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Marcel Duchamp and Lydie Sarazin-Levassor


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Marcel Duchamp and Lydie Sarazin-Levassor

Brunetta Peccianti (1883-1966)
2012, oil on canvas, 20×22 cm

Marcel Duchamp and Lydie Sarazin-Levassor

Brunetta Peccianti (1883-1966)

Marcel Duchamp and Lydie Sarazin-Levassor




Marc Décimo
A Sentimental Conversation: Marcel Duchamp and Lydie Sarazin-Levassor*

“Do you remember our hearts’ rapture?”
“Why ask me now if I remember?”

“My name enflames your heart and soul
You see me in your dreams, say—” “No.”

Paul Verlaine, “Colloque sentimental”, Fêtes galantes (1869).[1]

A readymade induces the viewer to discover the world anew. Instead of letting habit determine what is seen—what is no longer seen—the object must once more become an object of experience. And so, with nostalgia for the pre-verbal state that characterises the infans (he who does not speak), Marcel Duchamp would appear to have been able to re-experience the sensations procured in infancy by inert objects, living things, words and situations that were all still unfixed. Readymades recreate that ineffable moment in life, the pre-linguistic stage, during which the child is at the mercy of the other and of the world, and must develop his cognitive powers when confronted with animate and inanimate objects, all of them exotic, all of them just hanging suspended in the air. Around 1917/1918, Duchamp took a urinal, a hat rack, a snow shovel and bits of rubber and hung them up from the ceiling of his New York studio, making them strange again. Once put into such an arrangement, the objects conspired to recreate a state that exists before naming, when nothing in the world is completely laid down nor completely finalised, when nothing is built, and when everything has yet to be experienced. Duchamp’s quest is to search for these first sensations, which means always beginning again. Everything has to be thought through again, at every moment. Like chess. It is important for the world to be always on the other side. Naturally, the pieces in the game are visible, but a veil has to be lifted all the same, all the time. And it must remain tempting to do so—a temptation as enigmatic as eroticism—so that thinking brings with it the hard-won sensation of being alive. Just as he was about to embark upon a game of chess, Duchamp said: “Now I’m going to feel alive. That’s how things stand. This game will be more important than the small number of things I may do afterwards.”[2] Duchamp endeavours to overcome inertia. In his opinion, an idea is outdated as soon as it is generally adopted. As good as covered in rust. In order to protect himself from the corrosive climate of the times, which might cause him to become rusty, he isolates himself. Having chosen preservation, he squeezes himself between two plates of glass and invents a life for himself written in minium. To play with time, to be oneself and truly one’s own self, never belong. To anyone or anything. Never conform to the dead weight of custom, never observe the proprieties nor bow to the dictates, or as little as possible. After having interiorised a social norm or some element of social practice, leave it behind, let it go hang. In this scheme of things, memory is his worst enemy. It is necessary for him to attain that state of innocence and ignorance, that “purity” (of knowledge?) that came before pressures of all kinds contaminated the mind. He has to discover the world and its contents, without prejudice or preconceived ideas. He must never cease to be born into the world. “It’s a scar, a sort of wound, but the right kind of wound. It’s style. It means cutting your own umbilical chord, if you see what I mean. Because I don’t think about myself, not having lived before then.”[3] This attitude makes for a confrontation between memory (which fixes the world with knowledge and habits) and regression (evoking a time when nothing has been fixed), and makes it a matter of life and death. If you do not want to be a pawn in the hand of your opponent, do not espouse his logic: it is always deadly. Checkmate every time. Once sucked into this maelstrom, Duchamp has no other choice but to countermove, to think for himself in order to survive. In order to feel fully alive, he must not be what others are. He must cut short, break away. In order not to be made a game of, he must make a game of.

Fragments reproduced from letters written by Lydie Sarazin-Levassor in which she signs herself “The Idiot” or “The Local Idiot” (“Lydiotte du coin”), using one phonetic spelling or another.

Fragments reproduced from letters written by Lydie Sarazin-Levassor in which she signs herself “The Idiot” or “The Local Idiot” (“Lydiotte du coin”), using one phonetic spelling or another.

