the originality of florine stettheimer

“Part of Florine’s originality was that, for her, art was anecdote in an era when all the modern schools had decided that anecdote was what art was not. Duchamp suggested, considering Florine, ‘Why not revive the anecdote in painting?’ Well, why not? An anecdotalism such as Florine’s draws upon a highly cultivated symbolism so that her work echoes the humanist revival in being a miniature Renaissance of one artist.”

(Parker Tyler, Florine Stettheimer: A Life in Art, p. 142.)

julian jason haladyn, “marcel duchamp: étant donnés”

Julian Jason Haladyn
Marcel Duchamp: Étant donnés
(Afterall Books, 2010)

I sporadically follow Afterall’s One Work series, probably not as well as I should; most look interesting, but only a few look immediately interesting enough to put down money for. They’re small books, and the concept is good: a close reading of a single piece of visual art presented for a general audience. This one follows on the heels of the big show at the Philadelphia Museum of Art last year focused on Étant donnés; it reminds me that the catalogue is still sitting on my shelf, waiting for a closer reading. This book is conveniently sized for subway reading; thus I’m getting to it more quickly.

What’s most immediately interesting to me about Haladyn’s reading of Étant donnés is that he bases it around a reading of Raymond Roussel. (For what it’s worth, I found my way to Duchamp through Roussel; encountered after Roussel, the way Duchamp works makes perfect sense.) Roussel’s influence on Duchamp has long been known; but there haven’t, to my knowledge, been many readings of exactly how that influence worked, perhaps because it was difficult for a long time to get a handle on Roussel’s work. Julio Cortázar, for example, was interested in the connection between the two. This is easier now for an English audience now that there are two biographies of Roussel in English as well as Exact Change’s compilation How I Wrote Certain of My Books; Foucault’s book on Roussel, odd as it is, is newly back in print as well. Haladyn refers to most of these in his text. Crucially, Haladyn connects Roussel’s posthumous publication of How I Wrote Certain of My Books to the posthumous unveiling of Étant donnés. I don’t know whether a direct connection can be made – during his life, Duchamp indicated that seeing Roussel’s theatrical works was pivotal for his early works, but it’s unclear whether Duchamp knew about what Roussel was up to after his death. Duchamp would certainly have known people who would have known about Roussel – Michel Leiris, for one, as well as the members of the Oulipo – but my sense is that the historical record is somewhat dark on the subject. Foucault’s book, for example, came out in 1963, when Duchamp was almost finished with his work; and Duchamp doesn’t seem to have said anything in print about Roussel and seemed surprised by Michel Carrouges’s earlier argument about his influences. But as he admits in that letter, there are clear affinities. Haladyn declares that there was an “extreme unlikelihood” that Duchamp saw Courbet’s L’Origine du monde before constructing his nude (a statement undercut by his footnote, where he admits the possibility that Duchamp could have seen a reproduction); but not considering the possibility that Duchamp didn’t actually know about Roussel’s procédé undermines an otherwise extremely interesting argument about the similarity of Roussel’s procedure and Duchamp’s inframince. The lack of discussion of Duchamp’s own use of homophones is also an odd omission.

Haladyn structures his book around finally visiting the Philadelphia Museum to see the work in the flesh – Haladyn is Canadian, based in Ontario – his narration of his approach to the work is odd in part because he doesn’t mention that he’s visiting the exhibit not in its normal state, when it quietly waits behind its non-descript vestibule, but in the midst of an exhibition based around the work, in which there are lines of people waiting to look through the peep holes. This isn’t how the work is normally seen; if one observes casual visitors in the Duchamp room at the PMA, most are unprepared and don’t discover Étant donnés at all. Once in a while, someone does by accident: there’s a burst of excitement, everyone goes to see what the matter is, and sometimes people are shocked. (There’s no warning label on the room yet; one wonders how often mortified parents complain to the staff.) But it’s strange that Haladyn should describe the act of waiting to look as a normal part of viewing the work: it seems integral to the experience that it should take place in a room that seems like it might have been left open by accident.

