die Kiste im Koffer

Looking up something else in Francis Naumann’s Marcel Duchamp: The Art of Making Art in The Age of Mechanical Reproduction, I was caught off guard by the timing of the creation of la Boîte-en-Valise, which was still being conceived as an album:

On the very day when Arensberg wrote this letter [May 6, 1940], the advance of German troops forced Duchamp to flee Paris. With his sister Suzanne, and her husband, Jean Crotti, as well as Salvador Dali and his wife, Gala, Duchamp moved temporarily to the small village of Arcachon [on the southwest coast of France, near Bordeaux], where, to his surprise, he was delighted to discover that he could still carry out some work on his album. “I can even work,” he reported in a letter to the Arensbergs. “I found a good printer and I’m making progress on my album.” Indeed, work on the album continued at such an intense pace that when he returned to Paris in September, he arranged for a subscription bulletin to be printed announcing that the first deluxe examples of the album–which was now officially titled from or by MARCEL DUCHAMP or RROSE SELAVY–would be available on January 1, 1941. The description continued as follows:

“A box of pullouts [tirettes], leather covered (40 x 40 x 10[cm]), containing a faithful reproduction in color, cut-outs, prints, or scale models of glasses, paintings, watercolours, drawings, ready mades; /this ensemble (69 items) represents the most complete example of the work of Marcel Duchamp between 1910 and 1937. / This deluxe edition is limited to twenty examples numbered I through XX and each are accompanied by a signed original work / The price for each example is set at 5,000 francs, which will be reduced to 4,000 francs before the subscription period ends on March 1, 1941.”

The first valise rolled off the assembly line almost exactly on schedule. “My new box is finished,” Duchamp exclaimed in a letter to Roché written on January 7, 1941. “I am reserving one for your.” Ten days later, he wrote to Roché again, saying that although he is able to make about three boxes a week, he knows of only a few possible clients who could be sufficiently interested to purchase one. He asks Roché to tell Peggy Guggenheim that a deluxe edition is now ready (which, for the first time, he refers to as a “valise“), and she could have one for the subscription price of 4,000 francs. Finally he mentions to Roché that he is “having difficulty in finding the skins to make the outer valise.”


So to be explicit here, Germany attacked France on May 10th, 1940, took Paris on June 14th, and the French government eventually evacuated to Bordeaux. All the while Duchamp is contracting, producing and assembling the first Boîtes-en-Valise.

The Guggenheim Collection in Venice website calls this a Valigia, in German, it would be die Kiste im Koffer. And apparently Duchamp found he could produce the leather case at Louis Vuitton.

Rationing in occupied Paris began in September: “The rationing system also applied to clothing: leather was reserved exclusively for German army boots, and vanished completely from the market. Leather shoes were replaced by shoes made of rubber or canvas (raffia) with wooden soles.”

Naumann continued: Although he encountered some difficulty in securing leather during the time of the Occupation,…in May of 1941, he did manage to secure enough to issue two more deluxe examples [after Peggy Guggenheim’s, which was I/XX].” They were for his companion Mary Reynolds [the first of four 0/XX, actually] and poet George Hugnet [II/XX].

This part I knew, but didn’t register: In the Spring of 1941 Duchamp found out Guggenheim was shipping her entire art collection from Grenoble to the US, and asked her to take the loose materials for fifty Boîtes-en-Valise. In order to transfer those materials to her, Duchamp got a childhood friend/grocer to certify him for three months as a cheese merchant, so he could travel. The material was all shipped by the Summer of 1941. Duchamp himself wouldn’t arrive in New York until May 1942.

[Next morning update: Of course, this was all known, even by me. Ecke Bonk has researched and written all this. It was all exhaustively laid out in the rare sale by the family of the original owners of what is now called a Series A Valise, at Christie’s in 2015.

Duchamp’s years-long efforts to find and reproduce accurate color images of his work, at a significant scale, in increasing uncertainty and literal peril all sounded exciting but slightly wearying when they’re recounted, for example, in an auction catalogue. And the slight production variations and different original artworks included in each deluxe edition in a catalogue raisonée kind of blur together in a safe, documentary haze.

I guess it just hits differently now. Why it’s easier now to recognize the wartime trauma, if not outright desperation, the project was immersed in. Duchamp fleeing to the countryside with all these years of amassed bits in a literal boîte. And the way the wartime New York Valises are filleted with drawings and maquettes of the pocket chess set Duchamp was working on, that was sure to be a commercial hit, and was not at all a thing. And the timeline clicks into place that it took until 1949 for the last deluxe Valise to be fabricated and sold.]

[Next night update: It’s been a lively day of discussion with folks about this, and there are a lot of views. I think the excerpts Wayne Bremser pulled from Calvin Tomkins’ Duchamp biography are the most salient; tl;dr: Duchamp took a leisurely cruise to safety, while Mary Reynolds, who stayed behind to run a Resistance cell from her Paris apartment with Picabia’s daughter, spent arduous and death-defying months to reach the US. Truly startling. And worse because I had read Tomkins multiple times, and none of this landed on me like it does right now. It really is me (and [gestures around dumbly] all this).]

[Day after that update: Reading Hilton Als’ essay in the catalogue for Robert Gober’s 2014 MoMA show, and he references Auden’s poem about Brueghel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, where “dogs go on with their doggy life.” And I remember I wrote about that Auden and that Brueghel in the Summer of 2002.

And then Als talks about Gober’s Two Partially Buried Sinks and quotes Molly Nesbit in 1986, writing how the mass-produced object–or its facsimile–”contains longings for individual greatness…and fears of loss.” And then he goes on to talk about Duchamp at length, and I feel a separate blog post coming on.]