Thursday, December 17, 2009

Marcel Duchamp's Étant donnés at the Philadelphia Museum

Sorry for the hiatus. I’ve been busy renovating, and moving into, a new apartment. After 26 years in the same place we moved 15 feet up -- to the second floor. I was able to take one day off, however, to see the Duchamp exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art before it ended on November 29th. The occasion for the exhibition was the 40th anniversary of the public unveiling of Étant donnés, Duchamp’s strange, creepy even, tableau that he worked on in secret for the last twenty years of his life.

I’ve seen it about a dozen times over the years and it still shocks me. Off to the side of the gallery where the Arensberg Collection is housed, is a small room with a scruffy carpet (more on that later). Against the far wall is a brick arch enclosing an old wooden door with two peep holes, grubby from 40 years of people’s faces pressing against it. What you see through the holes is a larger hole ripped out of black material that exposes a very realistic three dimensional tableau of a beautiful naked woman sprawled on some wild brush, lying spread eagle, and holding a glowing gas lamp up in the air. In the background is a woodsy landscape (reminiscent to me of landscapes in the backgrounds of Renaissance paintings, but not at all lyrical) with a realistically flowing waterfall -- all shown in bright daylight.

Her naked body, especially her vagina, is very much in your face, as it were! Whatever erotic feelings I had (she seems to be offering up her body) is much mitigated by the embarrassment of being a voyeur. How many works of art do that to you? The only one I can think of that came close was Courbet’s L'Origine du monde (The Origin of the World) exhibited last year in the Met’s Courbet retrospective, and that too was in a separate room off to the side. I suspect Duchamp was making a reference to this painting since the pose is very similar.

Courbet, Origin of the World, 1866

But, unlike the Courbet, Duchamp’s Étant donnés has a disconcerting, violent, undercurrent. The woman’s skin is mottled and bluish in places. Was she beaten? Is she dead? (Her skin looks more decayed than I remember -- has it changed over the years?) And her hairless vagina is deformed into two slits. Did someone do that to her?

So not only was I embarrassed looking at porn through a peep hole, and for being a voyeur, but I was made more uncomfortable because I was intruding on an intimate and disturbing mystery.

Traditional art is separate from, and different than, “real world” experiences; it’s in a frame, on a pedestal, behind the fourth wall, etc., i.e. it’s not real. One way to look at the history of modern art is a continual attempt to obtain for art the visceral power and presence of “real world” experience. Duchamp, more than any artist, explored the space between art and life. hence the significance of the carpet. I think it’s a device, like a frame, that separates Étant donnés from the larger gallery and eases the viewer’s entry into a meta-world mixture of art and life.

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