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The Exiles of Marcel Duchamp

by T. J. Demos
The MIT Press, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2007
320 pp., illus. Trade, $24.95
ISBN: 0-262-04237-1.

Reviewed by Kieran Lyons
University of Wales, Newport


"By escaping the determination of architecture’s social regimentation, by ultimately refusing to be in the place of his own identity, Duchamp, of course, had the last laugh."

So ends T. J. Demos’ The Exiles of Marcel Duchamp,and in finishing this way he underscores the familiar image of Duchamp as the enigmatic trickster, the mercurial personality who was always somehow ahead of the game – and yet there are prolonged sections of this impressively researched and argued book when Demos seems to suggest otherwise. At such times, a more troubled personality appears, revealing the considerable strain of negotiating the wars and political upheavals that shaped his life and times. Demos’ achievement is to return Duchamp to the turbulent events that engulfed this period, from which he periodically tried to extricate himself but which have largely slipped from the literature devoted to the subject. He joined the migration of intellectuals escaping from France, all of whom endured the longeurs and particular disempowerment of exile. Duchamp first crossed the Atlantic in 1915 and this predates the main thrust of events that form the key themes of this narrative. By the time he arrived back in New York in 1942, he already had an influential group of friends in place. Duchamp’s exile was, therefore, of a different order to the other Surrealists who found themselves in America at about the same time. Demos does not explore the imperatives that drove Duchamp’s departure from France in 1915, and there are even earlier instances that would also have contributed to this narrative. He was separated (perhaps not unhappily) from his family as boarder while at school and his conscription, two years before his actual call-up, might also have been cited when as a volunteer of 18 he served his time in the infantry barracks at Eu. Perhaps the condition of exile is seen most clearly in his abrupt decision to leave Paris in 1912 in order to work away from his associates for five months of unrecorded isolation in Munich in 1912.

Demos structures the material in his book into four separate chapters – separate essays almost – that are situated, first of all in 1940, with Duchamp creating his Boite en Valise ‘Box in a Valise’ (1941). He then winds back to 1918 with Duchamp in Buenos Aires, obviously pleased with his Sculpture de Voyage ‘Sculpture for Travelling’ that he brought with him. From here the narrative accelerates forward to Paris in 1938 and his curatorial role for the Exposition International du Surréalisme and finally to New York in 1942, where as the eponymous exile he disrupts, again, the opening of the ‘First Papers of Surrealism’ exhibition – and what mugs those surrealists were to allow him to steal their thunder a second time. It would be difficult to imagine such docile acceptance by fellow artists today. By all accounts the surrealists were just as self-regarding and prone to direct action, just as capable of tearing down coal-sacks and unravelling string as their 21st century counterparts would be today. In doing so, the aggrieved Surrealists would have performed a gesture to compete favourably with Duchamp’s laborious interventions in the first instance – they would have had the last laugh. The material and insight that Demos brings to this particular subject is informative, and convincing, but at times his discussion is predicated on established lines of critical theory, limiting a simpler approach that might have added to his exegesis. This is where, for this reviewer, the book’s chief problem lies. For all Demos’ convincing analysis in the final two chapters the complex interpretation he develops is predicated on the face value of photographs. These images are of course taken from the surviving archive, but there is insufficient attention given to the fact that the evidence they bring is really only a fractional moment in the extended chain of events that make up an exhibition. This quite possibly saw (I would say probably saw,) the apotheosis of tearing down and unravelling mooted above. Lewis Kachur’s 2001 ‘Displaying the Marvelous’ provides a more extensive inventory of the separate works in the exhibition and yet the additional photographs he includes show the audience in a manner that is stilted and posed, suggesting that the rather sparse public were there to obey the photographer’s instructions. It would be interesting to know what happened to these installations after the publicity photographs were taken.

It might be argued that to do this would have deflected from the principal theme of the book stated in the title The Exiles of Marcel Duchamp. Although the work is nominally, and principally, devoted to aspects of the life and career of Duchamp within this Surrealist period, Demos nevertheless extends his theme to the Surrealists themselves, and how exile became a defining condition of the surrealist dilemma in the 1940’s. Few of these artists had any experience of the displacement that would follow although ironically, collage, Surrealism’s lasting legacy to the methodology of practice, is predicated on the awkward and disconcerting juxtapositions of displacement. Demos’ analysis of Surrealism’s melancholy transformation from a movement bent on integration through a dynamic relationship with the city (hence the ‘Surrealist Street’ of the 1938 exhibition) to a sadly displaced group of misfits, badly adapted to their new conditions, who retreated to the salon as a last bastion of artistic survival – is particularly good and illuminating.

The majority of Surrealist exiles to America had never been there before the 1940s, but Duchamp had been shuttling backwards and forwards across the Atlantic (five times between 1919 and 1924,) before taking up residence in Paris, only to leave for Casablanca and then New York after Germany invaded France in 1940. He eventually took up American nationality in the 1950s and in this stable period the conditions and concerns of exile must have fallen away. This is why, surely, Demos restricts his discussion and ignores the final productive quarter of Duchamp’s life when he was secretly revisiting earlier ideas in Étant Donné, between 1946 and 1968. The exhausted architecture of this installation seems to bear witness to the decline of Surrealism.

The conditioning influence of exile is made most clearly in chapter two when Duchamp, in order to escape impressment into the American army took ship to Buenos Aires, taking with him also his portable, pocket-sized installation of rubber bathing caps that could be effortlessly expanded to stretch and configure into a multiplicity of spaces; how economical this work is in comparison to the coal sacks that he would laboriously install in Paris twenty years later. In the 1918 work Duchamp fuses the practical conditions of being a nomad within the metonym of displacement. This successful elision does not happen so easily with the other projects discussed in The Exiles of Marcel Duchamp. La Boîte en Valise, for instance in chapter one, serves as an elegant metaphor of the condition of exile but is also freighted with so many other attributes of memory, fragility, multiplicity, commerce, legacy and reputation that the metaphor becomes subsumed within these. The later Surrealist exhibition installations are too dependent on the specifics of architecture and institutional forms and as I suggest, too dependant on the questionable evidence of documentary photographs. Nevertheless, from the vantage of 1918, we can look forward to the conceptual links and the formal similarities that occurred later on. Demos has succeeded in foregrounding this somewhat under-considered work, but it is really his discussion of how Sculpture de Voyage and its derivatives demonstrate in Demos’ own words a ‘dedication to mobility [that] is particularly meaningful at this historical moment when identity was entering into regimentation in the face of world war.’ On arriving in Argentina, Duchamp commented in a letter, that it was a bit like arriving as a German prisoner of war because of the similarity between Argentine and German uniforms. It is this sense of being shadowed by European and American militarism and the artistic forms that followed that runs as a leitmotif through this book that makes it such a productive and rewarding read.

The book’s format is small compared to most of the other M.I.T books on my shelf, and this gives it the feel of an initial primer. This is deceptive, although Demos’ prose style is always easy to read the material he deploys assumes that the reader has previously assimilated the fundamentals of Duchamp’s career and gone, in fact, some way beyond this point. ‘The Exiles of Marcel Duchamp’ should be consulted as a follow-up to other more generic introductions to the artist, but should also remain as a stable point in the exponential growth of books that his legacy generates.



Updated 1st October 2007

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