Duchamp and Australia: In opposition

Installation view of The Essential Duchamp at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2019. © Association Marcel Duchamp/ADAGP. Copyright Agency, 2020
Installation view of The Essential Duchamp at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2019. © Association Marcel Duchamp/ADAGP. Copyright Agency, 2020

The following essay is something of a “delayed” response to the The Essential Duchamp at the Art Gallery of New South Wales (27 April – 11 August 2019). The exhibition consisted of some 125 works from the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, including the well-known Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 (1912) and Fountain (1917), as well as a number of Duchamp’s designs for chess boards and chess pieces. Our argument here takes up and extends ideas originally developed in “Marcel and Felix: An Australian Rendezvous”, appearing in the collection Apostrophe Duchamp, published by Art + Australia in 2018. Both in that essay and here we are concerned to think the relationship of Duchamp to Australia, what it is about his life and work that we might find useful to reflect upon our art-historical situation today.

More particularly, how might Duchamp be understood to intervene in contemporary debates about globalisation? And our point here is that Duchamp does this not so much in his art as in his chess. Thinking about Duchamp’s chess career as seen from here and reading his famous book on the phenomenon of “opposition” in chess, Opposition and Sister Squares are Reconciled (1932), might allow a different conception of Australian art in the twenty-first century. This for us would be the ultimate lesson of The Essential Duchamp and the fact that for the inevitable children’s activities associated with the exhibition the Gallery set up chessboards where the art-going public of the future could play. The National Library of Australia’s ongoing project of the digitisation of every Australian newspaper from the early 1800s until the present has changed our understanding of Australian art. So much so that we could say that Australian art history today is post-Trove, and has been for over a decade.

A little while ago, as part of our ongoing research into a non-national history of Australian art, one of us put the name “Marcel Duchamp” into Trove’s search engine. And, along with various mentions of Duchamp’s famously irregular art career—there is everything from contemporaneous accounts in The Sun and The Sydney Mail of his succès du scandale with Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 at the 1913 Armory Show to notice of a lecture given in 1935 by Mary Cecil Allen at the National Galley of Victoria entitled “Distortion in Art”, in which Duchamp’s work was illustrated alongside that of Archipenko, Epstein and Picasso—we were surprised to find that by some margin the most numerous references to Duchamp were to his chess career. Chess was immensely popular before TV and radio, and with its uniform system of notation globalised very early. Australian newspapers once ran regular chess columns, in which we can find reproductions of Duchamp’s games and accounts of his progress in various chess tournaments around the world.

For example, in The Adelaide Chronicle of 23 January 1926 we have his 30-move win over Henri Betrand in the French Championship at Nice that year (a game reproduced again in Melbourne’s Weekly Times of 7 September 1935). In Perth’s Western Mail, one could follow his 15-move win over George Koltanowski in the Paris International on 29 August 1929, and in the Lithgow Mercury of 18 October 1934 we have his 37-move loss to Arthur Dake in the Chess Olympics held at Folkestone in England the year before. In the Perth Times of 2 December 1928, we have an account of Duchamp’s performance at the French Championship of that year (equal last), and in The Age of 14 April 1930 there is a similar account of Duchamp’s performance at the prestigious Philidor Cup held at Nice, where he finished ninth.

Marcel Duchamp at the Second French Chess Championship, Strasbourg, from L’Echiquier, 1924. Photo: Bridgeman Images ©Association Marcel Duchamp/ADAGP. Copyright Agency, 2020
Marcel Duchamp at the Second French Chess Championship, Strasbourg, from L’Echiquier, 1924. Photo: Bridgeman Images ©Association Marcel Duchamp/ADAGP. Copyright Agency, 2020

It is well-known, of course, that during the years from about 1922 to 1933 Duchamp effectively gave up art to become a full-time chess player. Indeed, it is one of the “origin stories” of Conceptual Art. Less well known, at least from the artworld side of things, is just how good a chess player Duchamp was. From 1928 to 1933, he played in four Chess Olympics for the French national team, whose captain and first board was the then-world-champion Alexander Alekhine. According to the Chessmetrics website, Duchamp reached a career-high rating of 2413 in 1930 and was the ninety-fifth best player in the world at the age of forty-two. As two-time American Women’s chess champion and author Jennifer Shahade points out, “he reached chess mastery at nearly forty years old, a relatively advanced age to become fluent in chess patterns”.[1]

The most complete collection of his games on the website chessgames.com reveals that over the course of his career he beat such grandmasters as the four-time Belgium champion Koltanowski in the Paris Championship in 1929 and the Russian Eugene Znosko-Borovsky in the Paris Championship of 1932, which Duchamp ultimately won. He also drew against, for example, Polish grandmaster Savielly Tartakower in Paris in 1928 as well as American grandmaster Frank Marshall in Hamburg in the 1932 Olympiad. And subsequently, after he had stopped playing tournament chess, Duchamp, then living permanently in the United States, devoted considerable time to raising money for the American Chess Federation by organising benefit exhibitions in order to help cover the costs for US players participating in various international events; and later in 1967, the year before he died, he chaperoned the then twenty-four-year-old Bobby Fischer to a tournament in Monte Carlo, where Fischer celebrated one of his greatest triumphs.

