formerly attributed to Marcel Duchamp, Mimi Parent and other artists

Boîte alerte

1959

Not on display
Artists
Formerly attributed to Marcel Duchamp 1887–1968
Mimi Parent 1924–2005 and other artists
Medium
Cardboard box, catalogue, telegram on paper, 4 lithographs on paper, etching on paper, 10 envelopes and other materials
Dimensions
Object: 287 x 181 x 65 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Purchased 2000
Reference
T07621

Summary

Boîte Alerte was made as the deluxe catalogue for the Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme, commonly known as ‘EROS’, organised by André Breton and Marcel Duchamp, held at the Galerie Daniel Cordier, Paris, from 15 December 1959 to 29 February 1960. The work consists of a cardboard box covered in green paper on which the words ‘BOITE ALERTE’ are printed on the front. Below them a white label reads ‘MISSIVES LASCIVES’ (lustful letters) and printed on the left-hand side of the box are the words ‘EXPOSITION INTERNATIONALE DU SURREALISME’.

The title of the work, meaning literally ‘box on alert’, makes a pun on boîte à lettres (letter box). The box is filled with envelopes containing objects, letters, pictures and booklets contributed by several of the artists and writers who were involved in the exhibition. Two hundred and fifty boxes were made in total, an edition of twenty (numbered I to XX) which included Marcel Duchamp’s imitation rectified readymades, Couple of Laundress’ Aprons, and two further editions which included all the items except the aprons: one of two hundred, and one of thirty, the latter reserved for the exhibition participants. Tate’s version is number XIX in the first edition.

Through the juxtaposition of imagery and text, and through its range of ideas and references, Boîte Alerte reflects many of the principle interests and ambitions of the surrealist movement. As a collection or exhibition in miniature the Boîte calls to mind Marcel Duchamp’s ‘portable museum’ Box in Valise (Tate L02092). However, although Boîte Alerte has traditionally been attributed to Duchamp, it was in fact conceived by Mimi Parent, a Canadian artist living in Paris who had met Breton early in 1959, with Duchamp supplying the sub-title ‘missives lascives’. Parent had become involved with the EROS exhibition at Breton's invitation, conceiving one of its rooms, La Crypt du fétichisme (The Crypt of Fetishism), while her object Masculin/Feminin (Masculine/Feminine), in which Parent had arranged a man’s white shirt and jacket with a tie made of real hair, featured on the exhibition poster. The collaborative spirit of the EROS exhibition project was stressed by Breton who hoped that artists would not simply submit work, but ‘suggestions which would benefit the indispensable preparation of the whole event’ (Durozoi 2002, p.587).

The Boîte Alerte appears to be Parent’s response to Breton’s call. Her authorship is confirmed in a letter written by Breton to Parent and her husband, the artist Jean Benoît, in which Breton comments: ‘Concerning the green box which Mimi has had the happy idea of and for which she has produced a maquette, I imagine no one will raise any objection to its production.’ (‘En ce qui concerne la boîte verte dont Mimi a eu la si heureuse idée et établi la maquette, je suppose qu’aucun obstacle n’a surgi au sujet de sa réalisation.’) (Letter dated 4 August 1959, copy in Tate Archive). The extent of Parent’s involvement in the exhibition confirms the role of many women in the surrealist movement beyond simply that of muse or sexual object. However, as its title, EROS, suggests, the theme of the 1959 exhibition was that of the erotic, and specifically focused on the sexualised female, ‘enticingly warm and nourishing, yet at the same time threatening and violent’ (Mahon 2001, p. 291). The event was also a statement of transgression rallying against current political, social and moral orders. Every aspect of the exhibition was designed to shock and provoke, from Benoît’s performance The Execution of the Testament of the Marquis de Sade held on 2 December (the 140th anniversary of the death of the Marquis de Sade) to the eclectic contents of Boîte Alerte. Each version of the Boîte contained a copy of the regular paperback exhibition catalogue that included texts by Breton, Hans Bellmer, Man Ray, Jean Arp, Leonora Carrington, Benjamin Péret and Jean-Jacques Lebel among others. The ‘Lexique succinct de l’érotisme’ (A Brief Lexicon of Eroticism), itself collected from numerous contributors, includes Parent’s definitions: ‘Depraved person: one who descends the ascending staircase of pleasures’ and ‘Voyeur: one who, from his own point of view, shares the life of others’ (quoted in Penelope Rosemont ed., Surrealist Women: An International Anthology, Austin 1998, p.278). Similarly suggestive notions are found in the papers, objects and pictures which accompany the catalogue. Sometimes humorous and often mildly pornographic in nature, these items regularly incorporate provocative word and image-play typical of surrealism.

