Author: Bert Jansen
In 1947 André Breton asked Marcel Duchamp to help him design a layout for the exhibition Le surréalisme en 1947, which was staged in July and August in Galerie Maeght in Paris. This group exhibition, the first after the end of the Second World War, was set up as a series of ritual tests that visitors had to undergo before they could see the artworks. The visit had to be a surreal experience. Duchamp came up with the idea of a ‘maze’ for the exhibition space and a ‘rain room’ in which a curtain of water fell on a sculpture by Maria Martins.
The exhibition included an installation by Duchamp that he had got Roberto Matta to make. It was a display case with the Manieur de gravité, a detail from his key work Le Grand Verre (1915-23) which only existed as a note and was never executed. At the bottom of the display case was a woman’s breast made of foam rubber. Duchamp also used a breast like this for the cover of the deluxe edition of the exhibition catalogue, 999 copies of which were published. Duchamp bought a thousand foam rubber breasts, which he and the artist Enrico Donati stuck on the cover over a piece of black velvet. On the back of the cover he put a label bearing the words Prière de toucher (please touch), a sly nod to the usual signs in museums that tell visitors not to touch the artworks. In an interview with the art critic Pierre Cabanne, Duchamp told him that at the time he saw the false breasts in a shop. It struck him that they were not fully finished because they would eventually be covered by clothing anyway, and so he took the trouble to paint them realistically with pink paint, one by one. In the trade edition of the catalogue the breast was replaced by a black-and-white photo. In 1990 Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen acquired the cover of the deluxe edition of the 1947 exhibition catalogue, but without the actual catalogue itself. It was twenty-five years later, in 2015, that the museum finally managed to get hold of the accompanying publication from Ursus Books & Prints in New York.
The first time Duchamp designed the layout of an exhibition at Breton’s request was in 1938 for the Exposition internationale du surréalisme, likewise in Paris. The atmosphere in the exhibition was that of a dark, dismal cave. He installed a fire basket in the centre of the room and hung 1,200 coal sacks filled with paper from the ceiling. There were withered leaves on the floor and a pool with ferns. Coffee beans were roasted, creating a smell of coffee in the exhibition. The sound of marching German soldiers came from loudspeakers. At Man Ray’s suggestion, every visitor was given a torch to look at the works. In 1942 Duchamp also made an installation for the Surrealist exhibition First Papers of Surrealism in New York by criss-crossing the room with hundreds of metres of rope so that visitors’ view of the works was obstructed.