Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968)
Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968)

Prière de toucher

Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968)
Prière de toucher
signed and dated 'Marcel Duchamp 1947' (lower right); printed on a metal label, the artist's name, title and date 'Prière de toucher/ Marcel Duchamp/ 1947' (lower center)
foam-rubber breast and black velvet on board
10 x 9 in. (25.4 x 22.9 cm.)
Executed in 1947.
Mary Sisler Collection, Palm Beach
Mrs. Catherine Perrot, Paris
Yves Arman, Paris
Private collection, Monte Carlo
Shoshana Wayne Gallery, Santa Monica
Robert Shapazian, Venice, California, 1991
His sale; Christie's, New York, 11 November 2010, lot 104
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner
R. Lebel, Marcel Duchamp, New York, 1959, p. 175, no. 191, pl. 118 (illustrated).
P. Hulten, ed., Marcel Duchamp: Work and Life, Boston, 1993, p. 147, no. 1:3 (illustrated in color).
A. Schwarz, The Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp, v. II, New York, 1997, pp. 787-788, no. 523a.
London, Tate Gallery, The Almost Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp, June-July 1966, p. 74, no. 172 (illustrated).
Auckland, Australian State Galleries, Marcel Duchamp, The Mary Sisler Collection: 78 Works 1904-1963, November 1967-October 1968, n.p., no. 71 (illustrated).

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Sara Friedlander
Sara Friedlander

Lot Essay

Jacqueline Matisse Monnier and the Association Marcel Duchamp have confirmed the authenticity of this work.

An iconic example of Marcel Duchamp’s conceptual, particular and provocatively erotic objects, Prière de toucher begs the viewer to “Please touch.” The work, which was produced for the first post-war Surrealist exhibition in Europe, features a woman’s breast (rumored to be based on the breast of Duchamp’s lover, the Brazilian sculptor Maria Martins) in foam rubber encircled by a swathe of luscious black velvet. On one hand, Prière de toucher is a sexual comedy, as Duchamp mocks the codified behavior in museums and other public spaces where one is required to stiffly comport oneself in the face of obviously erotic encounters. On the other hand, the piece touches on Duchamp’s love affair with the “anti-retinal,” or art that goes beyond stimulating the eye and instead stimulates the mind—an erotics of gray matter (for Duchamp, eroticism was a cosa mentale)—and other senses like touch. A provocateur object that makes no attempt to veil its erotic charge, Prière de toucher emerged as a mischievous counter to the era’s dominant definition of art as a purely visual—and all too frequently ascetic—experience.

The present work originated from a Surrealist exhibition spearheaded by Surrealist leader and ex-Dada member André Breton in 1936. The Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme at the Maeght Gallery in Paris was Breton’s third Surrealist exhibition and his first since the end of the Second World War. Breton enlisted the help of Duchamp, who, in addition to co-organizing the exhibition, agreed to design the cover of the catalogue. Duchamp produced a highly material piece, a woman’s rounded breast in foam-rubber arranged on black velvet fabric. Rémy Duval, who was known for his photographs of nudes as well as artists in their studios, was instructed to photograph the work in black and white for the catalogue cover. For the deluxe limited edition run of the catalogue, Duchamp and Italian-born painter Enrico Donati hand-painted foam-rubber prosthetic breasts acquired from a Brooklyn warehouse, to resemble the left breast of artist Maria Martins; they then used glue to affix the breasts to a light-pink cardboard cover. On the catalogue’s back cover emblazoned in capital letters was the tongue-in-cheek command “PRIERE DE TOUCHER” (PLEASE TOUCH). In order to read the catalogue, one had to literally handle—fondle—the breast. Duchamp’s ribald sense of humor led to the confiscation of the catalogue by authorities as it traveled from Paris to Geneva, “not because of its contents, but [because] of its cover, which is considered ‘immoral’” (J. Gouch-Cooper and J. Caumont, “Ephemerides,” entry on 5/17/47, quoted in P. Hulten (ed.), Marcel Duchamp, Cambridge, 1993, n.p.).

The work’s use of a foam-rubber breast positions Prière de toucher as a Duchampian readymade, akin to his hallmark urinal and bicycle wheels. At the same time, the present work engages with the outlandish sensuality that suffused another important subset of Duchamp’s oeuvre, a seductive body of work that included small-scale erotic objects Feuille de vigne femelle (Female Fig Leaf) and Coin de chasteté (Wedge of Chastity) (the latter of which is made from dental plastic), and the tableau Etant donnés. Duchamp believed that “sexuality and eroticism were ‘the basis of everything and no one talks about it’…[and compared] the act of love to a ‘four-dimensional situation par excellence’ (T. Girst, “Pieces of the Puzzle,” Frieze, Issue 127, November-December 2009, n.p.). The sense of titillating voyeurism present in Prière de toucher and its cohort plays on the peep shows that Duchamp likely saw in Paris and in New York’s Times Square, in which an erogenous body part is isolated and displayed to a heightened effect. Prière de toucher is also linked to 17th and 18th century wunderkammers, or cabinets of curiosities, in which the viewer would pull out fantastic diminutive objects from a cabinet and handle them in order to “see” or know them. With these wunderkammers, the act of seeing became an intimate and highly involved act of touching.

With work like Prière de toucher, Duchamp broke new conceptual-aesthetic ground. The artist explained, “[Eroticism] kept me from being obligated to return to already existing theories, aesthetic or otherwise” (M. Duchamp quoted in R. Kuenzli, “Introduction,” Marcel Duchamp: Artist of the Century, R. Kuenzli and F. Naumann (eds.), Boston, 1996, p. 7). Duchamp’s pioneering work is unrivaled in the breadth of its influence, the distinctive, trailblazing approach at work in Prière de toucher inspired such important movements as Pop Art, Happenings, Op Art, Minimal Art, Conceptual Art, and Postmodernism. “Tradition is the prison in which you live,” said Duchamp of his singular oeuvre. “How can you escape from those pincers?” (M. Duchamp in conversation with C. Tomkins in 1964 in C. Tomkins, Marcel Duchamp: The Afternoon Interviews, Brooklyn, 2013, p. 83).

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