The Space Between: Literature and Culture 1914-1945

Marcel Duchamp’s Guernica?: “His Twine,” the First Papers of Surrealism (1942), and Aerial Warfare in Europe

James Housefield
University of California, Davis

Marcel Duchamp used twine to create a web-like space around the art exhibited in First Papers of Surrealism (1942), simultaneously crafting an engaging exhibition design and a distinctly innovative artwork. The impact of this exhibition design has been well explored. Where its status as an artwork is concerned, however, little attention has been given to the relevance the twine would have had in relation to the war in autumn 1942. No publications address the specific context of aerial warfare that this paper investigates. Through visual analogy, references to recent wartime events in the accompanying exhibition catalogue, and a consideration of the material (guncotton) used to make the work, this article builds the case that Duchamp’s web echoed images from war-torn Europe. Duchamp brought the exterior landscapes of aerial warfare in Europe inside the stately mansion hosting the exhibition, thereby transforming the offices of the Coordinating Council of French Relief Societies into a landscape of nocturnal air raids and ground-to-air artillery. In this way, Duchamp’s “twine” merits consideration as a work to rival Pablo Picasso’s mural Guernica (1937), which appeared in a peripatetic array of international exhibitions from 1937 to 1943 promoting political statements to oppose war and fascism. By contrast, the references to war entangled in Duchamp’s twine were subtler—if no less explosive.

Keywords:  Marcel Duchamp / exhibition design / Pablo Picasso / Surrealism / World War II.


Marcel Duchamp’s design for the exhibition First Papers of Surrealism has long stood as a milestone in the history of installation art and innovative display techniques (Fig. 1). For this installation, Duchamp used twine to frame the art displayed within the Manhattan offices of the Coordinating Council of French Relief Societies.

Duchamp’s twine created a web-like enclosure around the artworks on display, making an immersive multisensory space that held the potential to influence or transform a visitor’s experience of the art. New York Times art critic Edward Alden Jewell situated the exhibition in the heat of World War II by calling it “surrealism’s all-out against the Axis” (Jewell 26). Jewell’s opening-day preview of First Papers thus borrowed patriotic hyperbole of the day. With this phrase he proclaimed the exhibition space as a battleground where the surrealists would give their all to defeat the Axis powers of Germany, Italy, and Japan. One need not overemphasize the words of critics like Jewell to recognize that the wartime context of 1942 remains worthy of renewed exploration. A cursory review of that year’s exhibition programming demonstrates war’s omnipresence in New York art galleries. The potential meanings of Duchamp’s twine installation for the First Papers exhibition were amplified by the war that had brought refugee artists to New York. Like his readymades and other works, Duchamp’s exhibition designs generated multiple meanings from a combination of contextual specificity and visual analogy—the latter sometimes reflecting the intellectual practices of verbal / visual puns (Housefield 115, 143, 152). When seen in the historical context of wartime events surrounding the October 1942 exhibition opening, and in conjunction with the exhibition catalogue designed by Duchamp, the string installation takes on new meanings. Through visual analogies with the new landscapes of nocturnal air raids, Duchamp’s twine brought the war’s battles stateside (Fig. 2). Duchamp’s First Papers of Surrealism installation rivals Pablo Picasso’s painting Guernica (1937) for its engagement with the ethical questions posed by modern aerial warfare (Fig. 3).

Scholars, critics, and curators have long pitted Duchamp against Picasso in competition for the title “artist of the century” (Birnbaum and Gunnarsson; Kuenzli and Naumann; Leymarie). Such a competition may well have been on Duchamp’s mind in 1942, by which time the two artists had a well-established rivalry. André Breton sought to claim both creators for his Surrealist movement. In 1921 Jacques Doucet, pioneer of haute couture, hired Breton to be his personal librarian. Whereas Picasso’s competition with Henri Matisse in part played out as a bid for the patronage of Gertrude and Leo Stein, the Picasso / Duchamp rivalry emerged against a backdrop of surrealist exhibitions and the patronage of Doucet (Bishop 58; Richardson 353). During the 1920s, Duchamp and Picasso benefited from the patronage of the fashion designer and art collector Doucet, who seemed a most likely candidate to start a museum of modern art in Paris. "The modern artist must hate Picasso in order to make something new, just as Courbet hated Delacroix," Duchamp told an interviewer in 1933 (qtd. in Eglington 11). In subsequent years, Picasso and Duchamp’s works were shown together in major surrealist exhibitions including those of 1936 and 1938, respectively, at the Galerie Charles Ratton and the Galerie Beaux-Arts, in Paris.

