Response to Thomas
Girst's mention of some debate on whether Duchamp used Gruyère or Emmentaler
cheese for cover illustration of the catalogue to "First Papers of Surrealism"
exhibit in 1942 (Thomas Girst, Shooting
Bullets at the Barn, Tout-Fait vol 1/issue 2, notes).
We can take it for
granted that Duchamp used a slice of Swiss cheese, because cheese showing
big eyes ('eye' being the official term for the 'hole' in hard and semi-hard
cheese) in a large quantity even when produced elsewhere is always a
derivation or variety of Swiss cheese originally manufactured in Switzerland.
This is especially true for big eyed Dutch cheese.
Messrs Arturo Schwarz
and Francis M. Naumann claim(1)
that what Duchamp used was Gruyère cheese or so called 'Greyerzer'.
As much as I respect the expertise of these two eminent Duchamp scholars,
I am afraid that in this particular case they are mistaken. In my book
on Kurt Seligmann I wrote that the cover of the catalog shows the profile
of some Emmentaler cheese(2).
I shall briefly explain why there is little room for debate. Before
going any further I simply recommend to stop by at some local cheese
dealer. It won't be the first time that blunt empirical (sensual) observation
will refute scholastic (rational) conclusion. The finest loaf of Gruyère
cheese I saw and tasted in recent times had a shelf life of 12 months,
in addition to the approximate six months of ripening before going on
sale. It had next to no eyes, just a few haircracks due to its age.
And indeed, Gruyère is supposed to have no or only a few and then but
small eyes. The very fine cracks are a sign of age and quality. They're
officially called 'gläs' - a local, colloquial term I cannot translate.
On the other hand, large quantities of eyes of all sizes are typical
for Emmentaler cheese. One reason why it is hard to confuse Gruyère
and Emmentaler cheese is that the former underwent a smear ripening
and the latter a dry-ripening process.
Now I shall go a little
bit further, adding some learned information - mainly because I think
it is quite entertaining stuff. Swiss-type cheese was originally manufactured
in the Emmen valley in Switzerland. Its precursors were mountain cheeses.
Gruyère cheese can be understood as such since there is still a (very
aromatic) mountain variation produced. So, as a nutritive product, Gruyère
cheese may be more ancient than Emmentaler, but this is not the point.
The 1000-2000 round eyes - the diameters of which range from less than
half an inch to one and a half inches - which we find in one single
loaf of Emmentaler cheese are caused by propionic acid fermentation.
Yet, the quantum of propionic acid is very low in Gruyère cheese (arithmetic
mean of 10.0), but very high in Emmentaler cheese (a. m. of 84.0).
Therefore, by means
of fermentation Gruyère cheese can develop some eyes, but never a great
many of them, and at no point can they be big. Propionic acid fermentation
is brought about by short-rod propionic acid bacteria, which occur naturally
in the ruman and intestine of ruminants (bon appétit!). Their name is
propionibacterium freudenreichii subsp. shermanii. Additional
heterofermentative lactic acid fermentation ensures that with Emmentaler
cheese the building and growing of eyes will continue where in other
(smear ripening) cheeses the process soon discontinues itself. The characteristic
eye formation of Emmentaler cheese is due mainly to the presence of
carbon dioxide produced by propionic acid bacteria during lactate breakdown.
The steep rise in the production of carbon dioxide coincides with the
onset of the propionic acid fermentation. Eye formation is a lengthy
process. The maximum rate is attained after about 50 days, which is
also the time of rapid eye enlargement. Eye formation can be so aggressive
that it sometimes continues in the cold room.
For further reading
I recommend: P. F. Fox (Ed.), Cheese: Chemistry, Physics and Microbiology,
Elsevier Applied Science, London and New York 1987, volume 2: Major
Cheese Groups, pages 93-120 (chapter 3: Swiss-type varieties, by C.
Steffen, E. Flueckiger, J. O. Bosset and M. Ruegg of the Federal Dairy
Research Institute, Liebefeld-Bern, Switzerland), from where I got most
of the shared information above. The chapter is accompanied by wonderful
illustrations that leave very little room for confusion.
