The pipe is one of the most iconic images of the surrealist movement, rooted in Magritte’s famous 1929 painting La trahison des images, which depicts a pipe accompanied by the caption “Ceci n'est pas une pipe” (This is not a pipe) (Sylvester no. 303; Los Angeles County Museum of Art). The present pipe was presented as a gift from Duchamp to the world renowned chess master, George Koltanowski, who had won a friendly game of chess against the artist on 10 March 1944, during which time Duchamp inscribed the side of the pipe with his own name and date. As Celia Rabinovitch has related in her exhaustive study on the present pipe, Duchamp and Koltanowski first met in 1923 at the Belgian Chess tournament and later again in Duchamp’s famous defeat of the chess master at the Chess Olympiad in Paris in 1929. They would come together in New York in 1942 (both had left Europe due to the outbreak of the Second World War) and founded the Greenwich Village Chess Club (see C. Rabinovitch, Duchamp a Smoking Pipe, From Marcel Duchamp to George Koltanowski, March 2015).
In 1944-1945 Duchamp organized The Imagery of Chess—an exhibition including the Pocket Chess Sets which he had designed. The exhibition, held at the Julien Levy Gallery and the Marshall Chess Club, most importantly featured Koltanowski playing chess blindfolded against seven surrealist artists. Dorothea Tanning recalled: “One evening (January 6th, 1945), in the Julien Levy Gallery a small invited public watched seven Chessboards manned by seven intrepid players: Julien himself; Frederick Kiesler, avant-garde architect and dreamer; Alfred H. Barr, the director of the Museum of Modern Art; Xanti Schawinsky, chess whiz; Vittorio Rieti, composer dear to Balanchine; Max Ernst and me, Dorothea, all of us braced to take on blindfolded chess-master George Koltanowski. Marcel Duchamp called out the moves. (For the record: everyone lost except Kiesler who managed a draw)” (quoted in ibid., p. 10).
Chess was a lifelong passion for Duchamp, who would become a competitive, award-winning player late in his life. He was introduced to the game by his older brother Jacques Villon who taught him how to play at age eleven. Growing up he engaged in competitive play with Jacques and their other brother Raymond Duchamp-Villon. Duchamp became so serious about the game that shortly after he ceased working on his ambitious La mariée mise à nu par ses célibataires, même, he decided to stop working as an artist altogether and contemplated becoming a professional chess player. It was, however, hard for him to reconcile that the two pursuits could not be one in the same: "'Why isn't my chess playing an art activity,' Duchamp asked Truman Capote. ‘A chess game is very plastic. You construct it. It's mechanical sculpture and with chess one creates beautiful problems and that beauty is made with the head and hands’" (quoted in A. Schwarz, The Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp, New York, 1969, p. 68).
Jacqueline Matisse Monnier and the Association Marcel Duchamp have confirmed the authenticity of this work.