BY Erik Morse in Features | 01 OCT 17
Featured in
Issue 6

Less Is More

From medieval Wunderkammern to portable museums, Duchamp’s suitcases, and dolls’ houses, the miniature is an enduring and radical art form

BY Erik Morse in Features | 01 OCT 17

‘Everything important that I have done can be put into a little suitcase.’
Marcel Duchamp, 1952

On New Year’s Day in 1941, the French conceptual artist Marcel Duchamp distributed a one-page bulletin to his patrons and collectors announcing an upcoming project cryptically titled de ou par Marcel Duchamp ou Rrose Sélavy (From or by Marcel Duchamp or Rrose Sélavy). Purported to be an archive of reproductions spanning 27 years of the artist’s work, the card-board box of pull-outs came in several versions, including a deluxe edition of 20, covered in leather with a handle. This unusual box could be ordered via the form’s attached coupon and delivered upon the work’s completion for the cost of 4,000 francs (reduced temporarily from 5,000). Known only to his close friends, family and select collectors, the project had consumed much of Duchamp’s attention since 1935 and prompted his travels as far afield as California, Cleveland and Connecticut to document in detail many of his archived works. His choice to use handcraft in its execution – including the time-consuming processes of phototyping, watercolouring and engraving, as well as pochoir (a stencilling method) for the replicas in plastic – confused the status between original artworks and their reproductions.

The resulting Boîte (box) – often referred to by its first edition name Boîte-en-valise (Box in a Valise, 1935–41) – contains nearly 70 miniatures of the artist’s paintings, sketches, readymades, ‘delays in glass’ and assemblages in an organized plexus of compartments and folders. Playing on the dual connotations of ‘souvenir’ as both a remembrance and a tourist trinket, the Boîte is an example of a travelling Wunderkabinette and retrospective readymade, and is also Modern art’s first instance of a portable museum.

From its emergence in the high medieval period, the Wunderkammer (a ‘chamber of curiosities’) traded on the magic appeal of small objects and ephemera housed as elabo-rate, private exhibitions. Beginning as closets but often expanding into vast rooms, these proto-scientific assemblages of exotica, relics and grotesqueries – from human body parts to automata – served as symbols of wealth for aristocratic collectors and, in their freak show variant, a public amusement for plebeians. Their popularity amongst both classes highlights what medieval historian Bengt Ankarloo describes as the ‘political purpose’ of esoteric wisdoms. ‘Marvels and secrets became the currency of courtly science,’ he writes. ‘Natural magic helped to promote the keen interest in the setting up of Wunderkammern that typified courtly and aristocratic notions of power and knowledge in this period.’1 The most celebrated European Wunderkammer of the pre-Enlightenment era belonged to the Austrian Archduke Ferdinand II, the Danish physician Olaus Wormius and the Bolognese aristocrat Ferdinando Cospi.

Cabinet of curios from the 16th and 17th centuries, arranged according to historical record. Courtesy: Kunstkammer Georg Laue, Munich and London

With the rise of the bourgeois merchant, the cosmologies constructed inside the aristocrat’s vast Wunderkammern were condensed into the collector hobbyist’s Kabinette (cabinets or curio shelves), perspective boxes and dolls’ houses. An industrial rather than a feudal phenomenon, these collections signalled the decorative and imperial desires represented in the home as a space both of dwelling and mercantile fantasy. Appealing to the architectural constrictions of middle-class interiors, they simulated virtual environments beyond their modest sizes through baroque tricks of miniaturization, trompe l’oeil and diorama. Equally as significant were the demographics of ownership of these precious objects. Beginning as a male-dominated craft that emphasized wealth and status, such cabinets only subsequently became the province of women and children, reflecting a changing domestic order. Dolls’ houses and other ‘toy boxes’ were soon transformed into pedagogical tools for imparting gender roles and social  mores to children as part of the larger evolution of modern discourses on adolescence and tactile education. 

Despite these disparities, the lure of the scale miniature’s architecture remains founded in universal desires, according to medieval scholar Sarah L. Higley. Quoting Gaston Bachelard’s La poétique de l’espace (The Poetics of Space, 1957), she locates the miniature’s appeal in a threefold quality: ‘That it is possessible, that it is utopic and that its distortion of size “stimulates  profound values”, as Bachelard puts it: “The cleverer I am at miniaturizing the world, the better I possess it.”’2

The deployment of miniatures in Modern art was by no means exclusive to Duchamp. Of his many New York artist-friends and collaborators, both Joseph Cornell and the lesser-regarded  Carrie Stettheimer laboured almost exclusively in the medium of miniature. Stettheimer’s extravagant 12-room Doll House (1916–35), her only public work, memorializes two decades of the salon of avant-garde artists and writers – of which Duchamp was a central member – held by the Stettheimer sisters (including painter Florine and writer Ettie). An autodidact and perceived as the least ‘intellectual’ of the Stettheimers, Carrie channelled her taciturn demeanour into the domestic arts – party hosting, decorative design and cooking – and  reflected the ostensible delicacy (i.e. ‘femininity’) and mundanity linked with dolls’ houses of the Victorian era. But her Doll House’s intricate Neo-Classical exterior and Baroque interior of salons, libraries and art galleries, was far from the previous century’s typically dowdy plaything. Duchamp’s own contribution to the Doll House was an eight-centimetre pencil sketch of Nu descendant un escalier no. 2 (Nude Descending  a Staircase, No. 2, 1912), executed in 1918 as a gift for Stettheimer, who installed it in the  doll house’s gallery alongside pieces from other New York friends. 