Duchamp arrived by boat from war-torn Europe via Casablanca on June 25, 1942. Weeks before, his patrons Walter and Louise Arensberg had loaned Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase No. 2  to the “Free France” exhibition organized by the Santa Barbara Museum of Art (Fig. 4). 

Through its scandalous success in the 1913 Armory Show, Nude Descending a Staircase No. 2 had made Duchamp’s reputation in the United States (Fleuriet i–ii, 5–10). Donald J. Bear, director of the newly-opened Santa Barbara Museum of Art, borrowed from the Arensbergs to organize an exhibition in relation to the “United Nations Festival, representing Free France,” that would benefit Allied Charities and honor the French Resistance (Bear 17). Originally scheduled to last only a few days after its May 20, 1942 opening, it was so well attended that the museum extended it into June 1942. For the duration of this exhibition, Nude Descending a Staircase No. 2 hung near Picasso’s Guernica (Bear 17). Bear’s article in The News-Press of Santa Barbara referred to Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase No. 2 as “the most famous picture of modern times.” Comparing Guernica with it, he noted: “Both pictures are significant as analytical works that are pressed and pushed beyond the conventional limitations and traditions of painting. Therefore, it is not extraordinary that each of them have been instruments of a new approach to painting both upon the part of the artist, and the inquiring spectator.” With his twine for First Papers, Duchamp continued to push beyond the confines of the canvas and into the dimension of the spectator. Bear’s inclusion of the two paintings in this nearly forgotten California exhibition was timely, for the competition between Picasso and Duchamp continued to accelerate during the years in which they exhibited with the surrealists.

Picasso painted Guernica to fulfill a commission calling for a work to be exhibited in the Spanish Republic’s pavilion at the 1937 Paris Worlds Fair (the Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques dans la Vie Moderne). Amidst the Spanish Civil War that began in 1936, the pavilion was intended to make a political statement in support of the Republican Spaniards and in opposition to the Nationalist forces led by General Francisco Franco. On the afternoon of April 26, 1937, the village of Gernika (Guernica) felt the force of Franco’s military collaboration with Fascist forces from Germany and Italy. Franco sought to crush the Republican spirit and demolish the Basque hill country village of Gernika through aerial bombing attacks by the Nazi Luftwaffe Condor Legion and the Fascist Italian Aviazione Legionaria bombers. International news agencies responded immediately to decry this unprecedented use of military air power in a civilian massacre. Picasso’s Guernica became associated with the horrors of war and the inhumanity of aerial attacks on civilian populations. 

Guernica was nothing if not peripatetic in the years immediately following its completion. Its travels worked to raise popular awareness of both contemporary warfare and contemporary art. Its extensive tour meant that its messages were received worldwide as diverse constituencies viewed the painting. Guernica became an easily decrypted cipher decrying the horrors of war and the threat of fascism. After the conclusion of the Paris Exposition Internationale on November 25, 1937, Guernica traveled to Oslo, Stockholm, and Copenhagen before returning to France.  In 1938 it traveled to be exhibited in the United Kingdom as a benefit for the National Joint Committee for Spanish Relief. Guernica then traveled to the United States, where it continued in its role as a vehicle to raise charitable funds for the Spanish people. Exhibitions of Guernica and related works supported the Spanish Refugee Relief Campaign with venues at the Valentine Gallery, New York (May 4–27), and the Stendhal Gallery, Los Angeles (August 10–21, 1939). Guernica returned to New York in time for MoMA’s major exhibition “Picasso: 40 Years of his Art” (November 15, 1939–January 7, 1940; that show traveled to the Art Institute of Chicago February 1–March 3, 1940). The mural returned to MoMA to join the “Masterpieces of Picasso” exhibition (July 16–September 7, 1941). It figured centrally in the exhibition “Guernica, the mural by Pablo Picasso, with 59 preparatory studies” at the San Francisco Museum of Art (now SFMOMA; August 27–September 18, 1941), followed by Harvard University’s Fogg Museum of Art (September 24–October 30, 1941), then the Columbus (Ohio) Gallery of Fine Arts from November 4–30, 1941. Guernica traveled to Santa Barbara for the “Free France” benefit exhibition from May 20 into June, before returning to Harvard (June 26–September 15, 1942). After war was declared within Europe in 1939, Picasso entrusted Guernica as a long-term loan to MoMA. MoMA continued to support Picasso’s requests that it be loaned to travel, including a spate of international exhibitions in the 1950s. After these travels it returned to MoMA to await its eventual post-Franco era return to Spain in 1981, where it now resides in the Reina Sofia Museum of Madrid. MoMA’s founding director Alfred H. Barr, Jr., described Guernica’s peripatetic existence and the impact of its travels: “Picasso had too generously lent the Guernica about twenty times all over Europe and the U.S.A. The painting had been rolled, packed, shipped, unrolled, stretched, hung, and then unstretched and rolled, not counting the times when our Museum re-installed it after its return from elsewhere” ("Original"). Barr’s comments emphasize Picasso’s agency in promoting Guernica’s travels. The political urgency motivating its display to combat fascism in Europe remains absent from Barr’s retrospective statement. Guernica’s messages to wartime audiences were deeply political.

