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Suzanne Duchamp

The Last Decade

Self-portrait, Frontal, ca. 1920

Suzanne Duchamp 

Graphite on paper

Signed lower right

Museum Purchase, 2018.6.1

Introduction

All text by Art Historian Emma Anquinet

The name Duchamp has a prominent place in art history. The family included four artists, each of whom made important contributions to the history of modern art in the 20th century: Jacques Villon, Raymond Duchamp-Villon, Marcel Duchamp and ‘the other Duchamp’, their sister, Suzanne Duchamp.

This modern woman artist was a prominent presence in the French avant-garde of her time. Throughout her lifetime career she took part in various art associations and exhibited her work regularly in France and abroad. Despite Suzanne Duchamp’s prominent presence in the French modern art scene and her exceedingly complex and heterogeneous oeuvre, she has been consistently overlooked in the art historical accounts of this period as well as by the contemporary art world. This ‘invisibility’ in art historical records is a consequence of structural-patriarchal forces that we can observe playing out in a variety of ways, like the use of gendered language and being been overshadowed by the fame and reputation of her husband and her older brothers.

This glaring lacuna has been rectified to a degree in recent years by the inclusion of her work in various historical exhibitions and auctions, as well as in scholarly research and publications. The recent conservation of the three remarkable paintings at the Wright Museum is another opportunity to raise the visibility and recognition of Suzanne Duchamp’s unique contribution to art history. Because clearly Suzanne was an accomplished artist in her own right. This radical and pioneering artist produced a significant body of work over a period of five decades, reflecting her concerns about modern society, the effects of war, and her role as a modern woman and artist. Suzanne Duchamp expressed these themes in various contemporary styles, assembling a complex, heterogeneous oeuvre and making a unique contribution to modern art.

Suzanne Duchamp was convinced that the human spirit was capable of almost everything and that art was the most suitable instrument to obtain absolute freedom of the inspiration and the mind. Looking at the artworks exhibited at the Wright Museum we can say she achieved this artistic freedom, by incorporating elements from various contemporary art movements, among others Fauvism, Cubism, Dada, primitivism and abstract expressionism. With the exception of the self-portrait in graphite, the works at the Wright Museum date from the last phase of Suzanne Duchamp’s career. 

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 Printmaking

In 1942, Suzanne Duchamp started to experiment with etching, a technique, the artist acknowledged, that was influenced by the work of her maternal grandfather, Emile-Frederick Nicolle (1830-1894). He was a talented printmaker at the end of the 19th century and his paintings and etching hung throughout the Duchamp family home in Blainville-sur-Crevon. It is inconceivable that she would not have also received some advice and possibly technical training from her brother Jacques, who was an experienced and highly acclaimed printmaker. Suzanne's etchings, as well as her watercolors, gouaches and paintings, featured a spontaneous graphic linearity in dynamic and colorful compositions, a result, most likely, of her earlier experiments in modernism.

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L’Arbre de jade, 1950

Suzanne Duchamp

Etching

Signed lower right

91/200

Museum Purchase, 2021.7.1

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Aquarium, 1956

Oil on canvas

Signed and dated lower right

Gift of Nathaniel and Lana Grey, 1996.8.89

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Composition, 1957

Oil on canvas

27 ½ x 36 ¼ inches

Signed and dated lower right

Gift of Nathaniel and Lana Grey, 1995.11.17

 

Verso: Label, Salon des Independants, 1957; Label, Surrealistes et Symbolistes

The Last Decade

In the 1950s, Duchamp continued to incorporate elements of contemporary styles in an expressive and dynamic composition of color and lines. The three oil paintings showcased here illustrate these rich experiences with various modern art movements and media. Aquarium (1956), Composition (1957) and Au Coin de Ciel Bleu (1962), conserved at the Wright Museum of Art, illustrate how the artist’s spontaneous use of vivid colors, expressive sketch-like lines, swift brushwork and dynamic compositions from previous years evolved into independent elements, clearly influenced by the abstract expressionists at the time. 

As is illustrated by Au Coin de Ciel Bleu (1962), this exploration of abstraction intensified following the death of her husband, Jean Crotti (1958), and the diagnosis of a brian tumor (1963). Thus, certain works that date from the end of Suzanne’s life, obtain a highly symbolic meaning, as she was then likely descending physically into a dark space, an unfortunate and tragic illness that she undoubtedly attempted to struggle through by means of her art.

Throughout her life, Suzanne Duchamp reflected her concerns about modern society, the effects of war, her personal life and her role as a modern woman and artist. Themes like the calamities of both World Wars, her overshadowed position as a modern woman artist, and personal events, among others the death of her brother Raymond and her husband Jean, and the diagnosis of brain tumor at the very end of her life, were expressed in her work in various styles and idioms. By doing this, Suzanne Duchamp assembled a complex, heterogeneous oeuvre and made a unique contribution to modern art. Suzanne Duchamp died at her apartment in Neuilly-sur-Seine on the 11th of September 1963, within a month of the diagnosis.

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Suzanne Duchamp’s work reflected her concerns about modern society, the effects of war, and her role as a modern woman and artist. These themes were expressed in various styles—by appropriating technology and contemporary objects in her Dada and mechanomorphic assemblages, in her revealing self-portraits, and through her use of color symbolism. In a personal way that was influenced by her time and the art world she came to know, Suzanne Duchamp assembled a complex, heterogeneous oeuvre and made a unique contribution to modern art.

Au Coin de Ciel Bleu, 1962

Suzanne Duchamp

Oil on canvas

39 3/8 x 28 3/8 inches

Signed and dated lower center

Gift of Nathaniel and Lana Grey, 1997.4.15

 

Verso: Au coin de ciel bleu, Suzanne Duchamp / 5 rue Parmentier Neuilly/ Seine; Label, Cubistes et Néo-Cubistes; written twice on stretcher, “Sociètaire” (member); label removed by conservator, Salon des Indépendants 1962

The three oil paintings seen here were recently conserved at the Midwest Art Conservation Center (MACC) with funds awarded through an IMLS Inspire! Grant for small museums, and are now on view for the first time in thirty years. 

This grant has allowed the Wright Museum to preserve these paintings so they are available for exhibition, broad dissemination through digital records, individual scholarship, and research. This will help further our efforts to restore important women artists to the 

history of art. The scholarly narrative on the Duchamp family of artists most often refers to Suzanne as “sister” and “wife,” despite the fact that she was an accomplished artist alongside her brothers. Moreover, her relationship with Marcel, her brother closest in age, created an

important but often overlooked dialogue through art. Recent scholarship in the field, such as Ruth Hemus’s Dada’s Women (2009), which features Suzanne Duchamp, exemplifies the importance of diversifying the art history narrative and shedding 

light on significant female contributors that have been excised from the canon. 

We are grateful to be one of thirty projects chosen in 2019 by the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

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View of the North Gallery, Wright Museum of Art, Beloit College (Fall 2021)