Marcel Duchamp spent his whole art career toying with the grey area of ambiguity. This proto-post-modernist interest in multiciplicity and emphasis on the reality of existing in a constant, ever-changing landscape allowed for Duchamp to be considered the grandfather of the Avant Garde, as well as the grandfather of conceptual art.
Best known for his readymades, in particular, Fountain (1917), Duchamp has a massive body of art work attached to his legacy. Fountain itself existed to subvert the intention of not only the gallery space, but the art object as well. With no intention to emphasize the beauty or banality of everyday objects, Duchamp used ready-mades to interrupt a very strong, and all-encompasing motif within art-making: the Museum as an institition of objective truth.
Both dadaist's and surrealist's were aware of the authority the museum had in dictating the popularity of certain artworks. Other than their interest in propping up the avant garde, seen as anti-establishment and anti-war art work, many artists in both categories were interested in feminism, and anti-colonialism. They understood, and often, actually responded to issues of representation.
During the peak of surrealism, there were many magazines that came into existence in order to proliferate surrealist values. For example, philosopher, critic, librarian and ethnographer, Georges Bataille pressed Documents for about 5 years; where as Minotaur magazine was edited by surrealist ring leader (in opposition to Bataille, interestingly enough) Andre Breton. There are many other surrealist magazines (The Dyn Circle, Le Grand Jeu, etc). There was a lot of interest within the surrealist circles to dismantle what exactly gave power to an object on display, and publishing magazines, and artist's books was one way to respond to that.
Minotaur cover by André Masson and Documents 3-7, respectively.
In 1914, Duchamp created box forms that contained loose papers, scraps and photographs, in hopes of making books, that redirected ideas on the book as a concept, as well as what defined literature, or readable material (i.e., what was currently considered a book).
The Exposition Internationale du Surréalism in January, 1938 is really the starting point of the full realization of the Boîte-en-Valise. Twenty years before the creation of the series, Duchamp showed Fountain. The work, because of its everyday appearance, and tongue-in-cheek presence, was not recieved well. Though this did not interefere with the Duchamp's career, the piece did not gain notoriety as a sincere piece of art work until much later. This rejection of work caused Duchamp to think about the aura or originality, and the value that it gave pieces in the eyes of museums, galleries, and viewers.
The Boîte-en-Valise series was originally a portable, miniature, monograph of 69 individual reproductions per box. Twenty boxes were created between 1935-1940, though, all the boxes are marked 1938 to represent a conceptual shift. Duchamp originally referred to the valises as books, because he himself wanted to create an album of his own work. Duchamp contacted all of the owners and collections containing his works, and traveled to photograph them, some of the works he even brought back to study. The works he looked at include, but are not limited to: paintings, glass works, onbjects, unclassifiable productions, and photographs. While Duchamp himself has no issue with mechanical reproduction as a means of production, and was ultimately combating the idea the originality is limited strictly to handmade work, he chose to recreate his works with pochoir, a print-making method. Duchamp himself made 350 copies of the 69 pieces he chose to reproduce. The later, reproduce Boîtes (Boîtes Vert, Boîtes Rouge) were mechanical reproductions.
As I mentioned earlier, the original intention of the artist was to create books. In 1938, this idea was challenged. Duchamp began to make paper-mâche miniatures of his work. Keep in mind that at this time he was working on reproducing the paintings and other objects he created. With the addition of a 3D element, Duchamp breaks out of (or, rather, in terms of contemporary book-making, pushes the boundaries of bookmaking) books, and his original conception of the Boîte by introducing the need for a space that can contain the three-dimension. Duchamp believed that the introduction of the 3D object, dictated that this was no longer a book, but a museum. With that, he began to apply theories, and ideology to the way this object is viewed, the power of the viewers gaze.
BoÎte in theory
For Duchamp, reproduction was never about publicity, (Andy Warhol's Mona Lisa, as an example, marks the focus on reproduction as a tool of knowledge, and leveling of the playing field, in regards to class, and accesbility to artwork) nor was it just about the mechanical process as a means of art-making. Rather, Duchamp viewed reproduction as a method displacement, a "temporal and perceptional shift". If an object, like the readymade could already combine art with the commodity to a point of indistinction (a juxtaposition; a love-child of multiplicity-- a surrealist dream), and if this could be so negatively responded to by the institutional art community, Duchamp suggests with these objects, and their reproduction that the institution wants to deny the unity of the commodity and art...Though, art itself had existed as a status symbol, and a commodity through markets, before the birth of the readymade as we know it.
Duchamp himself had no real interest in using reproduction or commodities as a form of heroisim: he was not attempting to bring art to the masses, as many of the boîtes were made for friends and collectors privately. He was not interested in the functionality of the piece, and intended the piece to act the same as a gallery or museum space, with authoritorial power. These miniatures and reproductions served as intentionally useless placeholders for the real pieces. For Duchamp, the Boîte-en-Valise series, in its original format, in order to gain agency and control over his own work, and removing the politics of the museum from his work. This entitled the viewer, and owner of these boxes to interact with Duchamp in a more personal way. The way Duchamo saw it, this allow for a seperation of the artists as genius, because while the work was his, the individual pieces were simply copies of pre-existing work, as well as it in some ways, jepoardized the value, and implied worth of a piece, because of its location in an institution.
Filipovic, Elena. "A Museum That Is Not." A Museum That Is Not. 2009. Web. 05 Apr. 2016.
"MoMA.org | Interactives | Exhibitions | 1999 | Museum as Muse | Duchamp." MoMA.org | Interactives | Exhibitions | 1999 | Museum as Muse | Duchamp. MoMA. Web. 05 Apr. 2016.
*Much of the information here is information from my own head in regards to research of the work of and my own study. Much is common knowledge to me, at this point.