Picasso’s painting was indelibly associated with crimes against humanity perpetrated in a new military strategy that had by then become all too common. Regardless of the name applied—“area bombing,” “carpet bombing,” “saturation bombing,” and “obliteration bombing”—all were synonymous. This form of strategic bombing transformed warfare by targeting civilians and inflicting psychological damage upon a nation. During World War II, the Nazi Luftwaffe adapted the experimentation with area bombing they had rehearsed at Guernica to similarly unleash attacks on Rotterdam in the Netherlands (May 14, 1940) and London, England (September 7, 1940–May, 1941). The lengthy London attacks collectively became known as the London Blitz. These saturation bombings directed at civilian targets were conducted under the cover of darkness, primarily, to decrease the likelihood that the invading planes would be detected. Photographs of Duchamp’s installation for the First Papers of Surrealism exhibit bear a striking resemblance to the new photographs created that documented nocturnal aerial bombing raids. 

Duchamp arrived in New York’s harbor from Casablanca, Morocco, on board the Serpa Pinto on Thursday June 25, 1942. Guernica had returned from its display alongside Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2, and would be visible to the public on the walls of the Fogg Museum the next day. On June 30, 1942, a few days after Duchamp’s return to New York, Breton hosted a party in his apartment to welcome the artist stateside. Breton and Duchamp soon began to plan an event that would continue the tradition of international surrealist exhibitions and be a point of convergence for exiled European artists in the United States, encouraged by the patronage of fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli. They envisioned the exhibition would also be a charitable benefit for the Coordinating Council of French Relief Societies (CCFRS). First Papers of Surrealism, as it came to be known, remained on display in the Whitelaw Reid Mansion, home to the CCFRS, from October 14 to November 7, 1942. The exhibition’s title referred to the first step in the process of naturalization by which an alien becomes a United States citizen. After residing in the USA for two years, an alien could file a “declaration of intent” to become a citizen, a process referred to as “first papers” on the road to citizenship. After three additional years of residence, the person could petition for naturalization. A certificate of citizenship would be issued after the petition was granted. For the surrealist artists, displaced by a war that showed no sign of ending soon, questions of home and citizenship remained pressing. By titling the exhibition First Papers, Breton and Duchamp signaled both that Surrealism had an established presence in the U.S.A. and was on its way to becoming American. Duchamp contributed art to the exhibition, designed its catalogue, and installed the works on display, “completing” them with the addition of string. Like the catalogue covers that evoked lunar landscapes through photographs of cheese and a stone wall, Duchamp’s exhibition design evoked a landscape—albeit a cratered landscape from war-torn Europe (Housefield 200) (Fig. 5).

Duchamp reportedly strung a mile of twine throughout the central room of the exhibition space in the Whitelaw Reid Mansion, obscuring the Baroque-style painted ceiling and architectural moldings while partially enveloping certain of the surrealist artworks on display. John Vick has dispelled the long held notion that the string prevented visual or physical access to individual artworks, and has emphasized the degree to which it was hung for the camera, to orchestrate the photographic documentation of the string and the exhibition. Contemporary reviews alternated between treating Duchamp’s twine as an artwork and an annoyance (Altshuler 297–308). The twine wove in and out of the space, pooling and gathering around the edges of individual artworks while creating a web-like structure that hung noticeably from the ceiling. Scholars such as Bruce Altshuler, T.J. Demos, Elena Filipovic, David Hopkins, Lewis Kachur, Susan Power, Martica Sawin, Dickran Tashjian, and John Vick have advanced various interpretations of Duchamp’s twine and its potential meanings, from labyrinths and spider webs to the string game of cat’s cradle. Demos refers to the string as creating “a space of conflict” (Demos 181). Despite his interest in the war’s displacement of Duchamp and the surrealists, Demos does not align the webs of twine with photographic representations of war. Hopkins, Béatrice Joyeux-Prunel and Kieran Lyons have analyzed Duchamp’s relation to the military. Yet no previous study has considered military analogies in the string installation. Duchamp’s string, I contend, echoed photographic representations of modern night combat. Specifically, he evoked imagery the military produced and disseminated. These photographs documented aerial raids by attacking bombers and the illuminating tracers and anti-aircraft fire sent from the ground in response (Fig. 6). 