Nowadays, from the chess side of things, Duchamp’s games are taken quite seriously. Of course, the significance of Duchamp as one of the most important artists of the twentieth century is known even to chess players; but for a long time, following the French chess player, mathematician and associate of the Dadaists, François le Lionnais, who once won a famous game against him, Duchamp was regarded as “very conformist” as a player, merely “applying absolutely classic chess principles.”[2] Nevertheless, as early as 1924 in the Bulletin of the French Chess Federation Duchamp was described as having “sa froideur imperturbable, son style ingénieux [his imperturbable coldness, his ingenious style].”[3] More recently, along the same lines, the former British Champion and long-time chess columnist for The Times Raymond Keene has associated Duchamp’s play with the hypermodernism developed by Aron Nimzovitch in the 1920s and saw in his games an “evident love of paradoxical solutions.”[4] And similarly Duchamp biographer Calvin Tomkins has adduced the words of one-time world champion Edward Lasker, who considered Duchamp a “very strong player” and a “marvellous opponent”, who “would always take risks in order to play a wonderful game, rather than be cautious and brutal to win.”[5]

Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp playing chess, 1957. Photo: Michel Sima/Bridgeman Images @Association Marcel Duchamp/ADAGP. Copyright Agency, 2020
Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp playing chess, 1957. Photo: Michel Sima/Bridgeman Images @Association Marcel Duchamp/ADAGP. Copyright Agency, 2020

Needless to say, there has been an enormous amount of art-historical scholarship connecting Duchamp’s art to his chess. There is the analysis of such actual chess or chess-themed works as The Chess Players (1911), King and Queen surrounded by Swift Nudes (1912), his readymade Trap (1917) and the short film Entr’acte (1924), in which he plays chess with Man Ray, as well as his numerous designs for chessboards and pieces, including Chess Pieces (1918–19) and Pocket Chess Set (1943). Then there is the more indirect relationship drawn between such things as the Bachelors of the Large Glass (1915–23), which are claimed to be inspired by the different chess pieces, or the fact that a chessboard is said to be hidden beneath the twigs under the naked figure at the centre of his voyeuristic diorama Etant donnés (1946–66).

Finally, there are the various attempts to associate Duchamp’s great idea, the readymade, to chess, whether in terms of its logicality, its cerebrality or the general game-like conception of art it is seen to represent. There are whole theses relating Duchamp to chess. There is a constant stream of both popular and academic essays and articles on the topic. And there is, of course, a whole torrent of internet postings, from the informed to the frankly conspiratorial, making both obvious and occult connections between Duchamp and the pastime he practised, and for which—over much of his life—he abandoned his art. For our part, what led us to stumble upon that cache of Duchamp games in Australian newspapers was the attempt to think an Australian art not driven by some discernibly “Australian” quality to it, necessarily made here or undertaken by artists who identify as “Australian”.

What kind of history can we think for ourselves when we see Australia connected to and not separated from the rest of the world, able to follow it and even be part of it in real time, like those Duchamp games that appeared in Australian newspapers at more or less the same time as they were played? One of the tools we had at our disposal was the idea that “contemporary” art did not anymore—and perhaps did not ever—originate in a single metropolitan centre and then disseminate outwards, but rather happened throughout the world all at once. With the result that suddenly everywhere is of equal interest and no single place comes “before” anywhere else. Of course, what is suggested is that the same art and perhaps even exactly the same art appears in several different places at once. It is not to be explained by one particular place preceding or otherwise influencing others—the old provincialist model of modernism—but effectively appears in different places at the same time.

