Once More to
by Bradley Bailey
For Dario Gamboni
It has been some twenty-five years since Lawrence D. Steefel Jr.'s analysis of Marcel Duchamp's 1911 drawing Encore à cet Astre (Once More to This Star) (Fig. 1) was published by Art Journal.(1) Despite Steefel's suggestion that Duchamp's minor works, primarily his sketches and drawings, be allotted a greater degree of recognition for what they reveal about Duchamp's creative process as a whole, Encore is still generally accorded little significance beyond its being a study for the Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 (Fig. 2).(2) I felt compelled to write about this particular drawing because I strongly agree that Encore has-and continues to be-relegated to a minor status as little more than a precedent for the Nude No. 2. While Encore is indeed a small sketch, it would be, in this case, presumptuous to judge significance merely according to appearances.
It is crucial to remember that the end of 1911 was a pivotal period in Duchamp's career. In the last two months of 1911, Duchamp produced several of his most well known paintings, including Portrait of Chess Players, Sad Young Man on a Train, and the major study for the Nude No. 2, Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 1. All of the aforementioned paintings have been in some way related to Encore (some more directly than others), yet these relationships have been far from exhausted. In this article, I intend to more fully situate Encore within this period of Duchamp's life and art by examining Encore in relation to contemporaneous works, as well as introducing heretofore unaddressed precedents and possible inspirations for this drawing. My motivation for writing this essay was not to "explain" this sketch or to unearth its "meaning," for I wouldn't propose to do that with any of Duchamp's works, especially one as enigmatic as Encore. Rather, I would like to suggest a number of possible influences, inspirations, and intentions based on Duchamp's own work of the time and the ideas of more recent scholars.
consists of three main parts.(3)
In the center, a heavily-shaded head(4)
rests on a hand or fist, with only a thin line describing a right shoulder
and bent right arm. To the left of the head is what appears to be a
female figure from the waist down; above the waist is a sectioned cylindrical
element topped with swirling lines reminiscent of hair. To the right
of the head is what has come to be the most important element, a goateed
male figure ascending a staircase.(5)
The figure's head is drastically turned in order to peer at a grid to
the right or behind the figure, which Steefel described as a "barred
window." As I agree with Steefel's interpretation of the "female"
figure as a "sex object,"(6)
I will concentrate primarily on the other two elements of the drawing,
after which I will suggest a reading that integrates all three elements.
noted that there is an uncanny resemblance between the ascending figure
in Encore and the ascending figure in Charles Willson Peale's
hyperrealistic Staircase Group: Raphaelle and Titian Ramsay (1795)
(Fig. 3), which is, like Duchamp's drawing,
in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.(7)
While Masheck made a case for Duchamp possibly having seen a reproduction
of the Peale painting in Paris (Encore preceded Duchamp's first
visit to the United States by more than three years), an association
between the two images, though enticing, remains dubious.(8)
A more practical-and arguably more similar-precedent for the ascending
figure is found in a painting with which Duchamp was undoubtedly familiar,
the silhouetted figure of Don José Nieto in the background of
Velásquez's Las Meninas (1656) (Figs.
4 and 5). Though the resemblance between the two figures
is far from exact, the figures' postures, particularly the positioning
of the legs, head, and right arm (if the roughly horizontal line extending
from the above the hip of the ascending figure to the central head's
left eye does indeed describe an arm) are similar enough to merit a
comparison. Even the coffered door to Nieto's left has a gridded appearance
akin to the grid to the right of the figure in Encore, albeit
on the opposite side. In Encore, the artist's perspective is
a bit different, with the stairs in three-quarter view and the head
in full profile; a comparison with Las Meninas shows that the
ascending figure is drawn from virtually the same angle that Velásquez
would have seen Nieto in the mirror (Velásquez would not have
seen Nieto as we do in the painting because the artist is off to the
side.) Could this figure that so intrigued Michel Foucault have had
a similar affect on Duchamp?
It is not enough
to simply claim the figure in the Velásquez painting as a model
for the ascending figure without an explanation. The figure of Nieto
in Las Meninas has long fascinated scholars because of his transitional
status; he inhabits a space that is both invisible to the viewer yet
implied by his presence. Even more important to Duchamp, I believe,
is the ambiguity of his presence, due to the fact he is neither entering
nor exiting the room, but, in Foucault's words, "coming in and
going out at the same time, like a pendulum caught at the bottom of
Like Nieto, the figure in Encore is positioned in such a way
that he appears to be traveling upward, yet the severe turn of his head
and downward gaze imply an impeding reversal of motion, or at least
the potential for a reversal of motion, rendering the figure, like the
Sad Young Man on a Train and Nude Descending a Staircase,
simultaneously static and dynamic.
But why a staircase, and what is its relationship to the title? As Siegfried Giedion indicated, the diagonal planes of a staircase leading the eye upward led to the stair becoming "the symbol of movement."(10) The general interpretation that the figure is ascending toward the sun/star of the poem is made less feasible by the figure's backward and downward glance. Moreover, as Jerrold Seigel noted, "the 'to' in Laforgue's title was a preposition of address, not of physical movement."(11) Regardless, those who champion readings of Duchamp's works that embrace his heavily debated involvement with the history and theory of alchemy(12) may support the reading of the figure ascending toward the sun/star, as ladders and staircases (which have a closely-tied history and symbolism) are legion in alchemical images and texts. Images of ladders and staircases leading to a star, the sun, or a heavenly/celestial realm (Figs. 6 and 7) support the notion that "the vertical has always been considered the sacred dimension of space."(13) That the direction of the figure's movement remains ambiguous does not necessarily contradict the alchemical interpretation, as the hermetic theologian and neoplatonist Cardinal Nikolaus of Cusa (known as Cusanus) indicated: "Ascending and descending are one and the same. The 'art of conjecture' lies in connecting the two with a keen intelligence."(14) Another possibility of interpretation takes into account Duchamp's predilection for wordplay, being that "astre" is an anagram for "stare" (which the figure on the right certainly does), which is a homonym for "stair."
at or through what is the figure staring? The density of the vertical
lines and the converging horizontal lines are certainly meant to convey
deep foreshortening (Fig. 8), so one may
deduce that the incomplete, hastily drawn grid contains squares and
rectangles. The grid can represent innumerable possibilities: Dürer's
device for drawing perspective (Fig. 9),
the checkered mosaic tiles of the Temple of Solomon, generally found
in Masonic lodges, and the magic square, to name a few. A possibility
that I would like to pursue, however, is that the grid represents a
chessboard, due to the fact that the grid contains eight squares at
its widest point, the same number of squares on a chessboard. The fact
that the grid is vertical rather than horizontal should come as no surprise,
since chessboards have been displayed vertically in order to study problems
since the Middle Ages (Figs. 10 and 11).
Duchamp himself had numerous chessboards displayed vertically in his
studio, as recorded in several photographs (Figs.
12 and 13). Moreover, several of his studies for Portrait
of Chess Players show the chessboard not only horizontally, but
scattered throughout the composition, in some cases above and behind
the heads of the players (Figs. 14 and 15).
If the figure on the right is examining a chessboard, it may lead to
an understanding of the role of the central "head."
click on images to enlarge
page 1 2
Lawrence D. Steefel, Jr. "Marcel Duchamp's Encore à
cet Astre: A New Look," Art Journal 36, no.1
Christian Norberg-Schulz, Existence, Space and Architecture
(New York: Praeger, 1978) qtd.; in
1, 2, 12, 14, 15