Comparing Figure 1 with Figures 2, 6, and 7 allows me to demonstrate the visual analogy between photographic documentation of the First Papers installation and of nocturnal bombing raids. Such photographic documentation was common during World War II. Night photography required slow shutter speeds. Using a technique comparable to that of astronomical photography, leaving the shutter open for hours to photographically track the stars through a single night, these battle photographs required a much shorter duration of the open shutter to capture the transits of anti-aircraft projectiles fired at bombers overhead. Military slang that developed around anti aircraft artillery (variously “AA,” “AAA” or  “triple-A”) circulated as popular references in the months of the London Blitz and, especially, in the exaggerated patriotism in the United States that followed the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and the U.S. entry into war with Japan (December 8, 1941), Germany (December 11, 1941), and Italy (December 11, 1941). British soldiers in World War I deploying AA weaponry referred to them as “ack ack” guns, and the name transferred to U.S. forces. International forces adopted the German acronym “flak,” derived from the German “Flugzeugabwehrkanone” or aircraft defense cannon, which swiftly entered into the slang of many nations. Despite the variety of language, these terms all focused on the weaponry and ammunition of anti-aircraft artillery.

Throughout the 1940s, the visual culture of aerial warfare included these dramatic photographic depictions of night battles in addition to daylight documents of the bombings’ aftermath. Such photography circulated through governmental information ministries to appear in newspapers and magazines. The Royal Air Force (RAF) recognized early on that photographs they circulated of the London Blitz and anti-aircraft attacks galvanized public opinion in favor of the British. These circulated internationally and were published widely. During World War II, the Associated Press (AP) readily transferred photographic images on the day they were taken and thus reached audiences worldwide within hours, thanks to their telephone-based Wirephoto network. Popular cinematic and press references to anti-aircraft and aerial war proliferated during the early 1940s. The British Ministry of Information circulated the film Ack Ack in 1940, and the U.S. War Department titled a training film Flak several years later. 

“Tracer” ammunition cartridges fired by anti aircraft artillery illuminated the skies to make visible attacking enemy aircraft. Color-coded tracers made it easier to distinguish which side originated the artillery fire; U.S. troops, for instance, used red tracers. Black and white photography reduced bombs, tracers, and artillery fire to white lines that snaked and wrapped across the space between earth and sky like skeins of living yarn. An official British photo that circulated via the AP Wirephoto services described a typical scene: “NETWORK OF ACK-ACK, TRACERS OVER ALGIERS. Flak thrown up by allied anti-aircraft guns and tracer bullets cuts a spider-web pattern in the night sky above the Allied port of Algiers, North Africa, to make navigation difficult for enemy bombers raiding the French colonial port for the first time after Allied occupation.” Although this photograph circulated more than a month after the Surrealist exhibition closed, it is characteristic of wartime photography. Similar images circulated at least as early as 1940.

During the months of 1942 following Duchamp’s return to New York he met repeatedly with artist Joseph Cornell. Following a lunchtime meeting at Cornell’s home on July 31, 1942, Duchamp employed his fellow artist as a fabricator for an edition of his Boîte-en-Valise. Throughout his career, Cornell gathered ephemera to fill dossiers that might one day become the raw materials of artworks. At some point after 1941 he became interested in an image showing a network of anti-aircraft and tracer fire during a nocturnal aerial battle. Originally published in the Illustrated London News, October 10, 1941, the image showed the characteristic spider-web of flak and tracers from German guns over the Netherlands. According to Kirsten Hoving, Cornell clipped multiple copies of the image when it was later reproduced in Life magazine, with a new caption that placed the reader in the pilot’s seat: “Shelled pilot reports: a wee spot of light flak here” (Hoving 117–18, 267). Cornell mounted one such reproduction onto a sturdy backing for inclusion in a dossier of materials collected circa 1940–60 for a work to be titled Celestial Theater (Fig. 7). Cornell’s interest in childhood, innocence, and poetry, counterbalanced his awareness of contemporary geopolitical conflicts (Housefield and Davis 53–54). Air-to-ground warfare provided Cornell with dramatic yet elegant imagery for his Celestial Theater.

