- Duchamp’s “Luggage Physics”: Art on the Move
During the period of the buildup and onset of World War II, Marcel Duchamp reassembled reproductions of his artistic works in The Box in a Valise (1935-41). This portable museum of miniaturized reproductions, presented in limited edition as signed originals, raises seminal questions about his supposed abandonment of art. Does his gesture of taking refuge from war imply a retreat into art? Is this compilation of reproductions in a valise merely a self-referential artistic exercise? Or does it represent a reflection on the vulnerability of art in the face of war, since according to Duchamp, "art never saved the world"? An examination of his correspondence regarding his first migration to the U.S. during World War II along with his experiments with portable art during this period suggests that the trauma of war exacerbated his growing disenchantment with art. This essay shows that rather than attempting to reclaim past history as an object of nostalgia or autobiographical self-reference, The Box in a Valise delineates a postmodern horizon for new forms of making through appropriation that are no longer reducible to art and to the institution of the museum.
Besides, you know, all my work, literally and figuratively, fits into a valise . . .—Marcel Duchamp, 16 Dec. 1954
“Well, it had to come. How long will it last?” wondered Marcel Duchamp in a letter to Katherine Dreier about the onset of World War II following the invasion of Poland. “How will we come out of it, if we come out of it?” At fifty-two, and thus too old for military service, Duchamp envisaged doing “some civilian work to help. What?? Everything is still a mess,” he exclaimed. In Paris, half deserted and in darkness, he was “waiting for the first bomb, to leave for somewhere in the country.”1 The eruption of the war had Duchamp packing his bags again, just as he did during World War I when he first came to America. In this period he was producing materials for a box packed in a valise, a folding exhibition space that would assemble reproductions of his artistic corpus. Resembling a portable museum, The Box in a Valise (1935–41) collected 69 miniature reproductions and replicas that he intended to assemble in America.2 Traveling between the unoccupied and occupied zones with a cheese dealer’s pass in the spring of 1941, Duchamp anxiously transported across the German lines a large suitcase filled not with cheese, but with materials for his boxes.3 The materials for assembly and reproductions for fifty boxes were shipped off to New York in 1941 in two cases, along with Peggy Guggenheim’s recently acquired art collection, under the label “household goods.” By 14 May 1942, when Duchamp got his papers and headed from Marseilles to New York, most artists and intellectuals had already left France; this escape route would soon be cut off.4 Fleeing the ravages of war in the nick of time, Duchamp would once again assume the migrant condition inaugurated by his arrival to the U.S. during World War I.
Duchamp’s repeated attempts to take refuge from war reflected his enduring aversion to militarism and patriotism. Speaking of the reasons for his first migration to the U.S. during WWI, he stated: “I had left France basically for lack of militarism. For lack of patriotism, if you wish” (Cabanne 59). He held this conviction throughout his life, although after WWII it was colored by ambivalence and regret.5 Even as early as 1905, “being neither militaristic nor soldierly,” he availed himself of the exemption of “art worker” by becoming a printer of engravings (the other option was to be a typographer) in order to reduce his military service (Cabanne 19–20). Duchamp’s aversion to war largely overlapped his discontent with art and his sense that he was incompatible with its endeavors. In a letter to Walter Pach (27 Apr. 1915), he notes the combined impact of war and art on his decision to leave France:
For a long time and even before the war, I have disliked this “artistic life” in which I...