We can certainly trace the connections between these places, and particularly the artists moving between them, but these causal explanations are not determinant. There is a certain autonomy or self-explanatory power to each of these locations. In a certain way, they account for themselves. One of the names for this new kind of history is “convergence” theory. It is the idea that art history, at least today, is marked not by any kind of linear development or stylistic progression, but by unexpected outbreaks of artistic “coincidence” around the world. The example used by Jane Sharp in her “A Kiss to Matisse: Strategies of Histories of Modernism in Central Asia” is the way that a number of artists from Soviet Uzbekistan in the 1920s made art broadly like that of Matisse, without it seems ever directly encountering the artist’s practice.[6]

Or, more recently, Reiko Tomii in her Radicalism in the Wilderness speaks of the affinities between the Japanese Gutai movement and other artistic undertakings around the world, again without the various groups knowing of each other’s existence.[7] And we ourselves are tempted to align all of this with the contemporary revival of the work of Aby Warburg, whose notion of Pathosformel—the same gesture or iconography being repeated at wide historical intervals across otherwise incommensurable cultures producing the same effect—forms the basis of his art history. The idea has been taken up by such art historians as Alexander Nagel and Christopher Wood in their Anachronic Renaissance, given its most extensive theoretical elaboration by George Didi-Huberman in The Surviving Image, and can be seen to form the basis of Gerhard Richter’s Atlas Project, for example.[8]

There are a number of prominent critics of this new “convergence” theory, from the obvious “conservative” defenders of traditional art-historical norms through to those who examine its internal logic and find it insufficient. Perhaps the most pertinent for our purposes is Peter Osborne, who argues that we never actually have coincidence or coincidence does not exist. He contends that there is always some kind of a causal connection between the two times or places in question, so that we can ultimately explain one in terms of the other. The centres of artistic practice can vary, there can even be several, but one always acts as a centre, so that if two similar seemingly unrelated practices arise at the same time we can always find a third that accounts for both.

The old model of centre–periphery still holds. It is just that there are now perhaps a number of such centres, and they are always changing. This is Osborne in Anywhere or Not at All: Philosophy of Contemporary Art, suggesting that coincidence is always something of an optical illusion or the effect of not having looked long or carefully enough for the hidden causes of things: “The idea of the contemporary poses the problem of the disjunctive unity of space-time, or the geopolitically historical. The temporal dialectic of the new must be mediated with the complex dialectic of space, if any kind of sense is to be made of the notion of the historically contemporaneous. That is, the fiction of the contemporary is necessarily a geopolitical fiction.”[9]

It is at this point that we might return to Duchamp. In fact, at first glance Duchamp is not such a champion of the new globalist contemporary art. If we go back to his decisive pieces, they are profoundly national, or at least Francophone, even after he moved to the United States. We might consider in chronological order: Tu’m (1918), Fresh Widow/French Window (1921) and Objet-Dard (Dart Object) (1951), amongst others. Even the readymades, supposedly the embodiment of the impersonal, anonymous and authorless, are inevitably stamped with the origins of their making. We might think here, for example, of Bottle Rack (1914), a particularly French object purchased at the Bazar de l’Hôtel de Ville in Paris; Fountain (1917), signed R. Mutt after the J.L. Mott ironworks in New York where Duchamp purchased it; and Door: 11 rue Larrey (1927), which was housed in the small Parisian apartment Duchamp lived in from 1927 until 1942.

Indeed, despite the upending of the relation of the artist to their work that he unleashed, Duchamp’s work remains tied fundamentally to Duchamp as maker, which is why against what we might expect Duchamp’s biography features so strongly in accounts of his work, and why Tomkins’ Duchamp: A Life (1997) remains so central to Duchamp scholarship, which is not always the case for even the most “expressive” of artists. This is where we might return to Duchamp’s chess and begin to think of it again as a model for his art and the revolution it unleashed. Undoubtedly, Duchamp’s greatest contribution to chess is a small book he wrote with the Ukrainian-born chess player Vitaly Halberstadt in 1932, L’opposition et les cases conjugées sont reconciliées or Opposition and Sister Squares are Reconciled.

Marcel Duchamp and Vitaly Halberstadt, Opposition and Sister Squares are Reconciled (L’Opposition et les cases conjuguées sont réconciliées). Published by L’Echiquier/Edmond Lancel, Brussels, 1932. Leather-bound deluxe edition book, with notes and inserts added by Duchamp. Collection: Philadelphia Museum of Art: Gift of Jacqueline, Paul and Peter Matisse in memory of their mother, Alexina Duchamp
Marcel Duchamp and Vitaly Halberstadt, Opposition and Sister Squares are Reconciled (L’Opposition et les cases conjuguées sont réconciliées). Published by L’Echiquier/Edmond Lancel, Brussels, 1932. Leather-bound deluxe edition book, with notes and inserts added by Duchamp. Collection: Philadelphia Museum of Art: Gift of Jacqueline, Paul and Peter Matisse in memory of their mother, Alexina Duchamp

Their book addresses a situation that, although not infrequently arising in practical chess, had not previously been identified and theorised as such, which is when one side or another is said to have the “opposition”. In opposition, as opposed to the usual situation in chess where it is good to have the move, it is the other who loses because they have to move and are forced to concede squares they do not want to. And the question, where “opposition” seems possible, is how to get to this situation where the opponent is forced to move in a way they do not want to (equally, if we misplay the position, it is our opponent who now gains the opposition and we who are forced to concede squares we do not want to).

