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Marcel Duchamp's Étant donnés: The revival of a masterpiece

The Philadelphia Museum of Art, which has had the late Frenchman's landmark work as part of its permanent collection for 40 years, marks the anniversary with a greatly expanded exhibition.

September 27, 2009|Stanley Meisler

PHILADELPHIA — Marcel Duchamp served for many years as both a prince and court jester to modern art in the 20th century. While creating some well-known works, he also punctured pretensions with jokes, pranks, aphorisms and a perpetual hunt for new byways of art. Then he announced he was abandoning art, giving it all up to play chess. But he was not telling the truth.

He worked in secret for 20 years, assembling a huge, fanciful and puzzling diorama. When he died in 1968, only a few people knew about his secret.

A year after his death, the Philadelphia Museum of Art installed the secret work and displayed it to the public. While some patrons were shocked by its sexuality, it soon became a magnet for young artists looking for new paths to take their own work. Duchamp's masterpiece, known as "Etant donnes," a shortened form of its French title, is now regarded as one of the most powerful and dynamic influences on contemporary art.

Museums rarely devote an entire exhibition to a single work. But the Philadelphia museum holds Etant donnes in such high esteem that, on the 40th anniversary of its installation, it has mounted a show -- simply titled "Marcel Duchamp: Etant donnes" -- that describes in great detail how Duchamp conceived and constructed the work. The show, which closes Nov. 29 and goes nowhere else (though "Etant donnes" remains as before on permanent display), comprises more than 100 objects, including body casts, drawings, photos and other pieces that shed light on the creation. There is even a loose-leaf notebook in which Duchamp set down detailed instructions, in handwritten French, on how to take the work apart and put it back together again.

On top of this, the 447-page catalog includes 35 letters that Duchamp wrote to his lover, the Brazilian sculptor Maria Martins, in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Her body served as the model for the nude that is a central piece of "Etant donnes." The letters, obtained by the museum a year ago, have not been published before.

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'Strangest work of art'

The displays enhance the experience of seeing "Etant donnes" itself. The installation, according to the painter Jasper Johns, is "the strangest work of art any museum has ever had in it."

A visitor walks into a darkened room and stands before an antique Spanish door arched by thin red bricks that come from Cadaques, Duchamp's summer vacation site in Spain near the home of Salvador Dali. There are two almost imperceptible peepholes in the door. Through the door, the visitor sees a brick wall smashed open enough to allow a view of almost all of what lies behind.

A voluptuous nude woman dominates the scene. There are wisps of blond hair, but her face cannot be seen. She is lying, in a provocative pose, on a bed of heavy twigs. The exhibition has shown that she is fashioned from painted parchment shaped mainly from a mold of the body of Maria. Her left hand is holding a French Bec Auer gas lamp. Beyond her is a forested mountain landscape that includes a waterfall with little dots of light that create the illusion of cascading water.

The visitor is a voyeur of a startling three-dimensional scene within an installation 10 feet long. It is an experience that cannot be captured in a photographic reproduction.

Duchamp left no explanation of what it all means. His full title is not much help. In English, the title is Given: 1. The Waterfall. 2. The Illuminating Gas. This echoes old-school problems in mathematics and logic. "Given that we have (1) and (2)," a problem would say, "the conclusion must therefore be _______." But Duchamp has not set down any conclusion in his title.

Since Duchamp always insisted that the spectator was a vital participant in a work of art, he probably would be satisfied with any conclusion reached by someone peering into the peepholes of "Etant donnes." But some speculation does go wild. Some writers, for example, believe that Duchamp was trying to reflect the grisly Black Dahlia murder in Los Angeles in 1947. But this theory is debunked by Michael Taylor, curator of the exhibition, who points out that several of Duchamp's preliminary studies were completed long before aspiring Hollywood starlet Elizabeth Short was murdered.

"Etant donnes" is so complex and replete with so many allusions, Taylor insists, "that it actively resists any single critical interpretation and ultimately remains unfathomable."

Taylor, the curator of modern art at the museum, is a distinguished Duchamp scholar who has no doubt about the status of Duchamp today. "If you had said in 1968 when he died that Duchamp was as important as Picasso," Taylor says, "no one would have believed you. Today it is self-evident. Duchamp was the most influential artist of the 20th century. He changed the world of art."

Young artists, according to Taylor, do not believe they can learn anything from Picasso. "But you can't go to a gallery in Chelsea without seeing Duchamp," he says, referring to the art gallery district in Manhattan.

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