On the whole, Duchamp made choices according to what was before him, necessary choices. The game will be close-fought if the aim is to break free from the social norm. Is it possible to not let anything be interiorised? To annihilate the social self within and completely ignore the tastes and political beliefs of the other, his moral code, opinions and desires? It is sometimes difficult to set course for extreme singularity and stick to it, for this island we call the Self is not won in a day. There are dangers on the way, compromises to be made, and, sometimes, damage is done, inevitably. Biographers, and those who interviewed Duchamp, have attempted to relate those ups and downs. Lydie Fischer Sarazin-Levassor’s firsthand account presents a close-up view of Duchamp’s odyssey as he embarked upon it with every new day, and in less than three hours, the time needed to reach the end of this book, the reader will have seen how that insular Self guarded its coastlines in 1927, during the period of a few months that their marriage lasted. Now that so many anecdotes about Duchamp’s life have become common knowledge, and that critical approaches have matured in the wake of major exhibitions, we can better appreciate Lydie Sarazin-Levassor’s having set herself the task, above all, of painting a rounder portrait of Marcel Duchamp (a dynamic one at that), and providing a psychological character study that adds to our knowledge of his distinctive traits. Looking back today, it is clear that Duchamp was of his time, for he shared with the Symbolists of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century the need to break with the values of society and the desire to turn in upon himself. That individualism, sustained to the point of being a categorical imperative, cannot but entail emotional consequences. Duchamp set up his different methods of defence to protect his inner Self, sometimes by violent means. He will strenuously avoid anything he cannot reconcile with himself since it increases the tension inside him unbearably, anything that comes from living in society and which is or threatens to become force of habit—such as the whole idea of marriage and living together. Very quickly evaded. For Duchamp, habit is the proof that he is no longer esteemed. No sooner does it loom upon the horizon, than he packs up and runs. He flees anything and everything that would imprison him within the terms of a “given”: submitting to others, adopting common ideas, being brought down to the level of commonplaces, having to wade through what is established, drowning in memory. This obsession with Self condemns him to never accept (or very sparingly) prejudice or practicalities, for they bear the stigma of renunciation, of renouncing the Self, and, like so many harbingers of death, they sign the death warrant of thought itself. So as to restore his equilibrium and come to Life again, he must select interpersonal modes that suit him: isolation and confrontation at a distance. The latter taking place on a chessboard or in a studio, intermediary spaces more intimate than the rooms of an exhibition. An ineffable delight springs from this: he can exercise his difference. He does not leave it all up to the other. He does not expose himself unduly. He strives to concede as little as possible and avoids as many traps as he can, just as he defies whatever might be attractive, that is to say whatever gives the impression of seeking to attract him. Duchamp has a real phobia of the other’s seductiveness, especially if the conquest looks easy. Adam-Duchamp[4] would never have taken the apple like some chess player falling for a gambit. No more would he be likely to believe in the apparent truth that words seem to relay.

Duchamp’s Paradise does not reside in the moment when he has to choose between yielding to the other and asserting oneself, but more generally in the mutual resistance of two opponents. No, Duchamp does not allow himself to be tempted by the see-through ploys of a would-be seducer. And, as if to prove it, he was often happy to play chess against a naked young woman, as in the famous photograph taken in Pasadena, in 1963, by Julian Wasser. And though it seems almost too good to be true, the young woman in the photograph was actually called Eve. The resistance that each party puts up, coupled with the awareness that they are playing an exciting match, means the fascination that beauty holds on the surface does not gain the upper hand. The readymade does not operate any differently. Each one is so very remarkable because the viewer has to elaborate for himself an idea of its inner workings, its logic, mechanism, complexity and construction, in order to try to comprehend the simple object placed before him. Such are the demands that are made, and if they are met, then the viewer becomes Duchamp’s accomplice.

Adam himself did not simply leave the decision-making up to Eve, though it may seem so in the Old Testament when it came to the crunch. The game was to defy God, which is devilishly more thrilling. It was a question of supplanting him as the giver of values and refusing the Law, adding to phallic jouissance the pleasure of disobedience, a non-phallic jouissance comparable to that procured by the intricacies of a complicated play on words or game of chess. There is the promise of a cerebral jouissance more pleasurable by far than its physical counterpart. Eve’s complicity is established, as is the viewer’s, plotting the moves played by the readymade against all the Schools of F. Art.