Opposition generally only arises in endgames where there are very few pieces left on the board, but Duchamp and Halberstadt take an even more particular situation as the object of their study: that stage of the game when there are only kings and pawns left and the respective sets of pawns are locked against each other, unable to move. At the beginning of the game the two kings face each other across the board, and players will generally move them into their respective corners during the opening to protect them from enemy attack. But good players in the endgame are able to calculate how the two kings stand in relation to each other, no matter how far apart they are, and through a complex series of manoeuvres are able to make the opponent’s king move in a way they otherwise would not want to, thus conceding squares and ultimately the game. Duchamp and Halberstadt in their book analyse some dozen such situations, from the simple to the complex, clearly setting out for the first time the rules that good players intuitively know to logically explain them.

Example of opposition in chess (similar to famous chess problem, The Trap, upon which Duchamp based Le Trebuchét, 1917). If Black to play, they win the opposing pawn by 1 … Ke3, 2. Kc5, Ke4 (It would be wrong to play 1 … ke4 because of 2. Kc5 and White wins the pawn).
Example of opposition in chess (similar to famous chess problem, The Trap, upon which Duchamp based Le Trebuchét, 1917). If Black to play, they win the opposing pawn by 1 … Ke3, 2. Kc5, Ke4 (It would be wrong to play 1 … ke4 because of 2. Kc5 and White wins the pawn).

Now what has all of this to do with art? In fact, against all of the attempts to relate Duchamp’s chess to his art, why do we find this setting out of the rules of opposition the decisive connection? The first point to note is that so much of Duchamp’s work is about coincidence, from Three Standard Stoppages (1913–14), Hand Stereoscopy (1918–19) and Faulty Landscape (1946) to his famous declaration that his readymades are a “rendezvous with the future”. But what exactly does Duchamp mean by coincidence? How does it actually play out in his work? In an essay we wrote for Apostrophe Duchamp, we used the notion of coincidence with regard to Duchamp to make the seemingly far-fetched suggestion that the early bark paintings brought back from Oenpelli by anthropologist Baldwin Spencer and shown in Melbourne in 1913 (the year of Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel) were readymades insofar as they had originally been cut out of the bark huts in which their creators lived. In saying this, we were prompted by a remark made by ex-President Theodore Roosevelt apropos the 1913 Armory Show that, thinking about Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, he realised he much preferred a Navajo rug.[10]

What could we mean by coincidence with these two examples? It is around the same time in otherwise geographically separated cultures and locations (Paris in Europe, Arnhem Land in Australia and New Mexico in the United States) that a decisive shift occurs in what is considered as art in the Western sense. But what really is at stake in this? It is not that Duchamp in Paris and First Nations cultures in Australia and the US are in any way artistically connected. The four works do not even happen at the same time. And it is not even the same Duchamp work that is involved on each occasion. But what we want to suggest is that it is through this kind of pairing with another that we are able to see each better: not only does Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase allow us to think about Navajo rugs, but Navajo rugs allow us to think about Nude Descending a Staircase; not only does Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel allow us to think about the Oenpelli barks, but the Oenpelli barks allow us to think about Bicycle Wheel. We would maintain that the two sets of events (Nude Descending a Staircase and Navajo rugs, Bicycle Wheel and Oenpelli barks) are in opposition.

They are in a secret correspondence across the board, occurring not exactly at the same time, but each moving or being moved in relation to each other, with the result decided not simply by who has the next move but by the inter-relationship of moves: sometimes it is good to have the first move, but on other occasions it is better to have the second. Or to put this in terms of art, sometimes it is good to make the work that comes first, but sometimes it is good to make the work that comes second, insofar as the first now appears as an effect of it. In other words, coincidence is not possible outside of a certain delay. This is another lesson of Duchamp and Halbertstadt’s book, in which the fight by the two kings to occupy the same square is often carried out by manoeuvres that at first take the king away from the square in question.

