Cupid, 1943
Ink on paper, image hand-drawn by Duchamp, 4 3/4 x 4 1/8 inches
Invitation to the exhibition "Through the Big End of the Opera Glass"

 

In 1943, Marcel Duchamp was asked by the gallery owner Julien Levy to design the announcement for an exhibition to be called “Through the Big End of the Opera Glass.”   For his own contribution to the announcement, Duchamp provided the image of a cupid with a stretched bow and arrow in his hands, but the figure is inexplicably reproduced upside down, for the artist’s signature—which is oriented legibly—streams off to one side at the level of the cupid’s head.  At first glance, knowing that Duchamp often appropriated imagery for whatever purpose was required—in the fashion of culling images readymade—one might easily conclude that the cupid was clipped from some printed source and collaged into this position.   However, the original layout for this announcement was recently discovered among the effects of Julien Levy, and it is now known that Duchamp painstakingly drew the cupid himself in pen and ink.  It is likely that he took the time to render this image because he could not find the reproduction of a cupid fixing his arrow in this precise direction, a detail that is critical to his intent, for the significance of the cupid’s aim can only be understood when the announcement is unfolded and fully opened.

The paper stock Duchamp selected for this ephemeral publication was a translucent sheet folded in quadrants, forming a booklet.  The first thing the recipient would have seen upon removing the announcement from its envelope was the title page, providing the name of the exhibition, its dates, and its location.  Upon opening the booklet, he would find a layout by Cornell and a drawing by Tanguy (the two other artists included in the exhibition), but on the back cover, Duchamp’s cupid.  Closer examination of the cupid would reveal that something is printed on the opposite side of the paper: below Duchamp’s signature, in red ink, one can faintly read the words: “White to Play and Win.”  To chess enthusiasts, this phrase can mean only one thing: one is being presented with a chess problem to solve in which white is instructed to move first and eventually go on to win the game.   Indeed, just above it, one can discern the faint outline of a chess board with pieces in various positions, printed, like the writing below it, on the opposite side of the sheet.  If, at this point, someone is compelled to unfold the sheet and examine the opposite side, Duchamp provided additional instructions: “Look through from other side against light.”

If we follow Duchamp’s instructions and “look through from the other side against light,” we will see the layout of a chessboard from the proper position (with a white square in the lower right corner), each player with a king, a pair of pawns, and a single rook.  We will also see the cupid he drew on the other side, the arrow from its bow pointing down the white knight’s file (or “B” file in algebraic notation), suggesting that the next best possible move for white would be to advance its pawn.  One who studies this endgame problem at any length, however, would determine that this move would not attain a win for white.  Indeed, virtually any move by white seems to result in a draw, even though there are a few compelling scenarios that—until properly analyzed—give the false impression that white has a chance to win.

The rigor and intensity of this endgame problem stands in sharp contrast to the means by which Duchamp presents us with a hint of its solution: a cupid aiming his arrow toward the ground (or into the sky, if we consider that the cupid is presented upside-down).  Cupid is, of course, the mythological god of love, and his arrow is usually aimed in the direction of an amorous target; a direct hit can cause the recipient to fall deeply and blindly in love.  Knowing this, and knowing that when Duchamp designed this brochure he had recently met and fallen in love with Maria Martins—a Brazilian sculptor, married with three children, and in almost every respect, unattainable—one is tempted to speculate that Duchamp might have had a personal situation in mind when he decided that a cupid should indicate the path to follow in pursuing a solution to this vexing problem.   Duchamp was well known for having said: “There is no solution, because there is no problem.”  In the end, the problem that he faced with Maria Martins was insurmountable, demonstrating that in both chess and life—and perhaps in art as well—there are, indeed, problems without solutions.