The titles of Duchamp’s best-known works (Nude Descending a Staircase, The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even) promise prurience that the objects themselves comically fail to deliver; Étant donnés does the opposite and is consequently even more shocking. Haladyn stresses that this work is very much about the role of the viewer, following Duchamp’s argument in “The Creative Act”: it is the viewer’s experience of the piece, with the shock entailed in it, that gives it meaning:

If, therefore, it is in and through the eyes of the viewer that the creative act reaches its climax, it seems appropriate that Given addresses the eye in such an overdetermined manner. Too look into this installation is to be (made) aware of the fact that one is looking. . . . Significantly, the immanent moment of being caught peeping through the door of Given by another viewer’s gaze is intimately part of the process of viewing this installation whether or not the moment actually occurs. (p. 82)

Released posthumously, there is no way to ask Duchamp what his work meant. Roussel’s How I Wrote Certain of My Books offers a posthumous explanation of his work, as well as providing an instruction manual to those who would create work like it; Duchamp also release an instruction manual after his death that also allows one to recreate it. This is an extremely tempting correspondence; but there are also extreme divergences between the two creator’s posthumous performance. Roussel was baffled when his public wasn’t astonished by his genius during his life; he assumed that his explanation would make it clear to the public, in didactic fashion, how they’d be wrong. Duchamp offers no such guidance; as he’d explained earlier, there was no solution because there was no problem. Haladyn’s book, though promising, isn’t entirely convincing; but it’s an interesting start, and he could profitably expand his argument.

ettie stettheimer, “love days”

Ettie Stettheimer
Love Days
(in Memorial Volume of and by Ettie Stettheimer)
(Alfred E. Knopf, 1951)

Love Days, originally published under the pen name Henrie Waste (from HENRIEtta WAlter STEttheimer), has the strange full title “Love Days [Susanna Moore’s],” Susanna Moore being the protagonist; perhaps another Love Days had been recently published in 1923 and this was to avoid confusion. The Stettheimer sisters were friends of Marcel Duchamp in New York; this novel features a character based on Duchamp, which is my reason for picking up the book; his correspondence with Ettie Stettheimer suggests that he found the portrayal amusing. His correspondence with the Stettheimer sisters, and particularly Ettie, was one of his most sustained; I’ve seen her sister Florine’s paintings, some of which feature him, and Carrie’s immense dollhouse, now at the Museum of the City of New York featured a tiny version of Nude Descending a Staircase that he made to order. Ettie Stettheimer’s writing, however, seems to be neglected.

The book is presented from the perspective of Susanna Moore, a New York orphan who seems to be of considerable means, though that’s never quite explained. The book isn’t a roman-à-clef, though Duchamp appears rather transparently as the figure of Pierre Delaire; nor is he the only famous figure to appear in the book, as Maxim Gorky has a role as an extra in Capri, and a Cubist painter couple might be meant to be the Delaunays. The book follows Susanna Moore, first through Barnard, then studying in Germany; thus far, it might be said to follow the life of Ettie Stettheimer, who earned a doctorate in philosophy at Freiburg in 1907. She then returns to New York, where she sets herself up as an independent scholar of Greek; after soundly rejecting men for most of the book, she very suddenly falls madly in love with Grodz, a French painter of Finnish-Greek extraction, and marries him. Ettie Stettheimer, like her sisters, never married.

As far as I can tell, this volume is the most recent publication of Ettie Stettheimer; there doesn’t seem to be much interest in her prose. This particular volume is a bit macabre: evidently after her sisters Carrie and Florine died and Ettie had put their affairs in order, she decided to provide for her own posterity by putting together this omnibus edition of her own work: this novel, an earlier novella (Philosophy: A Fragment, about an American girl studying philosophy in Germany), a philosophical work that had been her dissertation on the work of William James (which seems to have been her most widely read work), and four short stories. She adds an introduction to the whole; a few contemporary reviews are inserted as introductions to the individual volumes. The Memorial Volume was published by Knopf in 1951; nonetheless, this has the slightly sad feeling of a vanity project, right down to the dedication, to “E. S.”.

This isn’t the most likable novel; at 350 pages, it’s probably twice as long as it needs to be, and fifty-page chapters are tiresome. The characters are predictable: the overly romantic French artist that she marries almost immediately is filled with jealousy before the honeymoon is over. Stylistically, there’s a rather excessive use of ellipses, designed to indicate emotion; there’s sometimes something about the writing that seems off.

