Marcel Duchamp 1911, by Man Ray
I've spent literally thousands of hours documenting Paul morphy. If I were to ever spend such a large portion of my life detailing anyone else's life, it would definitely be that of Marcel Duchamp. Many people know his name; some even know a little about him. Chess players know him as an artist who sometimes played chess and art lovers know him as an artist who wasted part of his best years absorbed with a silly game.
I have no intention of trying to delve into his life on these limited pages, but rather to offer a brief glimpse into the man who some people feel possessed one of the greatest intellects of the 20th century.
"A Game of Chess" Marcel Duchamp, 1910
The picture above looks like it could have been painted by Claude Monet. In fact, it was Marcel Duchamp painting his two brothers playing a game of chess.
"Les joueurs d'échecs Marcel" Duchamp 1911
This amazing painting is also by Duchamp and also of his two brothers playing chess. Rather than trying to capture the moment as he did in the impressionistic 1910 painting, Duchamp tried to convey the motion, the thoughts, the ideas, the myriad of activities involved in the chess game. Duchamp had taken a major step away form the visual. From here on, his art would continue to defy all conventions.
Man Ray, Duchamp's life-long friend, at one point wrote him: "The most insignificant thing you do is a thousand times more interesting than the best that can be said or done by your detractors."
Ever since Duchamp took up chess seriously, around 1923, he encouraged artists to produce chess sets. Originally, his purpose was purely aesthetical. Later in life, he was still pushing this agenda, though even more insistantly, but for a different purpose - profit. The profit wasn't personal. All proceeds went to the American Chess Foundation to subsidize American players in international competitions. He wrote to Man Ray: "Je suis dans le chess business maintenant... [Je suis un] missionaire en quête de l'argent pour les échecs." Duchamp obtained chess-set donations from Max Ernst, Alexander Caulder, Salvidor Dalí, Arman Fernandez and Man Ray.
As Neil Baldwin wrote in his masterpiece on Man Ray, "And what aways remained astonishing about Duchamp as a celebrity was that he did not promote himself. He simply glided along, doing his work, making money when he needed it through various humble jobs. People gravitated to Duchamp and became addicted to his presence. Men were attracted to his refinement and impeccable politeness. Women found him aluring. He was simply one of the kindest people anyone had ever known, completely lacking in malice or rancor."