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Philadelphia Museum of Art joins with two international institutions to publish massive Marcel Duchamp archives online

Philadelphia Inquirer logo Philadelphia Inquirer 1/24/2022 Stephan Salisbury, The Philadelphia Inquirer

The Philadelphia Museum of Art, which holds the largest collection of artworks by Marcel Duchamp in the world, has joined with the Centre Pompidou and Association Marcel Duchamp in Paris to combine all of their archival holdings online and make them freely available to the public.

The Duchamp Research Portal, which went live Monday, covers the entirety of the enigmatic artist’s life and work in France and the United States, through archival documents, correspondence, and supporting images. The portal can be found at https://www.duchamparchives.org.

It is a vast online trove of Duchampiana, a virtual “readymade,” now available to scholars, artists, and the general public all over the world.

The portal gives access to about 18,000 documents and artworks and nearly 50,000 digitized images related to Duchamp’s work and life, his family and friendships, and his connections in the avant-garde art community, including his associations with Cubism, Dada, and Surrealism.

In a statement, PMA director and chief executive Timothy Rub said that “people are seeking richer online art experience,” which the museum can now provide through what Rub deemed an “exceptional collaboration.”

In a way, the research portal provides a kind of Duchampian experience of its own.

For one thing, anyone interested by the work of a man who took a urinal, signed it “R. Mutt,” called it Fountain, and put it on a gallery wall as art, will have a field day.

Fountain was perhaps the most audacious of the found objects Duchamp called “readymades.” But it was hardly alone. The artist took everything from combs to bicycle wheels and transformed all into art — pretty much because he said so.

(But nowhere in the archives will a visitor find evidence supporting claims that Duchamp “stole” the idea for Fountain, or the urinal itself. Matthew Affron, PMA curator of modern art and author of The Essential Duchamp, said that the assertion, made several years ago, that Baroness Elsa Von Freytag-Lorringhoven was responsible for the piece amounted to a controversy “manufactured by social media.” Said Affron: “Not only is there no evidence in the portal, there’s no evidence anywhere.”)

Now everyone can have the opportunity to play with the idea of chance and its operations in the world of art research.

Affron, who worked on the project for several years, said the “sense of Duchamp” will change as the materials in the portal become more widely known.

“If you poke around this portal, and I’m doing it right now, you stumble over a great variety of documents in the archival section,” Affron said on Friday. “They could be family photographs, or correspondence, or documents related to exhibitions. One leads to the next.”

The interested browser “can sort of hop around,” he said, which leads ultimately to “an incredible amount of texture about the life and the connections to other people that that person, Duchamp, had. So it’s incredible. It can be an incredibly granular level of detail.”

The portal does provide a pathway to tens of thousands of documents and photographs, however. Postcards to Constantin Brancusi, notes from Alexander Calder, photographs by Man Ray, materials related to hundreds of significant artists of the 20th century, all can be found here.

Of note: Several photographs of a pristine The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even can be found through the portal — images made before the monumental work, now residing at the PMA, was mysteriously broken after a sojourn at the Brooklyn Museum in 1926.

Then there are other allusive documents.

“You have a photograph of Marcel Duchamp as an adolescent on a bicycle in 1902 in his hometown in Normandy in France, which wouldn’t be so interesting if the first readymade that he eventually made wasn’t called Bicycle Wheel,” said Affron, “So you have a photograph of Duchamp as a young person, a child, which gains resonance because of what you know about what will come later. I find it a very fascinating picture.”

Such chance discoveries and surprises are everywhere in these archives. But so is more focused information. If, for instance, the reader is interested in how the PMA became the go-to museum for Duchamp, the story is here.

The archive contains practically daily correspondence in the 1940s between then-director Fiske Kimball, Duchamp, and the collectors Walter and Louise Arensberg.

“As they’re going back and forth in different parts of the negotiation, Duchamp was tasked by the collectors, the Arensbergs, to be their agent in talking to a number of museums on the East Coast and eventually helped steer them to give their collection to Philadelphia,” said Affron. “And so you have all that.”

Taken as a whole, Affron said, the archives show how Duchamp “lived his life at the center of a whole series of sometimes connected circles of people. The social life, the everyday life, and also the public life of a key figure in history of modern art just comes into incredible relief.”

Affron said there are other archives of Duchamp material and that officials at the three institutions who collaborated on the portal hope others can be brought into the project in the future.

After all, “you could sort of get lost in” the portal and “that’s part of the fascination of it,” said Affron.

“You start in one place, and you just start connecting dots, and you stumble over something that is interesting. And then you ask yourself, well, what is the significance of this postcard? Why did Duchamp send a postcard to Brancusi with a picture of a barbershop at the Savoy Hotel?”

Dipping into the archives through the portal could uncover an answer to that, or — even better — suggest something else equally interesting or puzzling.

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