Susanna folded the letter and gurgled. She gurgled when she laughed to herself and felt apologetic for finding herself amusing. (p. 62)

This gurgling is a one-time affair, but she is given to drawling, even in German. Later, when the heroine considers Ewart, an American she meets in Capri when he offers her a powder for a headache of convenience:

She decided that he looked like a smart twenty year old lounge lizard, and like a forty year old scientist, and she was pleasantly intrigued by the unresolved combination he presented. (p. 187)

This description is good enough for a reprise thirty pages later:

Ewart, the considerate and objective young lizard bulging with a brow that seemed a temple of wisdom, was saying, “Of course it has been proved statistically that the great majority of marriages are unsuccessful; one member is unfaithful to the other, which is probably perfectly natural, since according to psychological law people grow tired of anything after a time, etc. etc. . . .” (p. 216)

Susanna Moore’s marriage does collapse and end in divorce, though the actual collapse happens in a gap between chapters; it is blamed on pneumonia. While recovering from the pneumonia in a sanatorium, she first encourages the attentions of a Nietzscheian baron; then she finally finds love in the person of a English doctor who is the baron’s wife’s cousin and reputed lover but who has tuberculosis. This isn’t quite as interesting as it might sound: plot twists are telegraphed well in advance and the characterizations and varied geographic settings (hotels in Europe, mainly) aren’t particularly interesting.

Susanna Moore seems, on the whole, rather full of herself and a bit tiresome. On the whole, she appears lacking in feminist consciousness; but there are strange passages that suggest that she might be more interesting. While she’s in her Greek class at Columbia, one of her friends, whom she dislikes, suggests that she should get married and settle down with children, a suggestion that Susanna has no truck with:

”No,” Susanna said in her languid way that never sounded final, but often was.— Whenever her potential motherhood, marriage or death were touched on in conversation she felt as though some one else were being referred to, and the chief emotion produced in her was one of estrangement from the speaker who so unpleasantly identified her with that other person. . . . “Let’s go on with Medea. She got married and didn’t settle down to a hum-drum existence,” she remarked, feeling much closer to Medea at this moment than to Blanche. (p. 17)

Frustratingly, this isn’t elaborated on; this is also the case later in Germany, where she complains to a would-be swain that she thinks is odd that an elderly German man should be explaining Sappho to her; then she asks Tom to explain what he thinks of Sappho, which isn’t much more helpful:

”In other words, because she made great poetry of perverse love, she must have been perverse?” she asked.
“Felt perverse, anyway.”
“And,” Susanna continued to educate herself, “why was she perverse; because she had no adequate normal love affair, did you say?”
Tom burst out laughing. “You seem to regard me as an authority, you funny Susan, or are you trying to find out something else? I wasn’t there, you know; I mentioned this as a probably cause of perversity: often men and women are driven to perverse practices because the normal satisfactions obtainable are of an unbeautiful nature, more unbeautiful than the perverse ones seem to them at any rate to be. This is the most favourable interpretation of perversity, reserved for artists and people who seem to have some pretensions to a sense of – of fastidiousness.” Tom paused; he had seen Susanna’s face frowning like a perplexed child’s trying to understand. His strident voice grew softer. “All in all, my dear, it’s not an attractive subject, and it’s hard for healthy people to grasp, so don’t be alarmed if you don’t ‘get’ it; neither does the Professor. Susan, child, where are we going?” (p. 70)

With that, the subject is dropped entirely. It’s vexing, because there is obviously an interesting subject here; but again it’s simply pushed aside. While in Germany, she is pursued by countless lovelorn Germans, a romantic people; she wants none of their attentions, and realizes that she can escape them by saying Mir ist schlecht, I feel sick. There’s an echo of this at the end of the book: Hugh, her English doctor, is the perfect object for her love because he is sick, and loving him will make her sick. He refuses; she seemingly kills herself by covering her mouth and holding her breath. It’s a bit too clumsy to be affecting, and Susanna Moore isn’t quite a model feminist: but the novel does provide a picture of a woman trying to make her way through an uncomprehending and unjust world.

The character based on Duchamp has a walk-on part; he visits her once, and stays for five pages. Susanna Moore appears to have no real friends; a few appear, but each is jettisoned in their turn. Pierre Delaire seems to be the only one to escape this. He isn’t a romantic figure to her: she thinks that “his delicate fairish classicality of a dry and cerebral quality had all of beauty except beauty’s particular thrill” (p. 95) and he disappoints her by having shaved his head. He explains his new canvases:

”In form Cubist – but there is an ulterior intention which removes them from Cubism. I wanted to produce those impressions so painful to the eye which it sometimes receives from a moving picture when several objects more simultaneously at different velocities, – for instance in the picture of a race. Do you remember that we once saw one together and remarked on it? The eye became confused and the head a little dizzy. Eh bien, it interested me to get these same effects through static means.” (p. 96)

Susanna Moore refused to take voyages with Delaire, just as Ettie Stettheimer refused to set sail for Buenos Aires with Duchamp; Moore and Delaire fall into a discussion of their lives as a solar system, a mythologization which might, at a stretch, be seen to reflect Duchamp’s myth-making in the notes for The Large Glass. And then he wanders out of the book: he doesn’t seem to have missed much.