If, up above, apples are not just apples, then, here below, urinals are not always urinals, bird traps trap no birds, though a coat rack may trip you up, and the word “Fountain” will lead you up the garden path. The readymade is not gratuitous; the aim is to set the mind going and promote complicity. In this adventure of the spirit, the readymade is the centre of attraction not for onlookers but for people who will look, those who will gaze as if for the first time and smile pataphysically when they think of various institutions. Since words are snares laid by speakers, they have to be distrusted, like apples and women, however seductive, unless the “real” meanings hidden behind these forms can be glimpsed in the infra-thin space of a tautology, if there is a bit of play in the works. From m lum (apple) to malum (evil), from billard to pillard,[5] and from the frog’s coa to the French quoi,[6]6words open up possibilities for play and for revelation, breaking the norms of society with the wedge of individuality. Duchamp replaces the common dictionary definitions with the verbal webs spun by Raymond Roussel and Jean-Pierre Brisset. Anyone who relies on God and observes the habits and customs of the day cannot be someone who really looks. He is mentally castrated and deprived of his faculty of thought. So there must be no leaving it up to God and no being easily seduced, especially physically, by seduction itself, made woman, worse still, made word. One can only rely on oneself, and try to make others play into one’s hands. The other is always perceived as someone who either charms or lays down the law, someone who takes liberties, limiting one’s own freedom, unless such an opponent can be turned into a much sought-after accomplice. And if not, what then? The other’s power to convince rests on the authority of tradition. He makes of a show of legitimacy, for example, by continuing to foster a time-honoured idea of beauty in the minds of his audience. He is reduced to existing only so far as the tastes of the majority allow, which is not to exist at all. Who would live must cut short, break away, say: “No”, play according to new rules that he makes up for himself. For this, according to Duchamp, is the only way to be an individual and truly exceptional. How, then, could he possibly merge into the masonry, become part of the furniture like painters famous in their day, sooner or later forgotten, condemned to the vaults and oblivion; the idea of passing unnoticed or becoming a creature of habit is too awful for him to contemplate. In his eyes it is important to define an individual’s being as becoming, constantly evolving, and to be constantly at stake, as if in a game, and so he prefers movement, desiring to distinguish himself and be distinguished not once and for all but every day, as if to reassure himself and check in the eyes of the other that he is still alive. This provides the theoretical justification for Duchamp’s repeated comment that a painting is the product of the painter and the viewer in more or less equal proportion. It also explains why chess was like a drug that he sometimes could not go without: he needed certain well-defined conditions to be able to fix his attention and exist. For example, he needed to put himself in a position where he could feel himself at the mercy of the other all while keeping him at bay—defending his personal interests was indispensable, and playing a round without owing anyone anything was a vital necessity. None of these attitudes were likely to be compatible with married life or the bourgeois dreams of a young woman at the age of twenty-four, caught up in the hustle and bustle of the Roaring Twenties while all the post-war values were being put into question. Though she was very open-minded and very much in love, getting to know Duchamp was understandably a disarming experience. The facts have to be faced: whilst Francis Picabia and Henri-Pierre Roché led sensational lives, Duchamp’s existence remains that much more astonishing that we are still trying to unravel its logic today. Is it humanly possible to lead one’s life with so little respect for the affairs of this world, not to mention one’s family and friends? The principles and lifestyles of this couple did not agree.

Not that the Sarazin-Levassors were either conservative or uppity. Lydie’s father, Henri Sarazin-Levassor, turned down the Legion of Honour and was seeking to divorce. He was on such close terms with the Picabias that he had a house build at Mougins almost opposite the Château de Mai where the Picabias had been living since 1925. Henri Sarazin-Levassor had known Germaine Everling (Mrs. Francis Picabia) since they were children: they took their First Communion at the same time at their local Protestant oratory. As for Lydie Sarazin-Levassor, she had been quite happy to declare herself in favour of the Russian Revolution. Her grandfather on her father’s side was an automobile manufacturer, a freemason, a republican and a radical; on her mother’s side, her grandfather was a painter and a freethinker, and her grandmother being almost an aristocrat, Lydie had allowed herself to reject proposals that came from the ranks of the bourgeoisie.[7] Certain sociological aspects of her family resemble those of her future husband’s: Marcel’s father was a notary public, and his maternal grandfather, after having made a fortune as a ship-broker in the port of Rouen, had decided to devote himself to the art of engraving. The social status of the Cubist painters was now quite different to what it had been, and Marcel was perhaps not as bohemian as his reputation would have it. What ought perhaps to have remained an amorous episode became marriage. In gleaning items from this brief period, Lydie Sarazin-Levassor writes out all sorts of memories and anecdotes, not excepting the little facts that hit home. The experience had an inhibitory influence upon her: for years she would sign certain of her letters “Lydiote”, varying the spelling. Everything she has to say is of interest, since it concerns Duchamp, but she is not content to simply draw a psychological portrait of “her” Marcel, however accurate, and it probably is very accurate, she also grasps what she was and what she was supposed to be. Duchamp can only be understood in relation to his ex-wife’s state of mind, during each step of this confrontation. Biographies and interviews are necessary to establish facts and precise dates and Lydie Sarazin-Levassor’s narrative provides that kind of help. It adds to our knowledge of Duchamp. The unifying thread of scholarly interpretation can be drawn from the elements included here, from Duchamp’s own pronouncements, other eyewitness accounts at our disposal and the semiotic strategies adopted in his works, but that is another story and exceeds the bounds of the present volume.

