of the artistic community. (He was unsure if his former lover had even seen the work and, after a short time, it seems to have ceased to matter to him in light of the attention that he was garnering.) He became fascinated with the notion of the practical joke as art and carried that forward to his other works. In light of this incident, it is necessary to re-evaluate all of Duchamp’s later, more confrontational work. The revolutionary “ready-mades” become not so much a challenge to the idea of art, although this was how he himself portrayed them, but the acts of a man trying to push the envelope of credulity. Duchamp’s notes betray a certain sense of accomplishment at having pulled the wool over the public’s eyes, but also a less obvious sense of disappointment that no one ever caught on. The ultimate sense of emptiness he felt about his own creativity and artistic ability haunted him throughout his life.

In his notes, between bursts of bravado and pride, Duchamp was prone to bouts of depression. During these, he viewed himself as a charlatan, a snake oil salesman, and not only rejected but feared the adulation that he received for his work. He saw what he was doing as the work of a criminal mastermind, strategically brilliant but ultimately evil. It was this belief in the triumph of strategic genius over creative talent that ultimately influenced him to give up the world of art to play chess, where he felt the gift might be better used and, ultimately, less harmful.

Duchamp may have been right to wonder at what would happen if his secrets were ever revealed. After all, a great deal of the study of modern and post-modern art has hinged on the conceptions, in the end the misconceptions, about the meanings of Duchamp’s work. Other artists took his work at face value, and his jibes were the inspiration for many serious works reflecting changing attitudes towards art and expression, attitudes that he, however unwittingly, helped influence. If his work had been revealed for the prank that it too often was, it is possible, even likely, that many other works would never have been produced.

There is no evidence that Duchamp, not one prone to taking the feelings of others into consideration, ever gave much thought to what the effect of revealing his secret would have been on the art-going public. After all, in light of the revelations in his diary, it is an unavoidable conclusion that the responses to Duchamp’s work, Nude Descending a Staircase in particular, say more about the desires of those viewing it than of the intent of the artist. It is unfortunate that he did not consider them, because, in their reaction, misled though it might have been, he might have found his own salvation.

Duchamp ceased to write much in his journal later in life. Perhaps he had lost interest in the character of “Marcel Duchamp the Artist” that he had created. Or perhaps he no longer felt the need to maintain separate private and public personae. In an isolated later entry, given the very real possibility that some enterprising follower of his might discover and publish his journals after his death, he considered destroying them. However, he could not bring himself to do so.

Instead, he took a considerable effort to track down the one person who he thought, even after many years, might appreciate the breadth of the joke that had developed. Married three times in later life, Duchamp’s wounds from his relationship with Marie-Celeste Develay had never fully healed. And taken from a certain perspective, his attempt to avenge himself on her had backfired spectacularly. He forwarded the journals to her with a typically cryptic note: “It is all for you.”

There is no record that Marie-Celeste Develay Proulx ever responded, but she did keep the journals. She never attempted to sell or publish them and, in fact, never mentioned them to anyone in her family. When her daughter found them, years later, the journals had been opened, the brown paper they came in carefully preserved in the same box, so all that we know for sure is that Marie-Celeste thought enough to at least peruse them. And there the known story ends.

Duchamp lived for some years after sending her the journals and never spoke of them. Ironically, Marie-Celeste died unexpectedly three weeks after Duchamp.

In deciding for the first time to publish an account of his journals, I realise that I am risking what other have thought unnecessary. I have done so because I believe that what the journals reveal, both directly and indirectly, is ultimately more interesting than what they hide. It is my hope that the reader will agree with me. 


as long as you're here, why not read more?

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