A pilot’s view looking down from an attacking bomber would have shown the landscape and other planes overlaid with a web of illumination. A longstanding interest in aviation and aerial views punctuated Duchamp’s career (Housefield 83–98). As Hopkins has demonstrated, Duchamp’s use of an aerial view in Dust Breeding (1920), a photographic collaboration with Man Ray, established “a remarkably direct allusion to the carnage of warfare” (Hopkins, “Duchamp’s Metaphysics” 125–26; see also Hopkins, “Duchamp, Surrealism, and Liberty”). Aerial photographs that documented the nocturnal battles of World War II could have given Duchamp a new kind of imagery to inspire the twine of First Papers. In addition to the artillery and tracers seen in the night sky, an observer of the nocturnal battle would register the luminous glow of searchlights and exploding bombs. Landscapes of destruction by aerial bombardment and anti-aircraft fire would have been a very real vision of the Europe the surrealist artists had left behind. With no such battles on North American soil, others would have known such imagery from a comfortable distance, glimpsed through news and entertainment media. If these were images from the space of the dreams and nightmares so valued by the surrealists, Duchamp’s installation gave tangible form to demons of the unconscious. Perhaps recognition of the potential wartime meanings of Duchamp’s twine would have tested the surrealists’ professed love of nocturnal landscapes (Housefield 169–72). 

By the time the Surrealist exhibition opened, urban areas across Europe and the United States had become accustomed to seeing the constellations of the night sky once again without light pollution. "Black out" orders meant that virtually all forms of exterior lighting were strictly forbidden.  Streetlights, illumination from within houses, vehicle headlights, and other light sources that might guide enemy aircraft to urban areas targeted for bombing all were extinguished.  Only starlight guided those who ventured onto the city streets during wartime. Although blackouts were rare in the United States before Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, the concept was understood well enough that Conrad Veidt's film Contraband, when released in the U.S. in November 1940, was retitled Blackout. Duchamp's exhibition design for the surrealists' 1942 New York display reprised many aspects of the 1938 International Surrealist Exhibit in Paris, especially his efforts to engage audiences through multiple senses and his conflation of indoor with outdoor spaces. Like the Coalsack Nebula of the Milky Way evoked by the physical coal sacks in Duchamp’s 1938 exhibition design, the twine he incorporated into the 1942 exhibition evokes lines of anti-aircraft flak and tracers that contribute to a reading of the interior as a nocturnal exterior space (Housefield 184–87). Because of the string’s material presence, these lines in space remained visible in darkness or light. Duchamp's 1942 exhibition design traded indoors for outdoors and merged day with night.

One key element of the exhibition’s opening night festivities transformed the luxurious rooms of the CCFRS offices inside the Whitelaw Reid Mansion into exterior spaces akin to streets, parks, or even public playgrounds. By changing the interior into an exterior, it became a landscape visited by aerial warfare. Along with the string, the most significant element of the opening night remarked upon by many who visited was the presence of young children playing, a topic Hopkins has explored for its manifold implications (Hopkins, "Duchamp, Childhood"). Rudi Blesh characterized the event as follows: 

The preview evening was invitational, distingué, and dressy. First the arriving guests were confronted by the string jungle. Then their ears were assailed by the happy shouts of children at play. The whole ballroom, in fact, looked like a public playground. A day before, and unknown to anyone, Duchamp had said to Sidney Janis's eleven-year-old son Carroll: "Get some friends together and I'll send taxis for you." Then he outlined his plans, concluding: "And pay no attention to anyone. Just play all evening." The guests had no choice but to pick their perilous way through this juvenile Olympiad. A half-dozen boys were vigorously and lightheartedly playing a sort of combination game with various types of balls. They wore football helmets, baseball pants, basketball sneakers, and gym shirts. A like number of girls were in little groups, skipping rope, playing jacks and hopscotch. Some foolhardy guests tried admonishing the children: "Why don't you little dears go out in the street and play where you belong?" "Mr. Duchamp told us we could play here," was the invariable answer. Mr. Duchamp, of course, could not be found. Having arranged the show, his final Dada gesture was not to attend. (Blesh 201)

Theirs was distinctly outdoor play. With this gesture, Duchamp brought the street-corner society of children’s play into the exhibition space, conflating inside and outside again. The interior had taken on the character of the streets of New York City, through which the traces of aerial warfare suddenly appeared as Duchamp’s twine.

