In the Manner of Duchamp, 1942-47: The Years of the "Mirrorical Return"

Article excerpt

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° La chute d'eau / 2° 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. …