“I like words in a poetic sense. Puns for me are like rhymes. … For me, words are not merely a means of communication. You know, puns have always been considered a low form of wit, but I find them a source of stimulation both because of their actual sound and because of the unexpected meanings attached to the interrelationships of disparate words. For me, this is an infinite field of joy – and it’s always right at hand. Sometimes four or five different levels of meaning come through.” –Marcel Duchamp, 1961 interview with Katharine Kuh
FIRST EDITION: A REMARKABLE ASSOCIATION COPY. INSCRIBED BY DUCHAMP TO HIS GOOD FRIEND AND ONE OF THE FOUNDERS OF SURREALISM, PAUL ÉLUARD.
Inscribed in ink on the half-title: "Cher Eluard / Marcel Duchamp"
Marcel Duchamp (1887–1968) used his female alter ego Rrose Sélavy as the “author” for many of his most audacious works, including this collection of aphorisms. As an artist, Duchamp is associated with Dadaism, Cubism, and Surrealism though he resisted group affiliations. Instead, he focused on art that served the mind rather than art that pleased the eye. Dividing his time between New York and Europe, he was also an accomplished chess player, a prankster, and a writer. He especially enjoyed experimenting with verbal punning, which he viewed as a source of inspiration and humor. In addition to working with his contemporaries in the Dada and Surrealism circles, Duchamp had a seminal influence on younger Pop artists like Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns.
Duchamp’s Rrose Sélavy was an artist, muse, and creative experiment that brought to life his symbolic use of language. Images of Sélavy – Duchamp dressed as a woman – first emerged in 1921 in a series of photographs taken by fashion photographer and artist Man Ray. Her name, as pronounced in French, sounds like “Eros, c’est la vie”, meaning “The passion of love [sex], such is life”. This describes Duchamp’s vision of life: the joy to live and roam free in thought. Rrose Sélavy inspired everything from collections of surrealist poetry to a 1921 sculpture called Why Not Sneeze, Rrose Sélavy?. Sélavy gave Duchamp an opportunity to show off his fondness for wordplay and his interest in androgyny and gender fluidity; Duchamp was, after all, the artist who drew a mustache and beard on a postcard of the Mona Lisa.
In 1939, his collection of aphorisms entitled, Rrose Sélavy: Oculisme de precision, poils et coups de pieds en tous genres [Rose Sélavy: Precision oculism, complete line of whiskers and kicks] was published by Guy Lévis-Mano, renowned for printing works by prestigious artists such as Paul Éluard and Man Ray. This copy we have on offer is inscribed “Cher Éluard. Marcel Duchamp.” Duchamp personally dedicated it to his close friend Paul Éluard, a French poet and one of the founders of the Surrealist movement. Though Duchamp wrote “word plays” as early as 1922, this collection was the first time his puns were published in one place. In this anthology of anagrams, double-entendres, and spoonerisms, he played with words that often had nothing to do with each other such as “My niece is cold because my knees are cold” and “abominable abdominal fur.” Duchamp believed that “if you introduce a familiar word into an alien atmosphere, you have something comparable to distortion in painting, something surprising and new.” (“Marcel Duchamp interview with Katharine Kuh”)
On the relationship between Paul Éluard and Duchamp:
Duchamp and Éluard were part of an intimate group of artists that included Pablo Picasso, Man Ray, Salvador Dalí and Max Ernst. The mutual admiration and close ties between Éluard and Duchamp were evident throughout the 1930s. In 1936 Éluard presented Duchamp with a collection of his poems which was inscribed “a Marcel Duchamp, votre ami Paul Éluard” [“to Marcel Duchamp, your friend Paul Éluard”]. He also wrote “Rosse-est-la-vie” under his inscription, likely an allusion to Rrose Sélavy. In 1938, the year before Duchamp presented Éluard with this signed collection of aphorisms, they collaborated on the Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme [International Surrealist Exhibition] in Paris. Curators André Breton and Paul Éluard recruited Marcel Duchamp to serve as generator (art director) and mediator—Breton and Éluard were often at odds with each other. Salvador Dalí, Max Ernst and Man Ray also contributed to this major cultural event which pioneered the innovative concept of an immersive art show and proved to be the key Surrealism exposition during the interwar period.
The Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme represented the last time that Duchamp, Éluard and their fellow artists would present work together in Europe, since many Surrealists, including Duchamp, fled France to escape Nazi persecution. In 1940, Duchamp assembled his Boîte-en-valise [Box in a Suitcase], a valise containing 79 small reproductions of his works, including his 1939 collection of aphorisms, which he re-copied onto music paper. Later that year Duchamp carried Boîte-en-valise to New York City, where he joined a number of the Surrealists in exile, including Breton and Ernst. Éluard remained in France distributing anti-German flyers and writing anti-Nazi poetry under a pseudonym, frequently moving around to avoid detection by the Germans. Throughout his life Paul Éluard was an avid art and book collector so perhaps this inscribed copy of Rrose Sélavy: Oculisme de precision, poils et coups de pieds en tous genres was a parting gift from Duchamp to Éluard.
Marcel Duchamp and Paul Éluard were instrumental in the founding of Modernist artistic principles. Their work directly inspired the development of Pop art and Conceptual art and there’s even an oyster bar in Manhattan called Sel Rrose, after Rrose Sélavy. Both Duchamp and Éluard experimented with new verbal techniques and the free expression of thought. This inscribed copy of Rrose Sélavy: Oculisme de precision, poils et coups de pieds en tous genres exemplifies the humor and absurdity appreciated by two of the most important members of the 20th century Parisian avant-garde, and connects them by inscription and ownership of this unique piece.
Provenance: From the collection of Paul Destribats (1926-2017), who assembled what is generally regarded as the finest collection of books on the avante-garde.
First edition. One of 500 copies on vélin blanc (out of a total edition of 515). This copy not numbered, likely indicating it was intended for presentation.
Paris: G.L.M., 1939. 12mo (158 x 114mm). Half brown morocco from 1963 by Pierre-Licien Martin, with his gilt stamp and gilt date. Original wrappers bound-in. Pierre-Lucien Martin attended the École Estienne from 1927 to 1931, learned binding from Charles Chanat, and design from Robert Bonfils. He won the Prix de la Reliure Originale and is considered one of the best bookbinders of the 20th century. Minute wear to spine, otherwise fine.
Pierre Cabanne. Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp.. London: Thames and Hudson, 1971.
The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Paul Éluard.” Encyclopedia Britannica, 10 Dec. 2022.
“Marcel Duchamp interview with Katharine Kuh.” Philadelphia Museum of Art. Harper & Row, Publishers, 1961.
Marcel Duchamp. Rrose Sélavy: Oculisme de precision, poils et coups de pieds en tous genres. Paris: Guy Lévis-Mano, 1939.
Alexander Hawkins. “Meet Rrose Sélavy: Marcel Duchamp’s Female Alter Ego.” AnOther Magazine. December 01, 2015.
Robert Lebel. “Marcel Duchamp.” Encyclopedia Britannica, 28 Sep. 2022.
“Pierre-Lucien Martin.” The Oxford Companion to the Book. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.
Benedetta Ricci. “The Shows That Made Contemporary Art History: The International Surrealist Exhibition of 1938.” Artland Magazine.
Price: $20,000 .