“affectionately, marcel: the selected correspondence of marcel duchamp”

Affectionately, Marcel: The Selected Correspondence of Marcel Duchamp
(edited by Francis M. Naumann & Hector Obalk, trans. Jill Taylor)
(Ludion Press, 2000)

Naumann & Obalk’s edition of Duchamp’s correspondence presents a selection of Duchamp’s letters presented chronologically. What one notices most about these letters – especially if you start at the beginning & read right through, as I did – is how workaday they are. Duchamp is not, for the most part, sharing his ideas with his correspondents. None are exceptionally long; most are brief records of what he’s been up to, detailing his travels, financial dealings (many of these), and of course his work attempting to sell art for his friends. One gets the weird sense of Duchamp as a boring person. I don’t think he was, of course; consulting a timeline, it’s clear that he was almost always busy doing interesting things while writing these letters. But these letters present the quotidian Duchamp; certainly, he wasn’t using his correspondence to work out ideas. There’s a vast gulf between the Duchamp presented here and the Duchamp of the interviews.

These letters were gathered from the recipients, as Duchamp never saved copies of his own letters (or letters sent to him). Gaps sometimes emerge: barely anything is said about the construction of the Large Glass; letters to Beatrice Wood don’t show up until 1940. Only one letter was sent during his very brief marriage to Lydie Sarazin-Levassor in 1927 (he tells Walter Pach on 24 June that marriage is “a delightful experience so far and I hope it will go on. My life is in no way changed by this.”). The next letter, sent to Katherine Dreier on 12 March 1928, notes that he’s been divorced since 25 January. An explanation of his personal life is not to be found in these letters; clearly, there’s a distinction between the public Duchamp and the private Duchamp, and the private Duchamp doesn’t make it into letters. (His letters to Maria Martins, which one presumes might be some of his most revealing letters, haven’t been made public.) Which is not to say that bits of emotion don’t show through: for example, in a series of letters to Katherine Dreier in 1928 he defends his backing out of the art world vociferously:

Your 2 letters announcing the possible stop of activities in the S.A. did not surprise me___ The more I live among artists, the more I am convinced that they are fakes from the minute they get successful in the smallest way.
     This means also that all the dogs around the artist are crooks___ If you see the combination fakes and crooks___ how have you been able to keep some ind of a faith (and in what?)
     Don’t name a few exceptions to justify a milder opinion about the whole “Art game”.
     In the end, a painting is declared good only if it is worth “so much”___ It may even be accepted by the “holy” museums___ So much for posterity___
     Please come back to the ground and if you like some paintings, some painters, look at their work, but don’t try to change a crook into an honest man, or a fake into a fakir.___
     That will give you an indication of the kind of mood I am in___ Stirring up the old ideas of disgust___
     But it is only on account of you___
     I have lost so much interest (all) in the question that I don’t suffer from it___ You still do___ (5 November 1928; originally in English)

It’s unclear what exactly has stirred him up into this rage – in the letters that bookend it, he complains that he was never friends with Alfred Stieglitz (but he was never friends with anyone) and he rails against the idea of Waldemar George writing a book about him; he also complains that he’s feeling his age of 42. There are two letters from 1930 (one detailing his book on chess); none at all from 1931 or 1932, and by 1933 he’s happily in a relationship with Mary Reynolds and trying to get Brancusi’s art shown in New York. These letters don’t serve as biography: the exciting things seem to be happening in the margins.

But there are enough interesting details to make this book well worth reading: in 1935, for example, Duchamp attempted to sell his Rotoreliefs at Macy’s on consignment, with no luck. He accuses Alfred Barr of “malicious incompetence” in a rare unguarded moment. His correspondence attempting to get funding for his system of playing roulette (which became Monte Carlo Bond is entertaining: he’s not trying to figure out how to win, he’s just trying to get by, which he suspects could be done scientifically if he only had the funds to do it. In a letter to Yvonne Chastel, Duchamp mentions that a first edition of Lautréamont’s Les chants de Maldoror is “one of the 5 or 6 books that make up my entire library”; one immediately wonders what the other volumes would be. In 1950, Walter Arensberg, who believed that Francis Bacon was Shakespeare, appointed Duchamp Vice President of the Francis Bacon Foundation. And in a letter to the French critic Jean Suquet, Duchamp indicates his indebtedness to Roussel:

