The human body is beautiful, in all its many shapes and sizes, gender and colour, so why is it in art we are forced to admire from a distance? So many paintings through the ages show people frolicking in their birthday suits which we as the view are forced to view from a safe distance so we don’t get greasy finger prints all over the canvas or require the galleries to put up sneeze guards. Granted there are interactive exhibitions these days, but they can be few and far between, but for Marcel Duchamp, he was all about taking art from the academic trends and throw open the artistic world to a new phase in its maturity (Or lack of).
Prière de toucher Or Please Touch, was designed to be the front cover of the catalogue called Le Surréalism en 1947, which accompanied the exhibit Exposition internationale du Surréalism. This was the first post war surrealist art exhibition to be staged in Europe after World War II. The theme was myth and Duchamp along with André Breton organised the event, situated in the Marght Gallery, the designed the space in to a labyrinth of rooms intended to spiritually reawaken French society after the atrocities of the war. 999 of the catalogues were created for this event.
The catalogue itself holds 24 original prints from leading surrealists. It’s a hard back book (well cardboard covered), with a foam breast attached to the front surrounded by black velvet. On the back a blue edged note instructing ‘please touch’.
Duchamp collaborated with Enrico Donati to create this catalogue and originally they were set to make the 999 breasts to go on the front of the book, in fact studies of Maria Martins breasts were made (Duchamp was having an intimate affair with Martins), but quickly realising that this would take a great deal of time and not wanting to leave books breastless, they opted to use pre-fabricated foam and rubber breasts which they they painstakingly painted to look realised.
On discussing this process Donati remarked “I had never thought I would get tired of handling so many breasts” to which Duchamp responded “maybe that is the whole idea”.
Surrealism is naturally mischievous and this exploited the sexual tension of the piece, inviting the viewers to go beyond just seeing to exploring the tactile nature of the item in front of them. Really they had no choice but to fondle the breast to access the inner pages of the book.
Sexuality was an ongoing theme of Duchamp work, with other pieces which challenged viewer and could either make them feel uncomfortable or exploit the voyeuristic nature of art. Étant Donnés, Duchamp final piece truly explored this side of his fascination and humour.
Duchamp really pushed boundaries in his work, whether it be sexually charged, or the mundane, which was another clear theme, he wanted to move art from just being a retinal display, which was only intended to please the eye, to force art to serve the mind.
Whether you like Duchamp or not, we can definitely say that in the case of Prière de toucher, he left his audience feeling a right tit.