Among the thousand and one life-experiences that made up Lydie’s life, her time with Duchamp, though brief, must certainly have touched her to the quick, and remained with her. She tells us all that she can remember; her memory is excellent and she commits it all to writing in a straightforward manner. Our curiosity is satisfied, as is to be expected from such a text. Her account shows just how much Duchamp’s neurosis was not supererogatory but deep-seated and highly-structured, a working-logic, in fact, working itself out energetically both in his work and in the choices to be made in his day-to-day existence. He appears to have been guided by a mindset determined in childhood. Duchamp’s maniacal individualism, often practised to the detriment of others, his deliberately Spartan lifestyle, his phobia of practicalities, which prevented him from ever assuming a normal role in society, or indeed any role, his rejection of the decorative in Art, which he considered demeaning and repulsive, his relationship with money, his personal charm and intelligence, all contribute to the picture we have of his emotional life.

Duchamp’s idea of liberty also suggests nostalgia for his childhood, when the child was at the mercy of the other—parents satisfy a child’s every need—and when he had little else to do but play and amuse himself. Being incapable of breaking with a situation that prolongs that Adamic state, Duchamp made do with temporary jobs and commissions on the sale of artworks (most notably, he made a large speculative purchase of Brancusis). That he might have nothing to do (or as little as possible) and time to do as he pleased, he chose to live off his father, and be the “adopted son”[8] of a wealthy patron, and, who knows, maybe live off a dowry. Rather than paint or work and find himself in a situation that would have nailed him to his perch as everyone’s pet avant-garde artist, rather than being confined to a role, he drops everything. He leaves it all to hang, himself included. But at that point in his life he was as incapable of accepting a favourable business contract as he was of putting up with the marriage contract.[9] He thought it was better to have no possessions, or very few, and live as a bachelor, in order to preserve the freedom essential to his creative energies. This attitude is all the more surprising since the resulting financial independence would have given him the means, just as paradoxically, to be free, no longer at the mercy of the other. So why should he have adopted the plan of action that he did? There is no doubt that he was emotionally involved in the affair, but we can only wonder what game he was really playing, or playing out again. We can only conclude that, after the final outcome, Marcel Duchamp found the equilibrium he required.

* Marc Décimo; "A Sentimental Conversation: Marcel Duchamp and Lydie Sarazin-Levassor" - Lydie Fischer Sarazin-Levassor; Un échec matrimonial. Le coeur de la mariée mis à nu par son célibataire, même, Dijon, Les Presses du réel, 2007. pp. 9-17.


[1] Paul Verlaine, “Sentimental Conversation”, from Fêtes galantes, in OEuvres poétiques complètes, edited by Y.G. Le Dantec, “Pléiade” edition, Gallimard, Paris, 1951, p. 97.
[2] Jean-Marie Drot (director), Jeu d’échecs avec Marcel Duchamp, Pasadena [A Game of Chess with Marcel Duchamp, Pasadena], filmed late 1963, black and white, 16 mm, 56 minutes, colour version, 1979.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Duchamp played the role of Adam in Entr’acte, the 1924 film by René Clair and Francis Picabia, and took the idea up again in 1967 when working on Morceaux choisis (selected details taken from Cranach, the film Relâche, etc.). In 1910, he gave the title Paradise (Adam and Eve) to a painting, which gave rise to two related works: Draft on the Japanese Apple Tree and Young Man and Girl in Spring (both 1911).
[5] Allusion to “Parmi les noirs” by Raymond Roussel (1877-1933), who wrote stories by trying to invent narrative links between homophonic sentences. See: Calvin Tomkins, Duchamp: A Biography (1996), A John Macae Book, Henry Holt & Co., New York, 1996, p. 91.
[6] See: “Verbal Constraints and Verbal Play in the Work of Jean-Pierre Brisset”, an article in English contained within Marc Décimo’s Jean-Pierre Brisset, Prince des Penseurs, inventeur, grammairien et prophète, Les presses du réel, Dijon, 2001, pp. 449-455.
[7] Correspondence with Claude-Olivier Fischer (21 December 2003, 12 & 17 January 2004).
[8] Letter from Katherine Dreier to Marcel Duchamp, 5 August 1927 (Yale Collection of American Literature), quoted by Calvin Tomkins in Duchamp: A Biography (1996), A John Macrae Book, Henry Holt & Co., New York, 1996, p. 280.
[9] If Man Ray is to be believed, in the 1920s Duchamp turned down a contract that would have brought him a yearly salary of ten thousand dollars in exchange for painting just one picture a year ! (Self Portrait, An Atlantic Monthly Press Book/Little, Brown & Co., Boston, 1963, p. 234; Calvin Tomkins, op. cit., p. 285; Marcel Duchamp, Entretiens avec Pierre Cabanne [Belfond, 1967], Somogy, Paris, 1995, p. 130).