One important point for you is to know how indebted I am to Raymond Roussel who, in 1912, delivered me from a whole “physicoplastic” past which I had been trying to get out of. A production at the Antoine theater of “Impressions d’Afrique” which I went to see with Apollinaire and Picabia in October or November 1912 (I would be grateful if you would check the date), was a revelation for the three of us, for it really was about a new man at that time. To this day, I consider Raymond Roussel all the more important for not having built up a following. (25 December 1949)

A letter to Michel Carrouges points out that he hadn’t known Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony,” as Carrouges had suspected; rather, Roussel filled that space.

This is, it needs to be said, a beautifully edited and produced book; one might quibble, at times, about the jocularity of the English translations, but the French original is always provided for reference. Marginal notes identify figures and artworks mentioned in the letters; significant events in Duchamp’s life are similarly presented chronologically, creating a biography of a sort. The picture that emerges of Duchamp at the end of this book remains opaque. Certain correspondents recur over his life: Man Ray, Brancusi, the Stettheimers, Henri Pierre Roché, Katherine Dreier. But these are, by and large, Duchamp’s friends from whom he was separated by distance; letters, for Duchamp at least, present an odd cross-section of life, and at the end of this book Duchamp is still hiding.


roussel / duchamp / cortázar / fassio

“Serious critics, of course, know that none of this is possible: in the first place, the Lyncée is an imaginary ship; secondly, Duchamp and Roussel never met. (Duchamp relates that he saw Roussel only once, in the Café La Régence, the one in the poem by César Vallejo, and that the author of Locus Solus was playing chess with a friend. ‘I am afraid I neglected to introduce myself,’ adds Duchamp.) But others do not allow these physical difficulties to obscure the truth of a more worthy reality. Not only did Duchamp and Roussel make the journey to [Buenos Aires] but they also met an echo from the future there, linked to them in ways that serious critics would likewise fail to credit. Juan Esteben Fassio prepared the ground by inventing in the heart of Buenos Aires a machine for reading the New Impressions of Africa during the same period when I, without knowing him, wrote Persio’s first monologues in The Winners, using a system of phonetic analogies inspired by Roussel; years later, Fassio attempted to fashion a new machine for reading Hopscotch, unaware that my most obsessive work during those years in Paris was with the obscure texts of Duchamp and the works of Roussel. A double impulse gradually converged upon the austral vertex where Roussel and Duchamp would meet once again in Buenos Aires, when an inventor and a writer – who perhaps years earlier had also watched each other across a cafe in the heart of the city, neglecting to introduce themselves – would meet through a machine conceived by the first to facilitate the reading of the second. If the Lyncée navigated the coasts of Africa, still some of its passengers reached our American shores, and the proof is in what follows, a short of joke designed to lead astray those who search for treasure with solemn faces.”

(Julio Cortázar, from “Of Another Bachelor Machine,” pp. 53–4 in Around the Day in Eighty Worlds.)


“210 West 14th Street, New York City          6 Feb. 1950

My dear Carrouges,

Long after your letter I received the text, which I’ve read over several times.

It is true I am indebted to Raymond Roussel for having enabled me, from 1912 on, to think of something else instead of retinal painting (André Breton will enlighten you as to this term, because we have discussed it together), but I must declare that I have not read In the Penal Colony, and only read the Metamorphosis a number of years ago.

Just to let you know the circumstantial events which led me to the Mariée.

So I was astonished at the parallelism which you have so clearly established.

The conclusions you have come to in the sphere of ‘inner significance’ interest me deeply even though I do not subscribe to them (except as far as the glass is concerned).

My intentions as a painter, which have nothing to do with the deep result, of which I cannot be conscious, were aimed at the problems of ‘aesthetic validity’ obtained principally through the abandonment of visual phenomena, both from the retinal and the anecdotal point of view.

As for the rest, I can tell you that the introduction of a ground theme explaining or provoking certain ‘acts’ of the Mariée and the bachelors, never came into my mind – but it is likely that my ancestors made me ‘speak’, like them, of what my grandchildren will also say.

Celibately yours, Marcel Duchamp”

(Quoted on p. 49 of Le macchine celibi/The Bachelor Machines, ed. Jean Clair & Harald Szeemann, following the contribution by Michel Carrouges. This letter appears to have been translated from French to Italian before being put into English.)