The Gaze and the Guess: Fixing Identity in “Étant donnés”

When Marcel Duchamp died in 1968, his longtime friend Frank Brookes Hubachek wrote a letter to Anne d’Harnoncourt, former director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and a Duchamp scholar. Published in the catalogue that accompanied the recent exhibition “Marcel Duchamp Étant donnés,” Hubachek’s tribute began: “Of the many many hours of the many many years which I spent with Marcel, on almost every subject he eluded me. It was not a case of pursuit or dodging or evasion, nor was it that he was a particle amorphous, he simply eluded one.” The excerpt concluded, “He was superbly realistic and with a humorous viewpoint which could have been sardonic but I think was actually more gently whimsical.”

I take from this brief character reading permission to speculate on Duchamp’s final work, the enigmatic Étant donnés, to exercise some whimsy of my own in attempting to understand, in some measure, what this unique work is. Whatever I read, whatever elaborations there are, however many works the piece engenders, *Étant donnés *remains, for me, a mystery. That may be its achievement–its glassy distance from the viewer, its eternal, elusive pulling back, side-slipping any grasp, definitions, explanations, absolute meanings, real intentions. The author is silent. There are, of course, Duchamp’s extensive notes on its elements, sources, photographic and written records of travel, details of its construction, guides for its reconstruction. How to, but not why, really.

Duration–the time it took, the meticulous manner of its assembly might have it being designated an obsession, but a watchmaker employed for his lifetime by Piaget could claim the same. Skill and lifelong dedication alone don’t necessarily imply obsession or indicate a psychic tic. In the catalogue’s first chapter, exhibition curator Michael R Taylor notes that after the carnage of the Second World War, the Surrealists, among whom Duchamp was numbered, turned inward to a world where the activities behind the heavy wooden Spanish door Duchamp chose for concealing the diorama of Étant donnés, for example, seemed a more accommodating and sympathetic environment than an engagement with a world that had just generated unspeakable horror and loss. A place hidden and concealing something so thoroughly interior and idiosyncratic as to only be the emanations of an individual’s dream. From dream I take my permission to suggest, perhaps unfounded, that Étant donnés is a self-portrait, even though the torso is a body cast of Duchamp’s lover, Maria Martins, and not his own, and then to have the temerity to buttress my mist-induced speculation with some points that may support my reading. And if Duchamp believed that the role of the spectator could somehow be interactive and if, as a viewer looking, I complete the work for myself, then why not speculate about this thoroughly examined work that nonetheless remains hidden?

On how to look, how to see, on perspective and to whom it belongs or where it is located, art historian Hans Belting suggests, in Looking Through Duchamp’s Door: Art and Perspective in the Work of Duchamp, Sugimoto, Jeff Wall (Walther Köenig, Köln, 2009) that Duchamp dealt with perspective by liberating it as allegory and making it negotiable and subject to play.

Belting suggests that Duchamp studied perspective carefully with the intention of recasting the gaze that shaped Western culture in its own image, offering as an alternative the consideration of a fourth perspective. Belting wrote, “By questioning mathematical perspective he also called into question both science’s truth claim and the realism of an art he considered “retinal”, since it spoke only to the eye.” From Duchamp’s study of historical texts on perspective emerged his project of inventing what Belting described as “a new kind of perspective that did not direct three-dimensional space but rather operated in such space from the outset.” The Large Glass *was the first work to emanate from this project. Here, rather than the glass being a screen through which to look in order to reproduce objects in a perspectival manner, the glass became the surface where the gaze rested, seeing the objects presented there. The world beyond, or behind it–the space or place of traditional perspective–is blocked, flattened, compressed–the view adhering to the surface. In *The Large Glass, the traditional line of the horizon is the horizontal bar dividing the two parts of the glass. We are made aware, through the band’s presence, Belting reminds us, of the symbolism of the old vanishing point. It serves, he says as “a barrier to the desire of the gaze that never reaches its destination.”

Desire has been generated and blocked, leading, I’d say, to its amplification. We are on our toes, peeping toms all, reaching to peer through the two “keyholes” in the heavy wooden Spanish door, desiring to see–just to see–because until we have seen we don’t know what the object of desire is. We are the gaze, outside, looking covertly in, our sight all but blocked by the inaccessibility of the apertures through which we look. Inside, Duchamp has realized his desire, his dreamy project of creating another kind of perspective, another space (and also time) that “did not depict three-dimensional space but rather operated in such a space from the outset.” He is beyond representation, in the space of art and the eye, in the diorama into which only he can enter.

I think of all the department stores in all the cities everywhere, with their large plate glass windows and recessed space beyond. Some are rooms in which we should want to live, furnished à la nouvelle mode. Most are inhabited by mannequins wearing the newest fashions. In preparation for public display these windows are dressed. Most of the preparation takes place behind drawn velvet curtains. Sometimes the dresser forgets that his work isn’t intended to be public until it’s complete and the curtains are left parted. It’s a covert glimpse into something not meant to be seen by chance. When photographer Jeff Wall creates a set, he’s staging that action, Hans Belting reminds us, for his own gaze, through the camera, for the photograph. In *Étant donnés *Duchamp is inside the staging space, inside the diorama playing, as I’m suggesting, himself.