Mrs James Ward Thorne, A31: Tennessee Entrance Hall, 1835, c.1940, miniature room, mixed media, 36 x 37 x 77 cm. Courtesy: the Art Institute of Chicago

While Stettheimer’s work embodied a transitional feminist aesthetic at the century’s beginning, Colleen Moore’s 12-room Fairy Castle (1928–35) drew upon the influences of Hollywood’s modern cinematic imaginary, particularly its increasingly lavish use of set  design and the rise of the female star. Moore, who was herself a movie star and helped to popularize the ‘flapper’ style with films such as Flaming Youth (1923), commissioned her castle with a fantastical, Gothic architecture – as interpreted by industry art designers and craftsmen – the results of which resembled a Hollywood scenography of medieval Romanticism. Unlike works by Cornell, Duchamp or Stettheimer, Moore did not personally fabricate or design any of the structure or decor in the Fairy Castle, but acted purely as curator or producer of the project. However, like Duchamp, Moore attributed a hermeneutics of the object to archival and literary narratives – both the classic fairy tales retold in the decorative motifs of each room and in the companion publication, Colleen Moore’s Doll House (1935) – a book that, like Duchamp’s accompanying text boxes, was intended to guide the viewer through the visual experience of the artwork. 

That both Moore’s and Stettheimer’s dolls’ houses are now exhibited in non-‘artistic’ venues (the former in Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry, the latter in the Museum of the City of New York) highlights the issue of institutional representation and gender in miniature works. In the instance of the Fairy Castle, this is further complicated by its initial exhibition via children’s charity tours and its subsequent merchandizing through the celebrity persona of Moore. This early evidence of a ‘paracinematic culture’ – those film-related works that celebrate popular or vernacular genres outside of the ‘film-as-art’ model – was an anathema to the appreciators of fine art and relegated the house to the subaltern status of ‘craft’.3 Similarly, Cornell – who had begun to produce his glass-fronted boxes of found objects in the 1930s, in part due to Duchamp’s concept of the ready-made (he would assist him in the final assembly of the initial ‘Boîtes’ series in 1942) – was a self-taught craftsman who found grist for his work in Hollywood iconography and domestic mundanity. In boxes such as Object (Roses des Vents) (Object, Rose of the Winds, 1942–53) and Untitled (Penny Arcade Portrait of Lauren Bacall) (c.1944–46), Cornell invoked the form of the Wunderkammer while exploring themes of astrology and the fairy tale. The European Surrealists and dealer/collectors – including Peggy Guggenheim and Julien Levy – valorized his boxes and collages, which endowed him with institutional carte blanche. His work was included in exhibitions at New York’s Museum of Modern Art as early as 1936.

Marnie Weber, The Forever Room, 2002, from ‘The Dollhouse Series’, 2002, collage on photograph, 87 x 155 cm. Courtesy: the artist, Simon Lee Gallery, London, and Gavlak, Los Angeles

While gender was likely one cause for the discrepant evaluation of the artists’ works as either ‘vernacular’ or ‘fine’ art – or, respectively, female and male art – this nonetheless fails fully to explain how the miniature came to be inter-preted by arts criticism in the early 20th century. In many Modernist readings of Duchamp’s and Cornell’s works, the miniature was seen to function according to its uncanny compression  of ‘lived’ space which rendered to the viewer an experience of travel in the palm of your hand. (‘Perhaps I had the spirit of expatriation, if that’s a word,’ Duchamp said of his status as an exile  in a 1961 interview. ‘It was a part of a possibility of my going out in the traditional sense of the word: that is to say from my birth, my childhood, from my habits, my totally French fabrication.’4) Like their kitschy descendant, the souvenir trinket, these boxes invoke a microcosmic land-scape that could be possessed and traversed like a kind of traveller’s map. Both artists’ implicit emphasis on a tourist sensibility was championed by the 20th-century avant-garde for extolling the modern experiences of travel and displace-ment in anticipation of both globalism and Postmodernity’s free circulations of the sign – or what T.J. Demos describes in The Exiles of Marcel Duchamp (2007) as an ‘aesthetics of homelessness’. 