The First Papers catalogue Duchamp designed with Breton offers an additional essential key to confirming the potential meaning of the installation as contextualized by aerial bombing. Much of the catalogue is devoted to mythology and “the survival of certain ancient myths.” A page devoted to the myth of Icarus appears opposite one dedicated to the myth of Original Sin, the latter featuring In the Manner of Delvaux, a photographic collage Duchamp created specifically for this catalogue (Breton). The Icarus myth is a cautionary tale, for the waxy wings he wore while flying began to melt when he flew too near the sun. In becoming the first human to fly, he soon became the first casualty of human flight. On the Icarus page, a brief line of text stands out starkly in the space between two reproductions, one showing a Chagall painting and the other a detail excised from Pieter Breughel the elder’s Landscape Showing the Fall of Icarus (Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels). This textual detail refers to casualties of aviation in 1942. In this single line of text the catalogue registered the news that “Düsseldorf a été bombardé hier pour la cinquantième fois.” “Düsseldorf was bombed for the fiftieth time, yesterday.” By the time the catalogue was composed, this phrase, written in French, and attributed in a general way to “les journaux,” “the newspapers,” had already become old news, to which contemporary audiences were perhaps becoming desensitized.

This mention of the bombing of Düsseldorf referred to the night of September 10–11, 1942, about one month before the Surrealist exhibition opened. The New York Times reported the story on the front page Saturday, September 12, 1942. “Duesseldorf [sic] is Battered by RAF, Rhine City Ablaze,” read the headlines, “100,000 Incendiaries of Pathfinder Fliers Set Target in Flames.”  British Royal Air Force (RAF) aircraft dropped 700 tons of bombs on Düsseldorf the night of September 10. Instead of employing precision bombing, carpet bombing had been used following a RAF policy that had been in effect since early that year. In addition to the flattening of entire city blocks by the bombs, the resulting fires extended collateral damage. Following the Area Bombing Directive issued to the RAF Bomber Command by the Air Ministry on February 14, 1942, its former targeting of specific factories and industrial sites shifted to focus instead “on the morale of the enemy civilian population and in particular of the industrial workers” (Swift 115). Düsseldorf and Cologne, in the industrial region along the Rhine River, were among the primary targets of the RAF Bomber Command. The political shift from targeting factories to the homes of the factory workers would not have gone unnoticed by the politically engaged surrealists, for whom the bombing of civilian targets—pursued by both Axis and Allied powers alike—would have been anathema. 

A material aspect complements the visual analogies and political references engaged by Duchamp’s twine. String as a material figured significantly in his art, and united the installation with a Duchamp painting included on the walls of the First Papers exhibit. String was one of the first materials Duchamp incorporated into his art as a way to break free from the constraining traditions of easel painting. In two paintings related to the lower section of his Large Glass (1915–23), Duchamp depicted a chocolate grinder inspired by one he had glimpsed through the window of a chocolate shop in Rouen, France. For the first painting, Chocolate Grinder (No. 1), of 1913, Duchamp adopted an impersonal style of painting inspired by mechanical drawing. For the second iteration of this subject, Duchamp additionally employed thread to depict linear ridges upon the weighty cylinders that crush the chocolate in Chocolate Grinder (No. 2), of 1914.  By threading lines onto the surface of the canvas Duchamp found a technique to distance the act of painting from typical associations with the artist’s psyche. Around the same time, Duchamp sought other techniques to rationalize artistic production and distance himself from painting’s associations with the artist’s personality and emotions. He initiated a new artistic category, called the readymade, as a way to minimize the role of craft in his work; in the language of painters, he thus reduced the significance of “the artist’s hand” in the act of creation. “Readymade,” for Duchamp, referred to an object of industrial design not made by the artist’s hand but chosen by him, somewhat altered with the addition of a title, a signature, or another intervention like an inscription upon the object. Duchamp’s Three Standard Stoppages (Trois stoppages étalon, 1913), in which thread or string played a central role, emerged at the moment when he sought to distance himself from traditional art-making techniques through responses as varied as the readymade or “painting” with string. Later, while assembling the constituent elements of the Large Glass (1915–23), Duchamp would use wire in a comparable way by replacing painted lines with wire and other materials.

