In 1913 Marcel Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase exploded through the American art world. This is the story of how he followed the painting to New York two years later, enchanted the Arensberg salon, and—almost incidentally—changed art forever.
In 1915, a group of French artists fled war-torn Europe for New York. In the few months between their arrival—and America’s entry into the war in April 1917—they pushed back the boundaries of the possible, in both life and art. The vortex of this transformation was the apartment at 33 West 67th Street, owned by Walter and Louise Arensberg, where artists and poets met nightly to talk, eat, drink, discuss each others’ work, play chess, plan balls, organise magazines and exhibitions, and fall in and out of love. At the center of all this activity stood the mysterious figure of Marcel Duchamp, always approachable, always unreadable. His exhibit of a urinal, which he called Fountain, briefly shocked the New York art world before falling, like its perpetrator, into obscurity.
Many people (of both sexes) were in love with Duchamp. Henri-Pierre Roché and Beatrice Wood were among them; they were also, briefly, and (for her) life-changingly, in love with each other. Both kept daily diaries, which give an intimate picture of the events of those years. Or rather two pictures—for the views they offer, including of their own love affair, are stunningly divergent.
Spellbound by Marcel follows Duchamp, Roché, and Beatrice as they traverse the twentieth century. Roché became the author of Jules and Jim, made into a classic film by François Truffaut. Beatrice became a celebrated ceramicist. Duchamp fell into chess-playing obscurity until, decades later, he became famous for a second time—as Fountain was elected the twentieth century’s most influential artwork.
Cultural historian Brandon (Houdini) delivers a swirling tale of two people whose infatuations with 20th century French artist Marcel Duchamp sparked their own love affair. The nexus of Brandon's narrative is New York City's Arensberg salon, where, in the months before America entered WWI, "artists and poets from both sides of the Atlantic met nightly" to "discuss each other's work... and fall in and out of love." As Brandon reveals, many of them including French author Henri-Pierre Roch and artist Beatrice Wood fell in love with Duchamp. Sifting through Roch and Wood's diaries and published works, Brandon plays analytical sleuth to their converging love stories, which, she reveals, are rife with discrepancies while Wood claimed Duchamp was besotted with her, it was actually "Duchamp who introduced her to Roch in hopes that she might find another object for her romantic yearnings." Along the way, Brandon weaves in a cast of eccentric characters from Duchamp's life (including his "Wealthy Middle-Aged Lady Friends"), while also tracing the artist's path from obscurity to fame, cemented by his 1917 urinal sculpture, Fountain, which "expressed all the anger Marcel's life was otherwise devoted to denying... about the art world, about the war." Part drama, part page-turning history, this paints the complexities of art and love in a seductive light.