Shifts in Reproducibility in Art: More on Duchamp
By Luiz Camillo Osorio
Translation by Rebecca Atkinson
In my last article, I discussed some curatorial projects by Marcel Duchamp and his proposal, unrealized, for the first ever exhibition at the São Paulo Museum of Modern Art (MAM-SP). As I mentioned there, the inspiration for dealing with this subject came largely from my reading of Elena Filipovic’s book The Apparently Marginal Activities of Marcel Duchamp. I was also keen to dig deeper into the original plans for MAM-SP and Duchamp’s role in them, especially in view of his understanding that American art could lend the abstract tradition in European modernism a fresh lease of life in the early post-war years.
This inaugural exhibition was to have another section which I want to turn my attention to here, even if it is a complex parallel topic that has since become somewhat outdated: making amplified reproductions of famous paintings and exhibiting them alongside the original works. Besides the value of reproductions, my interest in picking up on this proposal also has to do with the unceremonious way it desecrates the idea of originality, or rather, the way it belies the myth that originality is an essential precondition for artistic value and exhibition-worthiness.
In times like today, when any kind of materiality may be given the status of art, when there are ever more and ever better reproduction technologies and ever more means of transmitting digital images, clinging to the idea of an original work seems to me to serve little purpose, except for the art market and its inherent obsession with scarcity. NFTs are a case in point. Even at photography exhibitions there is a persistent fetish for valuing “vintage” prints, as if prints produced after the death of a photographer or without their supervision would make them worth less. The aura lingers on in the most insidious way, with an insistence on the originality of the artist (but not necessarily the art).
Reproductions of historical paintings are another matter altogether, but at a certain point the debate about whether it made sense to use them was germane, since different ways of experiencing them could be valid even if they were not mutually equivalent. In other words, it is not a question of saying that reproductions have the same value as original paintings, but that there are ways of exhibiting them that may be worthwhile, and there is a poetic incorporation of reproducibility that it is important to discuss, especially at a time when market dynamics make it harder for artworks to circulate and when offering a high-quality visual reference could make sense in an exhibition setting, whether or not the original is present.
In 1929, Alexander Dorner, a museum director in Hannover, Germany, put on an exhibition entitled Original und Reproduktion in which 35 works on paper by renowned artists were displayed alongside facsimiles of the same size with identical frames. The public had to tell the originals from their copies. The exhibition sparked heated debate in the ensuing months, resulting in an attempt to have Dorner ousted from the International Association of Museum Directors and have it forbidden for copies to be made of original artworks. As Filipovic writes, “the fact that Dorner brought reproduction into the museum made the inherent threat of that technology manifest. The exhibition confirmed the significance of reproduction as a contemporary cultural phenomenon – a phenomenon, however, that called the museum’s very raison d’être into question”.
One year later, in 1930, Louis Aragon curated an exhibition entitled La Peinture au Défi (Challenge to Painting). The core theme of the exhibition was collage: the way this new technique, which introduced fragments appropriated from reality into the realm of pictorial representation – and also multiplied the materiality of artistic practices – definitively problematized three-dimensional illusion in figurative space (which abstract art then did away with) and desecrated the field of visuality, absorbing visual noise from everyday life. Collage was the most important revolution in avant-garde art, influencing a broad field of experimentation ranging from painting to film, taking in photomontage and Duchamp’s readymades.
Aragon’s exhibition contained two works by Duchamp, both of which tested the limits between original and copy. In one of them, Pharmacie, Duchamp reproduced a clichéd landscape of the type used in art classes for students to copy, on which he deposited two drops of paint, one red and one green, turning this copy into an original. The other was an amplified reproduction of his Mona Lisa, dated 1919, in which he had appropriated a postcard reproduction of the famous work by Da Vinci, painted a goatee on the figure and called it LHOOQ, which, when read out in French, sounds like “there’s fire in her arse”. This time, a decade later, he amplifies it and notes at the bottom, alongside his signature, that this is a “replica”. In other words, this 1930 work is a replica and his earlier work – itself an adulterated appropriation – becomes an original. Not to mention that the copy is larger and both works were exhibited side by side. In the first Mona Lisa, Duchamp poses the issue of reproducibility and sullies a classic original work; in the second, he pushes reproduction into the field of originality through the poetic gesture of an artist, showing that what makes something original is not virtuosity or authentic brushstrokes, but an inventive gesture which changes the way we see and refer to what we see.