Craig Adcock has interpreted the persistence of string across Duchamp’s oeuvre as a tangible reference to the perspectival systems that dominated European painting since the Renaissance. Adcock notes that “the pieces of string used in its construction are related to sight lines and to vanishing points...for Duchamp, the use of perspective as a system was not a matter of creating single, fixed-point ways of looking at things. It was, on the contrary, involved in dislodging viewers from their ordinary ways of understanding.” Although Adcock does not refer to the web of string in First Papers, critics’ responses to that installation reinforced this idea that Duchamp’s intervention disrupted the typical experience of viewing art. Adcock focuses his argument on Duchamp’s Three Standard Stoppages. The Three Standard Stoppages were made through a process unlike traditional artistic production, and subsequently became tools for the fabrication of other artworks. Duchamp began the Three Standard Stoppages by dropping a meter-long piece of string from the height of one meter. He glued each resulting form to a narrow section of canvas painted blue, and subsequently used the string’s curvature to cut three wooden templates. From these templates he produced lines on a 1913 painting called Network of Stoppages (sometimes known as Cemetery of Uniforms and Liveries or Cimetière des uniformes et livrées, as identified in the First Papers catalogue). These lines, marked with nine sequential numbers in the Network of Stoppages marked the position of each of Nine Malic Moulds (Neuf moules malic, 1914–15) that appear in a freestanding work and were later incorporated into the lower portion of the Large Glass. Network of Stoppages was the only painting that Duchamp exhibited in First Papers; he also reproduced it in the catalogue. The web of string in the Whitelaw Reid Mansion thus returned the Network of Stoppages to their original, three dimensional, state. 

String also figured into the assisted readymade titled With Hidden Noise (1916). For this work Duchamp collaborated with his patron Walter Arensberg, who inserted an unknown item into the heart of a ball of raw twine that was then sandwiched between two brass plates joined by four long screws. When shaken, it would produce a sound. The source of the noise remained hidden, entombed within the twine, as the artwork’s title indicates. Filmmaker Maya Deren, perhaps inspired by the twine in First Papers, recruited Duchamp to act in her 1943 film Cat’s Cradle. Deren filmed Duchamp inside of Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century Gallery which opened in New York City on October 20, 1942—within a week of the opening of First Papers. Duchamp interacts repeatedly with string in Deren’s film. In one sequence, memorable for its slow pace, Duchamp sits nearly immobile while trick photography brings to life a line of string so that it appears to snake across his body. In Deren’s film, Duchamp’s twine appears to take on a life of its own. The recurrence of string across Duchamp’s career lends his twine the quality of a self-referential joke, focusing attention on the painted Network of Stoppages he exhibited that autumn in First Papers. But what, precisely, was Duchamp’s twine, and how might it relate to the bombing raids of World War II?

Living on the home front during wartime meant making do with less. Saving, rationing, and sending important materiel overseas were essential civilian contributions to the war effort. Newspapers reported fiber shortages throughout 1942; across the Midwest and in Caribbean and Pacific island territories, acres of hemp and sisal were newly planted to meet the need for twine, string, and rope. “Rag saving mandatory in Britain,” proclaimed the New York Times headlines on July 17, 1942; all fibers, including rags and twine, were needed for wartime rope production. Newspapers of September 13 and 24, 1942, reported that the U.S. government ordered 16,000 and 300,000 acres of “rope plants”—such as manila fiber and hemp—to counteract Japanese seizure of the normal supply sources of raw materials needed for the rope industry. In early October 1942, a strike from Cuban rope workers further threatened the supply of cordage. It seems striking that, in a time of shortage, Duchamp could purchase an impressive sixteen miles of twine. Despite his persistent reference to this as twine, note that he referred to “my twine,” perhaps indicating a personal substitute for the anticipated material (my twine, even if another person might not think it twine). The material qualities of the stuff selected by Duchamp were connected with the physical reality of war. Duchamp did not choose jute, sisal, or hemp. He chose cotton—specifically, he told interviewer Pierre Cabanne, what the French call fulmicoton: guncotton. The specificity of this term defies confusion with any mere string or twine. More efficient than gunpowder, guncotton was used to fire World War II anti-aircraft artillery shells. It burns easily and swiftly, leaving almost no residue. Given Duchamp’s knowledge of photography, he may have been aware that guncotton (also known as nitrocellulose) is the basis of the collodion process in early photography, x-rays made before the 1930s, and the “celluloid” film used in movie making until the introduction of safety film in the 1950s. Magicians have long used guncotton under the name of “flash powder” to create puffs of smoke that accompany their illusions.

Duchamp’s admission of the material used as “his twine” appeared in his conversations with Pierre Cabanne: 

Cabanne – With the labyrinths? 

Duchamp – With the strings. Imagine that these strings were actually guncotton, but they were being hung on a lamp fixture, and I do not know how, at one point, the thread burned. Because guncotton burns without flames, we were very scared. My goodness, everything worked out all right. It was rather funny. (Cabanne 163) 

In light of this experience, Arnold Newman’s photograph showing a cigar-toting Duchamp amidst the web of twine appears supremely cheeky. Duchamp knew how rapidly the twine could burn. Yet he deliberately re-hung it after its initial combustion. Had the twine burned it would have created a spectacular effect, with little likelihood of causing any of the art or the interior to ignite. In this regard the guncotton would have been converted into a fast-burning fuse that would spark audience engagement.

