Brothers in art
The three Duchamp brothers, Jacques Villon, Raymond Duchamp-Villon and Marcel Duchamp formed a fascinating artistic trio. Each represented a different aesthetic path – Jacques' would lead to abstraction; Raymond's to sculpture, and the youngest, Marcel's, to the ready-made, the conceptual and Dada. But between 1910 and the outbreak of War, each brought his own visual interpretation to the much discussed, oft maligned and highly contentious nascent style of Cubism.
Growing up with their three sisters, the siblings enjoyed lively artistic discussions. Their maternal grandfather was a painter and engraver and the Duchamp home was decorated with his work. Their father was a successful businessman. Together, the family liked to play chess, read, paint and make music. It is easy to imagine the keen debates around the dinner table that would have been a feature of family life. Indeed, it was surely such discussions that led to the eldest changing his name from Duchamp to Villon, and Raymond adding Villon to his surname, both to differentiate each from the other, and to reflect their shared appreciation for the works of the French medieval poet François Villon. In the underlying intellectual ideas that the family fomented the seeds were sown for an explosion of artistic talent.
In the 1890s Jacques and Raymond were sent to Paris, under instruction to study law and medicine. But Jacques preferred studying art, submitting work to Paris newspapers, designing posters and featuring in the satirical weekly Le Courrier français. Raymond likewise took up sculpture after being forced to quit his medical studies due to rheumatic fever. In 1904, Jacques with his younger brother Marcel (12 years his junior), enrolled at the Académie Julian. Two years later, Villon moved away from the hustle and bustle of Montmartre to Puteaux on the quiet outskirts of Paris. There he was re-joined by Raymond, the two brothers setting up their own studios in adjacent buildings, and a little while thereafter by Marcel, who took lodgings in nearby Neuilly. The Duchamp sisters also played their parts. Suzanne, the eldest sister, developed as an artist in her own right, later establishing herself as a leading Dadaist in parallel with Marcel, and marrying the painter Jean Crotti. Yvonne and Suzanne obliged as models for their brothers.
A feature of the brothers' years in Puteaux became their Sunday meetings which took place typically in Raymond Duchamp-Villon's studio, or in the garden, at 7 rue Lemaitre. Among the painters attracted to these occasions were Albert Gleizes, Henri le Fauconnier, Roger de la Fresnaye, Fernand Léger, Jean Metzinger and Francis Picabia; they were joined by poets and writers including Apollinaire, Pierre Rerverdy, Maurice Raynal and Georges Ribement-Dessaignes. At the intellectual heart of the debate was Jacques Villon who coined the moniker La Section d'Or (the Golden Section), influenced by his interest in Pythagorean theorems and the writings of Leonard da Vinci.
As La Section d'Or the loosely described ‘Puteaux group' and others first exhibited at the Galerie de la Boétie in October 1912. It was an exhibition that galvanised Raymond, who in the years thereafter developed his major cubist sculpture The Horse. But Marcel, who had already completed his second version of Nude Descending a Staircase by the time the Galerie de la Boétie opened, was already disenchanted with Cubist ideology. He recalled in later years that at the time he had "a desire to break up forms – to 'decompose' them much along the lines the Cubists had done. But I wanted to go further – much further…”
Meanwhile, Jacques Villon's La Femme blessée (Yvonne Duchamp), illustrates the eldest brother's continuing research into formal values, and in particular into bringing greater rigour and relevance to the Analytical Cubism forged by Picasso and Braque. The faceted diagonals and interlocking planes of the composition draw on the painter's desire to underpin Cubism with a sense of mathematical order – while the pastel blocks of colour reflect his description of himself as the Impressionist Cubist.
Bottom left: Marcel Duchamp, Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2), 1912, oil on canvas (Philadelphia Museum of Art)
Bottom right: Raymond Duchamp-Villon, The Horse ( Le Cheval ), 1914, bronze (this cast is made after the original plaster and is in the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice)