In the Manner of Duchamp, 1942-47: the years of the 'mirrorical return'.

Author:Singer, Thomas
Position:Critical Essay
 
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New Yorkers out on the town for an evening of art in late October 1942 would have found Paul Delvaux's Aurore (1937) holding pride of place at the far end of the long, narrow room that displayed Surrealist works in Peggy Guggenheim's newly opened gallery Art of This Century on West Fifty-seventh Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues. The painting depicted four tree-women nude from the waist up, bark from the waist down, standing in a circle around a short masonry pedestal on which rested a mirror and a large, white fabric bow. The mirror held the image of a fifth woman's breasts (Fig. 1). (1)

Had these art viewers then visited the First Papers of Surrealism exhibition at the Whitelaw Reid Mansion on Madison Avenue at Fiftieth Street, they would have seen reproduced in the catalogue a photograph of the tondo of Marcel Duchamp's In the Manner of Delvaux (1942), a small collage composed of the circular photograph set on a field of tinfoil and backed with cardboard. The photograph showed the top of a small masonry pedestal on which rested a mirror and a large, white fabric bow. The mirror held the image of a woman's breasts (Fig. 2). (2)

These art viewers might reasonably have assumed that Duchamp had composed his collage either by photographing the central detail of Delvaux's painting or by cutting out a circular piece from a reproduction. (3) The two works seemed so alike that in the time it took to walk through midtown from the Art of This Century gallery to the First Papers exhibition, their slight differences, so slight as to be "infra-thin," according to a concept Duchamp had developed, would be lost to memory. (4) But contrary to what the New Yorkers of 1942 might have supposed, the photograph of Duchamp's collage was neither a photograph of the central detail of Delvaux's painting nor a cutout from a reproduction. The photograph of Duchamp's collage repeated all the elements of Delvaux's detail, but the breasts were not identically shaped, the angle of vision in the two works was slightly but noticeably different, and even the fold of the fabric bows below the mirror differed in subtle ways (Fig. 3). With these minute variations, In the Manner of Delvaux was both "the authentic work of Rrose Selavy" (5) and a humorous piece of apparent forgery, a species of artistic blague. As Duchamp later told an interviewer for a French weekly news magazine: "I have a very great respect for humour, it's a protection that allows one to pass through all the mirrors." (6)

The collage also served a more serious purpose. It was Duchamp's "visiting card." (7) In the Manner of Delvaux announced that by a personal "renvoi miroirique," a "mirrorical return," Duchamp had come back, after a delay of some twenty years, to live in New York, the city where he had exhibited the painting Nude Descending a Staircase to scandalous acclaim, constructed The Large Glass, named and publicly exhibited his readymades, and created his female persona Rrose Selavy. And, with the enigmatic sleights of hand that were Duchamp's specialty, the collage hinted at a new approach to his work, a mirror image one might say, of Duchamp's previous artistic style and practices. In short, Duchamp was moving from the two-dimensional glass of The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (1915-23) to the three-dimensional installation Etant donnes: 1[degrees] La chute d'eau / 2[degrees] Le gaz d'eclairage (Given: 1. The Waterfall / 2. The Illuminating Gas).

The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even is an enormous work, slightly over nine feet high and almost six feet wide, whose elements were constructed largely of oil paint, varnish, lead foil, lead wire, and dust. It is composed of two panes of glass of the same size, one mounted on the other. The top panel is the realm of the bride, whose most important elements are the bride herself, on the left-hand side, and her cloudlike cinematic blossoming, which seems to emanate from her and move across the top of the glass from left to right. The lower panel is the realm of the bachelors, which shows, more or less from left to right, the nine malic molds, the waterwheel in its glider, the coffee grinder surmounted by the sieves and the scissors, and finally, the oculist witnesses. Duchamp abandoned work on the piece in 1923, leaving it definitively unfinished, particularly the right-hand third of the bachelors' realm, where the oculist witnesses were to have been joined toward the bottom by the corkscrewlike toboggan and the splash and, toward the top, by the boxing match and the juggler of gravity. It is not the purpose of this essay to explain how all of these elements function, let alone what we are supposed to make of the ensemble, but the reception accorded The Large Glass, and Duchamp's work in general from 1912 on, has varied from considering it one of the twentieth century's greatest hoaxes to one of its greatest enigmas.