At the heart of the accumulated items are nine missives lascives, to which Duchamp contributed the explicitly sexual Couple of Laundress’ Aprons. Based on eighteenth-century erotic purses, they were put together by Mimi Parent, using as a model two tartan oven-gloves Duchamp had purchased in a New York novelty shop. The gloves were each split at one end as if to form a torso and two legs and into the two ‘groins’ were sewn material made to look like male and female genitalia. Although these sexualised oven-gloves alluded to the ‘hot’ reputation of louche French laundresses, the tartan material may also be seen as recapping Duchamp’s interest in men’s uniforms, cultivated while he was mapping the shapes of the nine bachelors in his major work The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass) 1915-23 (T02011). Another of the missives, an unsigned black stocking on which the word ‘HAUT’ (high) is printed at the top, references popular erotic pin-ups, while playing with linguistic opposites: the word ‘bas’ in French can mean both ‘low’ and ‘stocking’. In keeping with the spirit of innuendo is The Corridor by Robert Benayoun, a pamphlet of highly suggestive photographic mirror-images. The remaining missives lascives are written texts: André Pieyre de Mandiargues’s La Marée (The Tide); Joyce Mansour’s La Pointe (The Point), the front cover illustrated with Mimi Parent’s object Masculin/Feminin, a representative image for the EROS show, used on the exhibition poster; Alain Joubert’s La Perle fine (The Fine Pearl); and three texts whose authors remain unidentified: Lettres d’un Sadique (Letters of a Sadist); the disturbing pseudo-medical account of Edelmira B and a letter addressed mysteriously to ‘Monsieur....rue de....Paris’. Each of the nine missives were enclosed in individual paper envelopes, seven of which are printed with oblique phrases: ‘Avis de Souffrance’ (Certificate of Suffering); ‘Usage Externe’ (External Use); ‘Huis Clos’ (No Exit, also the name of a play by Jean-Paul Sartre, first produced in 1944); ‘Sois ardent en forêt’ (an adaptation of the proverb ‘Soyez prudent en forêt’, here meaning ‘Be fiery in the forest’); ‘A n’ouvrir sous aucun prétexte’ (Not to be opened under any circumstances); ‘Avez-vous pensé de donner un peu de sang?’ (Have you thought about giving a spot of blood?); and ‘Strictement Personnel’ (Strictly personal).

Through the juxtaposition of words, objects and pictures in this pseudo-anonymous mail box, the surrealists aimed to liberate the imagination of their audience. Imitation postage stamps were attached to a number of the envelopes, each illustrated with a woman baring her breasts and an anonymous hand reaching out to touch her genitals. The detail was taken from an engraving reproduced in an edition of Matthew Gregory Lewis’s Ambrosio, or the Monk, chosen by André Breton. Each of the stamps is franked with the inscription ‘Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme 1959-1960,’ and reproduced with the signatures of Breton and Duchamp in the centre.

In addition to the missives lascives is a seven inch double-sided vinyl record with readings of two surrealist poems, ‘L’Ivresse religieuse’ (Religious Intoxication) by Joyce Mansour and ‘La Brebis galante’ (The Gallant Ewe) by Benjamin Péret. The surrealist love of linguistic game-playing finds expression in a pink telegram addressed to Breton from Rrose Sélavy (Marcel Duchamp’s female alter-ego who first appeared in 1920 and whose name pronounced phonetically in French sounds like ‘Eros, c’est la vie’ Eros, that’s life). This reads as a cryptic pun about venereal disease: ‘I suppurate, you suppurate, the flesh suppurates. Thanks to the poor venereal fool who is scarcely venerable.’ (‘Je purules, tu purules, la chaise purule. Grâce au râble de vénérien qui n’a rien de vénérable.’ Translated in Durozoi 2002, note 7, p.760.)

As would be expected in a joint venture by the surrealist group, the pictorial works found in the Boîte display a range of styles and subjects. A set of five untitled prints four original lithographs and one etching, each editioned XIX of XX present diverse imagery concerning love, gender, sexuality or religion. Le Maréchal’s etching is the most elaborate of the five prints, describing a Calvary scene within a cavernous hell-like setting, a horned head at its centre, and an emaciated body stretched between two cliffs. Adrien Dax’s lithograph is based on the surrealist technique of frottage, a girl’s head visible among more decorative elements. The stylised gold on black lithograph from Max Walter Svanberg represents a non-human being composed of three masks and a pendulum hanging between a pair of legs. Toyen’s image of two leaves, whose red stalks almost touch, suggests the fertile union between male and female, in contrast to the violence of Miró’s print in which a monstrous phallus, transformed with tendrils and claws, attacks a symbol representative of the female sexual organ. As well as this group of prints, a single blot print, in which pigments have been daubed on paper and then folded to reveal a random but symmetrical image, recalls the mirror-image photographs found in Robert Benayoun’s The Corridor. It also resonates with images used in the Rorschach inkblot test, a psychological assessment developed by the psychologist and advocate of Freudian psychoanalysis Hermann Rorschach which emphasises the surrealist group’s interest in Sigmund Freud’s theories associated with the sub-conscious.

The work of other artists connected with the surrealist movement is represented in six colour reproduction postcards: Hans Bellmer’s La Poupée 1933-7, Salvador Dalí’s Guillaume Tell, 1930, Arshile Gorky’s The Orator, 1947, Joan Miró’s Le Piège, 1924, Max Walter Svanberg’s Bouquet de Lumière et de Crépuscules, 1958 and Clovis Trouille’s Le Palais des Merveilles, 1949 (the first three works are listed in the EROS paperback catalogue). As souvenirs of the exhibition, these postcards reflect the status of Boîte Alerte as a document to the 1959 surrealist exhibition. More than this, however, is the implication of the postcard as a means to send a message, bringing into play the notion of Boîte Alerte as a box into which ideas can be posted.

Further reading
Alyce Mahon, ‘Staging Desire’, Surrealism: Desire Unbound, exhibition catalogue, Tate 2001, pp.277-91.
Gérard Durozoi, History of the Surrealist Movement, Chicago 2002, pp.587-92.
Mimi Parent, Jean Benoît. Surréalistes, exhibition catalogue, Musée National des Beaux-Arts du Québec 2004.

Lucy Askew
November 2005

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Display caption

Boîte Alerte was made as the deluxe catalogue for the EROS exhibition organised by André Breton and Marcel Duchamp in Paris in 1959. The title is a pun on boîte à lettres (letter box) and the contents include letters, pictures and booklets by those involved in the exhibition. This collective work was conceived by the Canadian artist Mimi Parent who contributed an image of her object Masculin / Feminin. Among other items contained within the box are Duchamp’s imitation rectified readymades Couple of Laundress’ Aprons.

Gallery label, August 2011

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