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Picasso and the Chess Player

Pablo Picasso, Marcel Duchamp, and the Battle for the Soul of Modern Art

Larry Witham

Publication Year: 2012

In the fateful year of 1913, events in New York and Paris launched a great public rivalry between the two most consequential artists of the twentieth century, Pablo Picasso and Marcel Duchamp. The New York Armory Show art exhibition unveiled Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase, a "sensation of sensations" that prompted Americans to declare Duchamp the leader of cubism, the voice of modern art. In Paris, however, the cubist revolution was reaching its peak around Picasso. In retrospect, these events form a crossroads in art history, a moment when two young bohemians adopted entirely opposite views of the artist, giving birth to the two opposing agendas that would shape all of modern art.

Today, the museum-going public views Pablo Picasso as the greatest figure in modern art. Over his long lifetime, Picasso pioneered several new styles as the last great painter in the Western tradition. In the rarefied world of artists, critics, and collectors, however, the most influential artist of the last century was not Picasso, but Marcel Duchamp: chess player, prankster, and a forefather of idea-driven dada, surrealism, and pop art. Picasso and the Chess Player is the story of how Picasso and Duchamp came to define the epochal debate between modern and conceptual art--a drama that features a who's who of twentieth-century art and culture, including Henri Matisse, Gertrude Stein, Andre Breton, Salvador Dali, and Andy Warhol. In telling the story, Larry Witham weaves two great art biographies into one tumultuous century.

Published by: University Press of New England

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. iv-vi


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p. viii-viii

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1. "Sensation of Sensations"

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pp. 1-8

On the wintry streets of Manhattan, the foot traffic to see the greatest art exhibition in America had been discouragingly slow. The 1913 “Armory Show” had opened on February 17. It had begun with a gala party, a band, and speeches. The unveiling of provocative Parisian art followed. The newspapers had ...

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2. The Spanish Gaze

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pp. 9-22

Pablo Picasso was born on October 25, 1881, in the coastal town of Málaga, Spain, which, at the end of the nineteenth century, lived in the past. Málaga sat at the very bottom of Spain, baking in the Mediterranean heat and cherishing its old Andalusian traditions. For the family of Pablo, however, the ...

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3. The Notary's Son

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pp. 23-36

On his first visit to Paris, Picasso had had a brief, humiliating encounter with Jacques Villon, Marcel Duchamp’s older brother. Picasso absorbed Villon’s laughing taunt but did not forget it too easily. Previously, in Barcelona, he had probably seen Villon’s illustration work, which had drifted down to ...

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4. Bohemian Paris

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pp. 37-54

The Salon d’Automne, held around October, was the younger of the two annual salons in Paris: 1905 was only its third year. It was associated with the name of Henri Matisse, a founding organizer, and because Matisse preferred juries, the Salon d’Automne asserted some control over what ...

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5. Little Cubes

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pp. 55-69

When Picasso met Georges Braque, they shared some things in common, even though Picasso was classically trained, and Braque trained as an “art worker” in decorative arts and methods. New to them both was the “primitive” look, being seen around Paris in African statuary, or in artifacts ...

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6. Modernist Tide

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pp. 70-80

The public spectacle of Cubism, like a gathering parade through Paris, took time to develop. To be an avant-garde movement, it needed a consciousness, which began to emerge in 1910 among the “salon Cubists”—those who showed at the salons. These were the young men (and a few ...

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7. The Armory Show

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pp. 81-99

One day in November 1912, three Americans arrived at Puteaux to see the Duchamps. They were led there by the American painter and art agent Walter Pach, who had been living in Paris.1 The consummate New Yorker, Pach introduced the Americans, and then gave Raymond Duchamp-Villon some ...

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8. The Return to Order

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pp. 100-111

“My Life is hell,” Picasso wrote to Stein in 1915, a year after the war had broken out.1 It was six months after Marcel Duchamp had left for America. Stein herself had left for Spain. As Éva lay dying of cancer (or tuberculosis) in a crowded clinic on the edge of wartime Paris, Picasso’s hell took ...

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9. A Parisian in America

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pp. 112-133

Like so many immigrants before him, Duchamp arrived in America by the narrows in the Port of New York. It was a springlike day, June 15, 1915, and he was met at the dockside by Walter Pach, the young American artist and art dealer who had befriended him in Paris. Amid newspaper reports ...

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10. Surrealist Bridges

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pp. 134-158

At the end of the war, European critics were giving modern art two prognoses. In one, Picasso and Matisse heralded “two grand opposing tendencies” in modern art, an idea echoed in England by British critic Clive Bell, who said in 1920 that, even for ordinary people, Picasso and ...

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11. Europe's Chessboards

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pp. 159-185

For some time now, Duchamp had been writing his friends to say, “My ambition is to be a professional chess player.”1 However, it was probably Breton’s 1923 article on Duchamp that electrified the avant-garde grapevine with news that Duchamp had traded in art for the game board. “Duchamp ...

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12. Flight of the Avant-Garde

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pp. 186-211

The first cold winter in Paris was a sign of deprivations to come. From his encampment at the Grands-Augustins studio, where he lived the entire war, Picasso could walk fifteen minutes to visit Marie- Thérèse and Maya at their apartment near the Bastille. He did that every weekend. Once a week ...

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13. Art in Revolt

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pp. 212-236

On the eve of Duchamp’s apotheosis at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, a new generation of Dada-like art began to percolate from unseen corners of America. Not knowing this, Duchamp was inclined to protest the absence of artistic rebels in postwar America, which he viewed as awash ...

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14.The Readymade

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pp. 237-253

The debate on Duchamp’s originality in modern art began to surface in New York City in 1965. The occasion was a Manhattan gallery exhibition, titled “Not Seen and/or Less Seen,” a congeries of ninety Duchamp items collected by Mary Sisler, a buyer of early Duchamp drawings and ...

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15. Picasso's Last Stand

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pp. 254-270

During the 1960s, Picasso was both celebrated and pushed to the sidelines. The established art museums of the world, and in France in particular, would build upon his legacy. At the same time, a restless younger generation of artists viewed the old Spaniard as the dead hand of the past. Picasso continued ...

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16. The Duchampians

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pp. 271-287

On January 15, 1969, not long after the first snows fell on Marcel Duchamp’s grave, the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s top committee gathered. Duchamp had left the museum one more decision to make. By way of William Copley’s Cassandra Foundation, Duchamp had offered the museum ...

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17. Year of Picasso, Age of Duchamp

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pp. 288-299

In 2010 a gigantic banner hung at the front of the Greek-temple facade of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the museum that houses the works of Marcel Duchamp. The banner read: picasso. Inside the museum, the “Picasso and the Avant-Garde in Paris” exhibition surveyed the time of ...

Author's Note

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pp. 301-302

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Unnumbered pages

Illustration Credits

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pp. 303-305


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pp. 307-343


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pp. 345-357

E-ISBN-13: 9781611683493
E-ISBN-10: 1611683491
Print-ISBN-13: 9781611682533

Page Count: 384
Publication Year: 2012

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Picasso, Pablo, 1881-1973.
  • Duchamp, Marcel, 1887-1968.
  • Artists -- France -- Biography.
  • Picasso, Pablo, 1881-1973 -- Influence.
  • Duchamp, Marcel, 1887-1968 -- Influence.
  • Modernism (Art).
  • Art, Modern -- 20th century.
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