In 1934 Duchamp published an edition of 320 copies of the almost identically titled (only the comma is missing) The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors Even. Each copy contained in a green-flocked cardboard box a collection of ninety-three scrupulously reproduced facsimiles of the notes, drawings, diagrams, and photographs, with one color plate, that recorded his thinking about and plans for the work in glass. Only some of these thoughts and plans were implemented; a good number were rejected or simply never executed. While most of the material comes from the years 1912 to 1915, when Duchamp was planning the work in Paris, there are pieces that date as late as the early 1920s. In part to distinguish these (almost) identically titled works, the former has been commonly referred to as The Large Glass, while the latter has been called The Green Box. In fact, they are two parts of a single work. "I thought I could collect, in an album like the Saint-Etienne catalogue [then something like the French equivalent of the Sears, Roebuck catalogue], some calculations, some reflexions, without relating them," Duchamp told an interviewer late in his life. "I wanted that album to go with the 'Glass,' and to be consulted when seeing the 'Glass' because, as I see it, it must not be 'looked at' in the aesthetic sense of the word. One must consult the book, and see the two together. (8) The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even is neither The Large Glass nor The Green Box; it is both of them considered in conjunction.

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

The full title of Duchamp's final great work appears twice in the notes of The Green Box: "Given / 1st the waterfall / 2nd the illuminating gas." (9) Duchamp, as I will argue below, began planning this work in 1942, and he executed the piece in "silence, slowness, and solitude" from 1946 to 1966. (10) According to his instructions, the piece, the existence of which was known only to Duchamp, Maria Martins, his lover during the late 1940s, and his wife, Teeny, was installed after his death off the large room containing his earlier work, including The Large Glass, in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The viewer enters a small, dark room, one side of which shows two old Spanish doors (Fig. 26). In the doors are two eyeholes through which the viewer, now a voyeur, beholds the shocking sight of a lifelike nude splayed out on a bed of twigs and holding a lamp containing the illuminating gas in her uplifted left hand (Fig. 11). Behind her rises a hilly, forested landscape down which a waterfall glitters in the bright light. The relation between The Large Glass and Etant donnes, or Given, will be the subject of much of what follows.

Just as his earlier speculations about the fourth dimension had helped Duchamp generate ideas for The Large Glass, so his current speculations about the infra-thin and the renvoi miroirique were generating ideas about new works.

During the summer of 1945, Duchamp told his friend Denis de Rougemont, "I believe that by the infra-thin one can pass from the second to the third dimension." (11) While mirror images had been important in his thinking about the fourth dimension, they took on new importance with regard to the infra-thin, and especially with regard to the "infra-thin separative difference" that intervenes between supposed "identicals," one example of which would be an object and its mirror image. In a note, Duchamp indicated a parallel between infra-thin and "... Mirror and reflection in the / mirror maximum of / this passage from the 2nd to the 3rd / dimension." Duchamp reconceived the renvoi miroirique, which originated as one of the many processes at work in The Large Glass, as an infra-thin phenomenon. The word renvoi carries different meanings besides the general sense of "return," which includes precisely the more narrow sense of the reflection of an image in a mirror (Le Petit Robert offers the phrase "Les miroirs nous renvoient notre image," Mirrors return our images). Renvoi also refers to a postponement, a deferment, or a putting off, that is, renvoi miroirique can refer to "a delay in glass," a phrase Duchamp used in order to insist that The Bride Stripped Bare was neither a picture nor a painting on glass. But the delay applies to the identity factor in mirror images as well. Mirrors, or any reflecting surface, for that matter, play a substantial role in the construction of human identity and in the fashioning of self-image. In another note on the infra-thin, Duchamp writes, "In Time the same object is not the / same after a 1 second interval--what / Relations with the identity principle?" To return to the phrase from Le Petit Robert example, mirrors reflect our images, but not ourselves--it is a renvoi with an infra-thin "delay included." (12)

In the Manner of Delvaux may seem too slight a work to inaugurate so substantial a reversal in artistic practices and style. After all, the photographic collage did not attract much attention at the time of its creation. (13) But Duchamp was a magician in the economy of...

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