5 minutes with... Marcel Duchamp’s Boîte-en-valise

‘In a way, you’re getting 79 Duchamp works for a fraction of the price of one of his Readymades,’ enthuses specialist Tudor Davies of the artist’s self-made portable retrospective. It is offered in Paris as part of the Bénédicte Pesle collection 

‘Marcel Duchamp’s Boîte-en-valise, which translates roughly as “box in a suitcase”, is a rectangular carry case that unfolds to reveal a mini museum containing 79 tiny replicas and reproductions of his most famous works,’ explains Tudor Davies, Christie’s Head of Impressionist and Modern Art in Paris. 

For Duchamp (1887-1968) there was little distinction between an original and a reproduction. In 1917 the artist famously submitted an upside down urinal signed ‘R. Mutt, 1917’ to the Society of Independent Artists’ Salon in New York City.  The work, which Duchamp called Fountain, went on to become the most famous of his ‘Readymades’ — objects taken from everyday life and re-contextualised into works of art. Duchamp’s question of whether an artwork could be a concept, rather than an object, would become his legacy.

Marcel Duchamp with a Boîte-en-valise, photographed circa 1957. Photo © Michel Sima  Bridgeman Images. Artwork © Association Marcel Duchamp  ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London

Marcel Duchamp with a Boîte-en-valise, photographed circa 1957. Photo: © Michel Sima / Bridgeman Images. Artwork: © Association Marcel Duchamp / ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London

‘This museum-box concept, which occupied Duchamp between 1935 and 1941 ahead of his move to New York, reflects his continuing exploration of this idea of what constitutes an original,’ explains Davies. ‘Duchamp decided he would be the first artist to curate his own retrospective, but conceived as a new work itself.’

In order to source the materials necessary to make each box in the first series he created, Duchamp posed as a cheese merchant, travelling through Nazi-occupied France with a German issued laisser-passer and a salesman’s display case which, behind the cheese samples, contained secret compartments for his miniature artworks.

Marcel Duchamp (1887-1969), Boîte-en-valise, Series F, signed ‘Marcel Duchamp’ (on the interior of the box), wooden box and cardboard with red leather cover and red linen finish, including 80 miniature replicas and reproductions of works by Marcel Duchamp. 41.2 x 38.5 x 9.9 cm (16¼ x 15⅛ x 3⅞ in). Designed between 1935 and 1940; this version made in Paris and Milan in 1966

Marcel Duchamp (1887-1969), Boîte-en-valise, Series F, signed ‘Marcel Duchamp’ (on the interior of the box), wooden box and cardboard with red leather cover and red linen finish, including 80 miniature replicas and reproductions of works by Marcel Duchamp. 41.2 x 38.5 x 9.9 cm (16¼ x 15⅛ x 3⅞ in). Designed between 1935 and 1940; this version made in Paris and Milan in 1966 in an unnumbered edition of 75 copies. Offered in She Was a Giant: Bénédicte Pesle on 18 October 2018 at Christie’s in Paris

The first 20 editions of the initial series of boxes were gifted to Duchamp’s friends and patrons. Each subsequent series over the next 27 years was produced as a commercial exercise. ‘Their portability made them great self-promotion tools,’ says Davies. ‘There is a fantastic picture of him opening one up in Peggy Guggenheim’s apartment in New York.’

Duchamp labelled each series from A-G, with certain iterations containing slightly different sets of artworks. This box, created in 1966, is from series F, which according to Duchamp’s catalogue raisonné should have 80 artworks. ‘When Duchamp tried out series F, he wasn’t happy with part of the mechanism for sliding one of the artworks out,’ explains the specialist. ‘He took that piece out of each of the editions from the F series, so that in reality they contain 79 artworks.’

This box still contains every one of those 79 miniatures, including a tiny version of Fountain, as well as his early Cubist painting Nude Descending a Staircase, No.2, and his famous sculpture The Large Glass.

Marcel Duchamp’s signature on the red linen finish inside the box

Marcel Duchamp’s signature on the red linen finish inside the box

‘The box is wonderfully evocative of Duchamp’s conceptual practice and take on the nature and comparative value of art,’ Davies adds. ‘It's full of ambiguity, which blurs the line between original and reproduction, and handmade versus Readymade.’

The Stedellijk in Amsterdam, National Gallery of Scotland in Edinburgh and MoMA in New York each contain versions of Duchamp’s Boîte-en-valise. ‘In a way, you’re getting 79 Duchamp works for a fraction of the price of one of his Readymades,’ Davies says, ‘and unlike those, these have actually been crafted by the artist.’

This box has come from the collection of Bénédicte Pesle, the great French patron and gallerist. Pesle introduced the post-war New York avant-garde art scene to Europe, promoting artists such as Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. Her collection contained some of the most important names in 20th-century art, and is remarkable for having been built through personal connections with the artists.

Christie’s will be selling works from the collection of Bénédicte Pesle, including Boîte-en-valise, in She Was a Giant, a dedicated sale in Paris on the 18 October.