But the torso is Maria Martins’s, and there are other gender switches; there’s the fetching Rrose Selavy played by Marcel Duchamp and photographed by Man Ray. There is the postcard LHOOQ, an image of Mona Lisa, she too, a mysterious subject of a portrait, on which Duchamp has drawn a moustache and goatee, and there is what Michael R Taylor has referred to as Duchamp’s ongoing interest in gender indeterminacy and the liminal spaces of the inframince, where inside becomes outside, convex becomes alternately concave, and front and back are interchangeable. Borders are so easily traversed and definitions of gender can be played and tampered with, their distinguishing boundaries seen as porous or osmotic.

A cascade of blonde hair obscures the face of the mannequin in the diorama. A tousled, long-haired blonde wig finishes Duchamp’s costume of tweed wool jacket, dark shirt and knotted tie; in his hand is a pipe, instead of the Bec Auer le gaz d’éclairage of the diorama. This is a photograph dated 1955, by Man Ray, titled Marcel Duchamp in a blonde wig. In defence of my postulating that Étant donnés is a self-portrait, I offer the above, blonde coincidence.

Duchamp worked alone, except for the latter years when he was assisted, on occasion, in the construction of *Étant donnés *by his wife Alexina “Teeny” Duchamp. No one knew he was working. He’d eschewed the making of art. As early as 1921, Belting tells us, Duchamp wrote to the collector Jacques Doucet telling him his works were intended to be, “not exhibition art but simply ‘optics’.” He was private, secretive about his work, hermetic, himself a work behind a wall, behind a door. And while his late and enduring marriage in 1954 was happy, he had been unmarried for a long time. He’d had lovers and companions, and with some he’d engaged in sustained relationships, but until Teeny, he was a bachelor, the bachelor, and after the intense and passionate relationship with Maria Martins (of the mannequin torso), there was longing.

Franz Kafka enters here twice. First, in the introduction to the collection Kafka: Metamorphosis & Other Stories (Penguin, 2007). Michael Hofmann, writes by way of invitation to a broader readership, “There is no threshold of boredom or difficulty…. I think of a Kafka story (‘The Worries of a Head of Household,’ say) as a perfect work of literary art, as approachable as it is strange, and as strange as it is approachable.” Threshold is the connection–one for Kafka’s readers to cross, another for Duchamp’s viewers–doorways leading to the surprise and enchantment of the work. Some readings–I think hasty mis-readings of the mannequin torso–have seen her as the victim of sexual assault and abandonment. I suggest–isolation, in Nature, but holding in one hand a domestic source of illumination. I’d rather say the loneliness of an unwilling bachelor. Kafka, in an entry dated November 28, 1911, wrote in diaries 1910-1923 (ed. Max Brod, Schocken Books, New York, 1964), “The unhappiness of a bachelor, whether seeming or actual, is so easily guessed at by the world around him that he will curse his decision, at least if he has remained a bachelor because of the delight he takes in secrecy.”

Duchamp, always private, discrete, most often working in isolation–by temperament, inclination, circumstances–lived a life in which his last large work was a solitary figure set in a landscape resonant with art historical and personal references, a figure offering illumination, odd, physically outside of the usual but highly erotic nonetheless. (That is not so unusual a coming together given his involvement with Surrealism.)

Michael R Taylor in a section of the catalogue titled E.R.O.S. writes about Duchamp’s addressing eroticism. He quotes a few lines from a conversation the artist had with British artist Richard Hamilton and art historian Charles Mitchell in 1959 where Duchamp told them, “eroticism is a subject very dear to me” and added “in fact I thought the only excuse for doing anything is to introduce eroticism into life.” Addressing the subject additionally, Taylor includes an excerpt from a later interview with critic Pierre Cabanne to whom Duchamp said about eroticism, “basically it’s really a way to try to bring out in the daylight things that are constantly hidden–and that aren’t necessarily erotic–because of the Catholic religion, because of the social rules. To be able to reveal them, and to place them at everyone’s disposal–I think this is important because it’s the basis of everything and no one talks about it.”

What Duchamp has done with Étant donnés is to take what he’d said is an integral subject for him and behind a hidden and heavy door turned this essence into a series of possibilities. Unavailable to direct access, it is necessary for the viewer to cull and canvas a personal reservoir using as prompts a hidden view, a cloaked subject and intention, and unspecified or undirected ambiguous desire. Each viewer looks in and then looks inside to find there a self-portrait. Here the representation refers the subject back to their own person. I’m suggesting that a self-portrait is a form of tautology, self-referential of course, and a closed circle.

Thoroughly, in the book Étant donnés, the argument is made that almost from the outset, and as inexorably as that fatalistic word implies–though in this life of Marcel Duchamp it was guided by acute intelligence and unswerving attention–Duchamp was directed to the realization of this remarkable final work. In his life, which was a lifelong dedication to art on his own terms, he was building a parallel mirror life where the man and the work and the art were singular–finally, a seamless self-portrait.

Volume 29, Number 2: Marcel x 3

This article originally appeared in Border Crossings #114, published May 2010.

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