By contrast, Stettheimer’s and Moore’s dolls’ houses retained an emphasis on domestic space as a site of self-expression and ontological rootedness to place, with their interior objects’ attendant associations of maternity and femininity. Even the prolonged and laborious process of the dolls’ houses’ constructions and disassembly prevented their literal status as travel objects. According to the art critic Christopher Reed, these works breached the 20th-century edict that ‘the home [was] posi-tioned as the antipode to high art’. He explains: 

As its military-derived name suggests, the avant-garde (literally ‘advance guard’) imagined itself away from home, marching toward glory on the battlefields of culture […] Ultimately, in the eyes of the avant-garde, being undomestic came to serve as a guarantee of being art.5

Other artists such as Louise Nevelson and Mrs James Ward Thorne, née Narcissa Niblack,  made use of miniature objects and Wunder-kabinett-inspired assemblages to explore similar themes of environments and interiority. In her seminal ‘crate’ works, Moon Garden Plus One (1958) and Sky Cathedral (1958), Nevelson, inspired in part by Duchamp, trades between colossal dimensions and miniature detail to achieve ‘the sensory and the magical […]

Colleen Moore, Fairy Castle, 1928–35, aluminium, plaster, copper, bronze tin, leather, silver, gilding, mother-of-pearl, glass and other materials. 2.6 x 2.5 x 2.3 m. Courtesy: Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago; photograph: J.B. Spector

The concept of “spatial belonging”, a medieval worldview that saw the conjoinment of person and world as unbroken, unreflective and unmediated.’6 But contemporary critics were often stymied by the conceptual language Nevelson employed to describe these elusive, domestic spheres and resorted to designations such as ‘sculptures’, ‘enclosures’ and ‘protru-sions’.7 A foil of sorts to the artist’s hypertrophic environments, Thorne’s ‘Miniature Rooms’ (1932–40), comprise nearly 100 individual boxes of perfectly scaled renderings of 17th- to 20th-century domestic tableaux with detailed period furnishings, from E-1: English Great Room of the Late Tudor Period, 1550–1603 (c.1937) to A37: California Hallway, c.1940 (1940). Like Stettheimer and Moore, Thorne was a self-taught haute bourgeois with a longstanding passion for miniatures, who co-ordinated and financed the ambitious series with her own fortune. Perhaps because of the extreme attention Thorne paid to their authenticity and craft, the ‘Miniature Rooms’ are interpreted less through a lens of ‘fine’ art but rather as pedagogical or historical models of design. Despite their inclusion in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago, Thorne’s works continue to languish under the dubious rubric of domestic arts.

Subsequent artists whose use of miniatures and miniaturized spaces portrayed themes of domesticity have often faired more successfully following Modern art’s theatrical turn toward installation, happenings and scenography in the postwar era. These artists include Mike Kelley, Edward Kienholz, Marnie Weber, Rachel Whiteread and even Duchamp himself with late-period works such as Étant donnés (1946–66). The veneration of miniaturists among art critics, historians and theorists has ensured the popularity of domestic scenography by contemporary female artists such as Samara Golden, Abigail Goldman and Hanne Tyrmi, who actively explore the potential of domestic spaces outside of the narrow confines of identity politics. Impacted by virtual communications and neo-liberal economy, the miniature has taken on new themes of corporality, crime and labour politics in these artists’ works. In the 500 years since the invention of the Wunderkammer, the persistent use of the miniature in forms of art continues to prove its iconic and often magical role in an ongoing poetics of space. 

1  Bengt Ankarloo and Stuart Clark (eds), Witchcraft and Magic in Europe: The Period of the Witch Trials, vol. 4, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 2002, p.169
2  Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, cited in Sarah L. Higley, ‘A Taste for Shrinking: Movie Miniatures and the Unreal City’, Camera Obscura, 3/16, 2001, pp. 1–35
3  Amelie Hastie, ‘History in Miniature: Colleen Moore’s Dollhouse and Historical Recollection’, Camera Obscura, 3/16, 2001, pp. 113–157
4  Jennifer Gough-Cooper and Jacques Caumont, ‘Ephemerides on and about Marcel Duchamp and Rrose Sélavy 1887–1968’ in Marcel Duchamp: Work and Life, cited in Marcus Moore, ‘Marcel Duchamp: “Twisting Memory for the Fun of It” or a Form of Retroactive Interference? – Recalling the Impacts of Leaving Home on the Readymade’, Memory Connection, 1/1, 2011, p.398
5  Christopher Reed (ed.), Not at Home: The Suppression of Domesticity in Modern Art and Architecture, Thames and Hudson, New York, 1996, p.7
6  Elyse Deeb Speaks, ‘Experiencing Louise Nevelson’s Moon Garden’, American Art, 21/2, 2007, pp. 96–108
7  Hilton Kramer, ‘The Sculpture of Louise Nevelson’, Arts Digest, June, 1958, pp. 26–29

Main image: Carrie Walter Stettheimer, Stettheimer Doll House (detail),c.1916–35, mixed media, 79 × 132 × 94 cm. Courtesy: Museum of the City of New York

Erik Morse is the author of Dreamweapon (2004) and Bluff City Underground: A Roman Noir of the Deep South (2012). He is a former lecturer at SCI-Arc, Los Angeles, USA, and the 2015 recipient of a Creative Capital/Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers grant.