Although it is unclear whether Duchamp’s guncotton “twine” remained for the duration of the First Papers exhibition, it stayed in place for more than a week while Duchamp awaited the arrival of photographers Schiff and Newman who documented the space and Duchamp within it. Highly flammable guncotton enveloped the audience and wove amongst the artworks on display. Whereas the coal sacks Duchamp had installed on the ceiling of the 1938 exhibition had been relatively weightless, thus giving the false impression of danger, the flammability of the guncotton brought a very real danger into the exhibition space. This danger paled in comparison to the dangers of the war that raged in the European and Pacific theaters of combat. 

Through visual analogy with documentation of anti-aircraft and tracer fire, the space of the First Papers could be said to open a new battle front in New York City. Now the audiences on the home front, including the exiled artists, were surrounded by heated aerial combat. This interpretation makes sense of Jewell’s assessment that First Papers was “Surrealism’s all-out against the Axis.” By bringing the war to the audiences at home, Duchamp met and surpassed what was being accomplished by the extensive touring exhibitions of Picasso’s Guernica—yet in deeply subtle ways. Whereas Guernica put on display the horrors of war for all to see (in stark black and white and gray, no less), Duchamp avoided anything that smacked of illustration. Where Picasso showed the results of aerial bombardment, Duchamp brought the battle into the space of the exhibition, and transplanted the battles of Europe to North American soil. In doing this, he remained indifferent to whether or not audiences and critics would associate his twine with the ongoing war. Such interpretations remained the duty of the audience, encircled by guncotton and surrounded by the surrealist artworks, artists, and networks of those who supported them. Unlike the howling intensity of Picasso’s Guernica, Duchamp’s webs of guncotton offered a subtle and quiet statement in the midst of war. If Picasso placed a viewer’s perspective on the ground, facing the horrors of bombing, Duchamp situated his audience within a fray of which they seem unaware. Alternately, Duchamp’s twine may situate his audiences in the seats of the crew of the bomber planes in the skies above, at a cool distance, without a view of the carnage caused. Guncotton, a readymade material, made Duchamp’s “twine” his Guernica.

*   *   *

A few months after First Papers closed and Duchamp’s guncotton webs were taken down, exiled Bauhaus designer Herbert Bayer installed the exhibition Airways to Peace: An Exhibition of Geography for the Future for curator Monroe Wheeler at the Museum of Modern Art. Wendell Willkie, an advocate of U.S. intervention in the war who had visited the bombed sites of the London Blitz, contributed a catalogue essay whose words also filled the walls of the exhibition entryway:

The modern airplane creates a new geographical dimension. A navigable ocean of air blankets the whole globe. There are distant places no longer: the world is small and the world is one. The American people must grasp these new realities if they are to play their essential part in winning the war and building a world of peace and freedom. This exhibition tells the story of airways to peace. (Airways to Peace 3)

Bayer’s design of the exhibition entry of Airways to Peace featured a massive photomural (Fig. 8).

At its center flew a bomber plane. To the right of the plane, the falling figure of Icarus was collaged into the image where it was joined to the bomber by a physical string puncturing the photographic surface. The string’s three-dimensionality perpetuated a notion referred to in the First Papers of Surrealism catalogue. Icarus, first in flight, became the first casualty of human flight. How strange that Bayer’s strings followed Duchamp’s, and that both would refer to Icarus, aerial warfare, and global transit. Airways to Peace optimistically foresaw a future when the air routes used for waging and equipping war would be turned to peace-time transport. No such optimism characterized the First Papers of Surrealism a year earlier. First Papers carried its volatile memories of war close, even as surrealism embarked on the long process towards naturalized citizenship.

I wish to acknowledge and thank Alice Xin Chen, Alison Guh, Anne Umland, and Mackenzie Kelly for their research assistance, and James McManus for his helpful comments on manuscript drafts. Early versions of this paper were presented to the Space Between Society Annual Conference at Notre Dame, and the conference “Networks, Museums and Collections: Surrealism in the USA,” organized by the German Center for Art History, Paris, and funded by the Terra Foundation for American Art. I especially thank Julia Drost, Fabrice Flahutez, Anne Helmreich, Susan Power, and Martin Schieder for their questions and suggestions.

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