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Fig. 1


Fig. 2

Francis M. Naumann A Problem with
No Solution


In 1943, Marcel Duchamp was asked by the gallery owner Julien Levy to design the announcement for an exhibition to be called “Through the Big End of the Opera Glass.”¹ As the title implies (adapted, as it was, from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass), the show was to feature unusually small-scale work. Years later, Levy explained that the idea for the exhibition came from having seen an example of Duchamp’s valise, in which the artist had packed miniature reproductions of his work into a portable suitcase.² The show was to include not only work by Duchamp, but by two other artists as well: the French Surrealist painter Yves Tanguy, and the American collage and assemblage artist, Joseph Cornell. Within the announcement (Fig. 1), Duchamp reproduced a black-and-white layout by Cornell featuring the titles of Cornell’s work printed in a variety of expressive type faces surrounded by a collage of images referring to them, while Tanguy was represented by a drawing of one of his characteristically biomorphic three-dimensional shapes, accompanied, in this particular instance, by an opaque black shadow that curiously overlaps it.
          For his own contribution, on the back cover of the announcement Duchamp provided the image of a cupid with a stretched bow and arrow in his hands, but the figure is inexplicably reproduced upside down, for the artist’s signature—which is oriented legibly—streams off to one side at the level of the cupid’s head. At first glance, knowing that Duchamp often appropriated imagery for whatever purpose was required—in the fashion of culling images readymade—one might easily conclude that the cupid was clipped from some printed source and collaged into this position. However, the original layout for this announcement was recently discovered among the effects of Julien Levy, and it is now known that Duchamp painstakingly drew the cupid himself in pen and ink (Fig. 2). It is likely that he took the time to render this image because he could not find the reproduction of a cupid fixing his arrow in this precise direction, a detail that, as we shall soon learn, is critical to his intent, for the significance of the cupid’s aim can only be understood when the announcement is unfolded and fully opened.


1. The date of this exhibition has been given variously, as either 1943 or 1948. Julien Levy consistently gave the date as 1943 (see his autobiography, Memoir of an Art Gallery [New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1977], p. 309, as well as the reference contained in the following note). For reasons that are unclear, however, in all editions of his otherwise reliable catalogue raisonné of work by Marcel Duchamp, Arturo Schwarz gives the date as 1948 (see The Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp [New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1969], cat. no. 329, page 523; revised and expanded edition [New York: Delano Greenidge Editions, 1997], cat. no. 530, p. 793, and descriptive bibliography 71, page 904). The date of 1943 cannot be challenged, however, for the show was reviewed in The New York Times on December 12, 1943 (I am grateful to Ingrid Shaffner for bringing this citation to my attention).

2. See the statement provided by Julien Levy for a brochure published on the occasion of “Through the Big End of the Opera Glass II,” a recreation of the original 1943 show at the Joan Washburn Gallery, New York, February 15 -March 12, 1977 (the brochure contained a facsimile reprint of the original fold-out catalogue).

FRANCIS M. NAUMANN is an independent scholar, curator and art dealer, specializing in the art of the Dada and Surrealist periods. He is author of numerous articles and exhibition catalogues, including New York Dada 1915-25 (Harry N. Abrams, 1994), Marcel Duchamp: The Art of Making Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (Harry N. Abrams, 1999), Wallace Putnam (Harry N. Abrams, 2002) and, most recently, Conversion to Modernism: The Early Work of Man Ray (Rutgers University Press, 2002). In 1996, he organized “Making Mischief: Dada Invades New York” for the Whitney Museum of American Art, and in 1997, “Beatrice Wood: A Centennial Tribute” for the American Craft Museum in New York. He is preparing for publication a selection of his essays on Marcel Duchamp, and currently owns and operates his own gallery in New York City.

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