Prière de toucher (Please Touch)

Le Surréalisme en 1947 (Paris: Pierre à Feu, Maeght, 1947). Rare Books (Ex) N6490 .P21

We have a wonderful conservation staff here at Firestone Library, dedicated to the care and preservation of our rare books and special collections. As you might imagine, these materials can present uncommon problems that need unique solutions. One of our conservation technicians Nicole Dobrowolski, working under the assistant rare books conservator Jody Beenk, designed and constructed this housing for Le Surréalisme en 1947, the catalogue for the Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme at Galerie Maeght in Paris. The book was conceived by André Breton (1896-1966) and Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) and produced in an edition of 999 copies. It is illustrated with eighteen lithographs, five etchings, and two woodcuts by such artists as Joan Miró, Max Ernst, Hans Bellmer, and others.

The trouble with the book is its cover, featuring a foam rubber breast glued onto black velvet. The design was a collaboration between Duchamp and Enrico Donati (1909-2008), working together in New York, while the book was being printed in Paris. When asked about the project, Donati said he purchased 999 falsies from a warehouse in Brooklyn and then, the two artists painted each one by hand and assembled them on cardboard covers. They liked the idea that the readers would have to handle the breast in order to get at the text so added a sticker to the back of the volume: Prière de toucher (Please touch).

However, it was this handling, along with the instability of the foam rubber, which caused the book’s damage. Our conservators needed to design a housing that would allow researchers to view the cover without handling it while still having complete access to the volume’s text. The solution was this beautifully constructed, multi-compartment clamshell box designed to fit each individual part of the book, case, and cover.