Picasso and the Chess Player

Pablo Picasso, Marcel Duchamp, and the Battle for the Soul of Modern Art

Larry Witham

In the fateful year of 1913, events in New York and Paris launched a great public rivalry between the two most consequential artists of the twentieth century, Pablo Picasso and Marcel Duchamp. The New York Armory Show art exhibition unveiled Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, a “sensation of sensations” that prompted Americans to declare Duchamp the leader of cubism, the voice of modern art. In Paris, however, the cubist revolution was reaching its peak around Picasso. In retrospect, these events form a crossroads in art history, a moment when two young bohemians adopted entirely opposite views of the artist, giving birth to the two opposing agendas that would shape all of modern art. Today, the museum-going public views Pablo Picasso as the greatest figure in modern art. Over his long lifetime, Picasso pioneered several new styles as the last great painter in the Western tradition. In the rarefied world of artists, critics, and collectors, however, the most influential artist of the last century was not Picasso, but Marcel Duchamp: chess player, prankster, and a forefather of idea-driven dada, surrealism, and pop art. Picasso and the Chess Player is the story of how Picasso and Duchamp came to define the epochal debate between modern and conceptual art—a drama that features a who’s who of twentieth-century art and culture, including Henri Matisse, Gertrude Stein, André Breton, Salvador Dalí, and Andy Warhol. In telling the story, Larry Witham weaves two great art biographies into one tumultuous century.

Cover Image of Picasso and the Chess Player: Pablo Picasso
Cloth: $29.95 | E-book: $14.99
ISBN-13: 9781611682533
Pages: 372 | Size: 6 in. x 9 in.
Date Published: December 8, 2012


  • Witham places his subjects in the context of both their own work and the aesthetic debates and movements of the early to late 20th century, with the aim of revealing how Picasso and Duchamp became ‘monuments and myths,’ after their deaths. While Picasso ‘democratized art’ for the masses to appreciate, it is Duchamp who set the ‘intellectual horizon’ for ‘postmodern’ art professionals. A convincing and highly readable study whose juxtapositions create its originality.

    Publishers Weekly
  • Witham examines Picasso’s enduring legacy as the Cubist forefather for the museum-going masses but positions Duchamp as the favored artist for gallerists and collectors. This thoughtful overview of modern art as a whole, punctuated by the movement’s two most enigmatic figures, will appeal to fans of art history, particularly modernism.

    Library Journal
  • In this dual biography, journalist and author Witham provides an engaging side-by-side history of modern art’s two figureheads, Picasso and Duchamp-artists whose careers and exhibition histories overlap, yet whose artistic practices and philosophies had virtually nothing in common. Witham’s exploration of this curious pair asks which of these two artists better embodies the ‘soul of modern art.’ The book provides an engrossing account of both artists-their upbringings, personal lives, political leanings, and approaches to work. . . . An excellent and engrossing casual read for general enthusiasts. . . . Recommended.

  • Picasso and Duchamp were luminaries-arguably two of the most influential artists of the twentieth century. They also held radically divergent views about the aims of modernist art. Picasso’s stringent formalism and Duchamp’s abstruse theorizing amount to a heady dialectic, but thanks to Larry Witham’s exacting analyses of their biographies, art, and contradictory positions, their ideas emerge as clear as day. The result is a rich but plain-speaking book about the nature of modernism and the foundations of postmodernism.

    Justin Wolff
    author of Thomas Hart Benton: A Life
  • Picasso and the Chess Player is a lively, informative account of two of the greatest artistic pioneers of all time, rich in detail about their personal adventures as well as the courageous ways in which they approached life and art on their own terms. Witham writes with the energy and zest that suit his subjects-which is saying a lot.

    Nicholas Fox Weber
    executive director of the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation

About the Author

LARRY WITHAM is the author of Art Schooled and eight other works of nonfiction. He is a journalist and author living in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C.

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