And, of course, Duchamp did a whole series of works about “delay”, which for us cannot be understood outside of his works about coincidence: Nude Descending a Staircase, In Advance of a Broken Arm (1915) Bride Striped Bare as a “delay in glass” and the idea of the readymade as a “rendezvous with the future.” Ultimately, we suggest, to go back to our original finding of Duchamp’s chess games in Trove, this artistic “opposition” is a particularly “Australian” idea. It is, after all, what Ian Burn suggests of Sydney Nolan’s relationship to Cubism: that just as Cubism explains Nolan, so Nolan allows us to see otherwise hidden aspects of Cubism.[11] Or we see it when Imants Tillers puts Duchamp and Hans Heysen together in his Conversations with the Bride (1974–75), in which it is implied, thanks to the coincidence of their shared birthdays, that we must see not only Heysen through Duchamp but also Duchamp through Heysen.

Imants Tillers, Conversations with the Bride, 1974–75, 112 gouache and acrylic-epoxy paintings on aluminium panels with chrome-plated mirrored backs, mounted on aluminium stands. Courtesy the artist and the Art Gallery of NSW
Imants Tillers, Conversations with the Bride, 1974–75, 112 gouache and acrylic-epoxy paintings on aluminium panels with chrome-plated mirrored backs, mounted on aluminium stands. Courtesy the artist and the Art Gallery of NSW

But, again, what exactly is meant by this? How is the first able to be read through the second if the second must be read through the first? It is nevertheless true that the deepest contextual specificity of Nolan and Heysen is able to be seen only through Cubism and Duchamp (and vice versa). The artist and art movement and the two artists are not literally “coincidental”, but each is able to be seen only because of the other. To conclude, it is in this sense that Duchamp and Australia are in opposition to each other, so that we would be unable to understand one except through its differential relationship with the other. It is this that is also at stake in the simultaneous coincidence and delay of what is called the “contemporary”. As Richard Meyer writes in What was Contemporary Art?: “‘Belonging to the same age or period; living, existing or occurring together in time’ conveys coexistence rather than newness. Although the preference for ‘co‑temporary’ faded relatively quickly, this antiquated synonym is a useful reminder that contemporary is, at its core, a relational condition. It takes two, in other words, to be contemporary.”[12] 

Additional resources

Chess grandmaster David Smerdon has created this video, further explaining the concept of opposition in chess, and its application to the art of Marcel Duchamp: David Smerdon: Duchamp’s Opposition

David Smerdon: Duchamp's Opposition
David Smerdon: Duchamp’s and Opposition

Footnotes

  1. ^ Jennifer Shahade, ‘Introduction’, Irresponsible Medium: The Chess Games of Marcel Duchamp, Toronto: Book Thug, 2017, p. 1.
  2. ^ François Le Lionnais interviewed by Ralph Rumney, “Marcel Duchamp as a Chess Player and One or Two Related Matters”, in Anthony Hill (ed.), Duchamp Passim, London: Gordon and Breach, p. 127.
  3. ^ Cited by Raymond Keene, “Marcel Duchamp: The Chess Mind”, in Duchamp Passim, p. 121.
  4. ^ Ibid.
  5. ^ Cited Calvin Tomkins, Duchamp: A Biography, London: Pimlico, 1998, p. 289
  6. ^ Jane Sharp, “A Kiss to Matisse: Strategies of Modernism in Central Asia”, in Jaynie Anderson, Crossing Cultures: Conflict, Migration and Convergence, Melbourne: Miegunyah Press, 2009, pp. 905–09
  7. ^ Reiko Tomii, Radicalism in the Wilderness: International Contemporaneity and 1960s Art in Japan, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2016.
  8. ^ Alexander Nagel and Christopher Wood, Anachronic Renaissance, New York: Zone Books, 2010; Georges Didi‑Huberman, The Surviving Image: Aby Warburg’s History of Art, Pennsylvania: Penn State University Press, 2016.
  9. ^ Peter Osborne, Anywhere or Not At All: Philosophy of Contemporary Art, London: Verso, 2013, p. 25.
  10. ^ Rex Butler and A.D.S. Donaldson, “Marcel and Felix: An Australian Rendezvous”, in Edward Colless (ed.), Apostrophe Duchamp, Melbourne: A + A Publishing, 2018, pp. 154–67.
  11. ^ Ian Burn, “Sidney Nolan: Landscape and Modern Life”, Dialogue: Writings in Art History, North Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1991, p. 9.
  12. ^ Richard Meyer, What as Contemporary Art?, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2013, pp. 15–16. 

Rex Butler teaches Art History in the Faculty of Art Design and Architecture, Monash University. ADS Donaldson teaches at the National Art School, Sydney. They have recently co-written the book Outside In: 10 Essays on UnAustralian Art, Power Publications, 2020.

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