Sure, Duchamp would
hardly have cared about the name of the cheese. So what does the recognition
of Emmentaler lead us to? Well, I believe it mattered to him that it
was Swiss cheese, but even more so that it had eyes - and so many of
them. Kurt Seligmann, on whose farm Duchamp shot into the wall of the
barn, was Swiss (born and grown up in Basel) and (as we can learn from
several documents) he liked to make this evident. We know from scattered
sources that Seligmann and Duchamp were not the only people present
that day, but that the shooting was part, or even the highlight of some
outdoor party that other surrealists and American friends from New York
were attending as well. It is likely that Seligmann served Emmentaler
as a welcome to the guests (together with other kinds of cheese and
homegrown Swiss food peculiarities, we can assume).
On the front and
back cover of the catalogue to the First Papers of Surrealism exhibit
the visual juxtaposition is obvious and meaningful. I see the playful
contradiction of natural eyes/holes (bacteriologically inflicted, hence
on the spot, but 'en retard') in the cheese and the artificial (artistic)
holes inflicted forcefully (and from a distance, but ‚at high speed').
None of the two occurrences makes for art in conventional terms, but
together they create an artistic, or rather aesthetic, tension. For
the substantial differences between art (artificial actions) and nature
(natural processes) has always been at the bottom of all creative understanding,
especially of artists, as well as "an-artists." Under the condition
of art, criteria for substantial and accidental categories can change
dramatically from under the condition of nature. Think only of the object
and its shadow being substantially different in nature (real world),
but substantially identical in painting (aesthetic world). Sometimes
art(ificial) actions and natural processes are hard to be kept separate
from one another. They can be distinguished (unterschieden), but they
cannot be decided upon (entschieden).
While the eyes in
the Emmentaler grow out of a natural process, it is also a highly artificial
thing to happen, since cheese does not exist in nature and would not
take on any of its peculiarities without human intervention. Shooting
holes into a wall is a thoroughly artificial action, yet based on physical
(natural) laws that cannot be denied unless the shooting is declared
imaginary. Maybe Duchamp took the gun and shot out of mere boredom.
Then his intention was mindless and destructive. Maybe he shot with
a picture in mind, and then his intervention had a metaphorical underlining.
Maybe he shot out of boredom and happened to make sense out of it later,
then a real (literal) action would be transfigured into an imaginary
process, or a metaphor. But a metaphor for what? We can say that the
manufacturing of cheese is an aspect of art in the old sense of techne.
Duchamp always felt himself closer to the artisan than to the artist.
Rather than an otherworldly, élitist genius, he was a firm-grounded
manufacturer (bricoleur) of holes/eyes, which he imposed upon the well-knit
web of conventionalism (by using the essentials of conventionalism,
as we know from his conscious or unconscious perceptions of Henri Poincaré's
When Duchamp shot
holes into the wall he turned these into eyes to-see-through-with when
he punched them out after print. Duchamp enables us to watch and eventually
to see through (to theôrein), to get to the theory of what at first
seems a mere practical joke on his 'cheesy' Swiss friend and host of
the day. It had to be Emmentaler cheese bespangled with eyes, although
it would not necessarily had to go by that name. Because only the real
'eyes' of the Emmentaler cheese would the 'real' eyes, (peep holes)
punched into the image of the wall shot at, allow to take on the potential
of questioning that understanding according to which the limits of what
can be grasped is also the limits of what can be seen.
In recent issues of Swiss newspapers you could read a short message
which translates as follows: According to the U.S. Ministry of Agriculture,
eyes in Swiss cheese must not exceed 14 millimeters in diameter. This
rule applies as of September 1st, 2000, upon which Mr. Peter Eichenberger,
a member of the Verband Emmentaler Switzerland, said that "our
experts can produce cheese with eyes of any size you wish." )
1. Schwarz, The
Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp, 3rd ed., Delano Greenidge:
New York 1997, vol. 2, p. 766; Naumann, Marcel Duchamp:The
Art of Making Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Ludion:
Ghent, Amsterdam 1999, p. 151.
2. Hauser, Kurt
Seligmann, Schwabe: Basel 1997, p. 221.