Feature

Exhibit of the week: Marcel Duchamp: Étant Donnés

The Philadelphia Museum of Art's special exhibit of Marcel Duchamp is designed to bring greater attention to the artist's final masterpiece, a work of installation art that took 20 years to complete.

Philadelphia Museum of Art
Through Nov. 29

Forty years after his death, Marcel Duchamp remains “the patron saint of postmodernism,” said Holland Cotter in The New York Times. The man who first questioned conventional definitions of art, by displaying urinals and bicycle wheels as museum pieces, always loved to confound expectations. So when he stopped exhibiting, in the late 1940s, many assumed the mercurial Frenchman had stopped working entirely. In fact, he kept at it for the rest of his life “but told almost no one about the art he was creating.” His final masterpiece, the result of two decades’ clandestine labor, is also his “weirdest and most mysterious.” Hidden behind a large wooden door and visible only through peepholes, Étant Donnés (roughly, “Given”) has long been on display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Even so, few museumgoers ever see it, said Edward Sozanski in The Philadelphia Inquirer, mostly because “it can be viewed by only one person at a time.” To bring greater attention to one of its most ­“cherished masterpieces,” the museum has organized a special exhibition that surrounds Étant Donnés with earlier works by the artist and with archival materials chronicling its creation. But all these simply supplement a peek at the work itself. “What do the peepholes reveal? A life-like female nude lying on a bed of twigs and leaves, legs splayed,” holding in her hand an antique gas lamp. Behind her, a woodland scene is “enlivened by a twinkling waterfall.” The nude, it should be noted, is hardly sexy. It “more resembles a corpse or a rape victim than a seductress.” Because of the kitschy background, some critics have treated the whole work as an “elaborate prank.” But such an important artist would hardly have worked 20 years on one piece just to shock people. I take Étant Donnés to be a complex meditation on “eroticism as a prime motivator of human behavior.”

Such a “cryptic, provocative” piece will always encourage diverse interpretations, said Candace Jackson in The Wall Street Journal. “The piece could be a statement on voyeurism in art”—or it could be just another example of it. To its credit, this exhibition never tries to simplify the work’s meaning. Instead, it “aims to open a new window into the French-born artist’s hidden world.” We discover, for instance, that the female figure was based on Duchamp’s former lover, from whose body he took a plaster cast, which he then covered with parchment painted to look like skin. But, in the end, the exhibition hardly touches on the work’s larger significance as “the world’s first example of installation art—and a major influence on many contemporary artists, such as Jeff Koons, Matthew Barney, and Cindy Sherman.”

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