Interestingly, the philosopher Walter Benjamin visited this show and mentioned it in a letter he wrote in Paris, cited by Filipovic. He also wrote a note on Duchamp, which was published posthumously in the appendices to “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”. In it, he refers to having seen Duchamp’s Green Box (1934), in which the artist deposits loose leaves of paper containing notes made as of 1913, facsimiles of works and references to The Large Glass. This whole period in Duchamp’s career is a real about-turn in which he investigates and experiments with the mechanical reproduction of images and readymades. In Benjamin’s words, “Duchamp is one of the most important phenomena from the French avant-garde. His output is small, but his influence is not. (…) His theory of art (of artistic value?) which he exemplified (but did not explain) recently in a case, ‘La Mariée mise à nu par ces Célibataires’, leads to approximately the following consequence: the moment an object is viewed by us as a work of art, it immediately tends to lose this status (as art)”He perceived how much the question underlying Duchamp’s poetic gesture conspired with the traditional category of art, always forcing the viewer to come up with an inventive response, making the encounter with “art-but-not-art” a productive spark for their imagination. As Duchamp affirmed years later, the artistic coefficient of an artwork is the sum of what the artist intended but was unable to do plus what the artist did not intend to do but happened nonetheless (in the viewers’ active gaze, in the view of later critics).
Two more things before I wrap up these considerations on reproducibility. The first, mentioned in the last article, is Duchamp’s portable museum, his Boîte-en-Valise (1938-1942), where he puts together a “retrospective” of reproductions of his work dating from his earliest paintings, all neatly assembled inside a case. It includes three readymades, including an “original” miniature replica of his Fountain, in porcelain, in which he claims its authorship – an until then nebulous issue which had by then been forgotten, almost three decades later. The ironic gesture of simply putting an ordinary object in a museum setting shifts at this point to the invention of alternative ways of exhibiting it, when it begins to be accepted as art. Here, Duchamp is once again reworking his question about origin, noted in 1913: how to make works that are not works of art.
Finally, it is worth recalling the “museum of reproductions” that Mario Pedrosa wanted to establish in Brazil’s new capital city, Brasilia, when it was still was being developed. He put his proposal in a letter dated 1958, two years before the city was officially founded, to its architect, Oscar Niemeyer, in which he presented the idea as “a museum of copies, photographic reproductions, casts of all manner, models, etc.”. As Sabrina Sant’anna and Marcelo Vasconcelos note in a recent article on this project, the exhibition of copies would be accompanied by “slideshows and recordings of accompanying texts, [and] screenings of historical cycles would also be incorporated into a film library and courses in art”. In other words, the idea was not just about reducing art to its reproductive dimension, but thinking of a museum for a peripheral capital city from the perspective of its educational mission, envisaging it as an opportunity both for a broader aesthetic education and also for art education itself, given the relationship between the spaces for exhibitions, studios and critical discussion.
This idea of exhibiting copies is akin to the one planned for the opening show at MAM-SP, which never came to pass because of the cost of making the reproductions. It also echoes André Malraux’s imaginary museum, whose idea took shape at a similar time to Benjamin, in the 1930s, and developed in a more metaphysical, less material direction in the following decades. Independently of this, Malraux’s starting point was that after technological development had reached its apex, there would be an intrinsic relationship between art and reproducibility. As he put it, after mechanical reproduction, the history of art would be the history of what could be photographed. Photography could enable equally a faithful reproduction of an original or details of parts of works of interest for inclusion in a curatorial project based on a specific aesthetic or a particular historical narrative. It is also worth pointing out how central the cross-fertilization between photography and painting was to the output of so many artists as of the 1960s, most notably Richter and Warhol.
At the inventive and critical limit of this activity of appropriation – born with Duchamp’s conflation of original and copy, art and non-art – lies the Godardian experience of history of film, history in the plural, all written in the editing suite, piecing together fragments of films, texts, thoughts, juxtapositions, noises, voids. (Hi)story/ies of cinema as cinema, as montage, as criticism, as curatorship. All these issues are still open and have multiplied in different ways, but as we witness a mushrooming of “imaginary museums” around the world, it behoves us to be more original in how we approach reproduction and the manipulation of digital images, challenging the tenets of the market and its obsession with uniqueness and scarcity.
Elena Filipovic – The apparently marginal activities of Marcel Duchamp, Massachusets, MIT Press, 2016.
Sabrina Parracho Sant’anna e Marcelo Ribeiro Vasconcelos, “Do museu de reproduções ao Museu das Origens: reflexões sobre projetos institucionais de Mário Pedrosa”, Rev. Sociologias Plurais, v. 7, n. 1, p.131-161, jan. 2021.
Walter Benjamin – A obra de arte na era da sua reprodutibilidade técnica, Porto Alegre, L&PM, 2019.
 Translator’s Note: This translation is based on the recently published Brazilian Portuguese translation of “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” by Gabriel V. Silva, published by L&PM. It is an edition that comments on variations between the three versions of Benjamin’s text, and which incorporates fragments, annotations and a letter, providing a new perspective on the context and Benjamin’s conceptual concerns at that time in the 1930s.