During my extensive research on Marcel Duchamp, I have repeatedly encountered the name Louis Michel Eilshemius and wondered why a Duchamp scholar has never seriously dealt with this artist.
Before I really knew Eilshemius’s work, there were always two questions that personally intrigued me: Why was Duchamp so interested in his oeuvre that he was ready, along with Katherine S. Dreier, to organize his first two public solo exhibitions at the legendary Société Anonyme, and whether Duchamp might even have been influenced by Eilshemius’s work?
Starting in about 1909, Eilshemius developed his own highly unusual artistic strategy that essentially embodied two prime elements. First, he tried to paint as many pictures as possible in a given period of time without subsequently correcting them (fig. 1). At the same time, he started to display his pictures in richly ornamented, painted frames. These frames are unusual inventions and have an exceptionally mysterious painterly quality that makes his works unmistakable and unique (fig. 2).
His painting, moreover, is light, poetic, inspired, subtle, romantic, spontaneous, timeless, and respectful towards the depicted subjects. It is, as it were, enraptured, wondrous, and topical, and it is produced amid an ascendant avant-garde that ignores it. Eilshemius’s pictures render visible the longing for authentic feeling, for the transfiguration of the commonplace, and for the charm of integrity. This is undoubtedly precisely what Duchamp intuitively grasped when he was so captivated by Eilshemius’s large-format painting Rose-Marie Calling (Supplication) at The First Annual Exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists at the Grand Central Palace in New York in 1917.
In my comprehensive publication Eilshemius: Peer of Poet-Painters (2015), I demonstrate how Duchamp’s enthusiasm for this outsider also finds expression in his own works. For example, the invention of “Rrose Sélavy”—his female alter ego—reminds us of the passage in Eilshemius’s fictional The Devil’s Diary (1901), in which he describes how the devil (meaning himself, the artist) turns into a woman by self-hypnosis in order to see the world from the female point of view. The nymphs visible through a kind of peephole in Three Nudes (1909 – 1913) (fig. 2) look ahead to Duchamp’s In the Manner of Delvaux (1942) while Duchamp’s The Green Ray (1947) bears a striking similarity to Eilshemius’s Boat through Opening (ca. 1909 – 13, Collection Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D. C). And when Duchamp visited the artist at his home and workplace in 1920 in order to discuss his first solo exhibition at the Société Anonyme, he saw paintings lying around everywhere, covered in centimeters of dust. Eilshemius had explicitly forbidden the cleaning woman to remove the dirt from the pictures. Only a short while later, Duchamp for his part left his unfinished The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (Large Glass) (1915–23) on the floor of his atelier in order to breed dust on it, actually having it photographed six months later by Man Ray as Dust Breeding (1920). However, with his numerous depictions of nymphs at waterfalls (fig. 1), Eilshemius had the most direct influence on Duchamp’s last major work, the diorama Given: 1. The Waterfall, 2. The Illuminating Gas (1946 – 1966) . . .
On the other hand, without Duchamp’s advocacy, neither Valentine Dudensing, one of the most successful New York art dealers, would have become aware of Eilshemius’s work, nor Henry McBride, New York’s most highly reputed art critic, would have become one of his staunchest supporters, nor such celebrated big-time American collectors as Duncan Phillips would have started buying the painter’s works. This in turn encouraged the Metropolitan museum, the Whitney, and the MoMA to purchase pictures from him. Eilshemius was all at once famous and in unsurpassed demand. In 1939 there were even three major solo exhibitions of his works at the same time in New York—in the Valentine Gallery, Kleemann Galleries, and Boyer Galleries. In today’s terms, this would be as if Iwan Wirth, David Zwirner and Larry Gagosian were to each stage a solo exhibition of his works at the same time.
His naïve unnaïvity, concrete abstraction, outmoded foresight, ingenious imperfection, thoughtless thoughtfulness, unintended inventiveness, accidental conceptualism, knowledgeable cluelessness, dreaminess and tenderness, or the spontaneity and speed of his works are some of the main reasons why Eilshemius has remained an artist for artists to the present day. He inspired Marcel Duchamp to create some of his most important, memorable, and finest works and concepts. George Gershwin was one of his first collectors and Milton Avery one of his earliest admirers, to be followed later by Louise Nevelson, Louise Bourgeois, Ed Ruscha, Jeff Koons, Ugo Rondinone, and Caroline Bachmann. Long live Louis Michel Eilshemius! Supreme Parnassian and Grand Transcendent Eagle of Art! Selah!
Stefan Banz is an artist and author. He lives in Cully, Switzerland.