Etant Donnes


by Marcel Duchamp,

Well there’s a lot to say about this enigmatic artist and this amazing piece of art which astounded the art world when it was 1966.

It was believed that Duchamp had bowed out of the art world and pursued a career in professional chess player but in fact had worked on this piece in secret for 20 years working out of his Greenwich Village studio. The piece is composed of an old wooden door, nails, bricks, brass, aluminum sheet, steel binder clips, velvet, leaves, twigs, a female form made of parchment, hair, glass, plastic clothespins, oil paint, linoleum, an assortment of lights, a landscape composed of hand-painted and photographed elements and an electric motor housed in a cookie tin which rotates a perforated disc….well of course, why the hell not.

Duchamp also supplied a ‘Manual of instruction’ in a 4 ring binder explaining how to assemble and disassemble the piece and on closer inspection it becomes apparent how intricate and involved the piece is. It was in effect a large diorama with which the spectator, and I say spectator more than viewer due to the content of the piece which i’ll go into further on, Jasper Johns, a longtime Duchampian, once referred to “Étant Donnés” as “the strangest work of art in any museum.” And yes its strange and compelling. It occupies a closed-off room in a dead-end area at the back of the main Duchamp gallery. The room can’t be entered. The entrance is blocked by a pair of locked antique wooden doors, solid except for two tiny side-by-side peepholes in their center. See the video below to understand the concept.


The way it is viewed leads the spectator to be the only one to view it at any one time, given the spectator to feel that he/she is spying on something that they shouldn’t be, catching a glimpse of something taboo. As you look you see a naked female body sprawled in long grass holding a lamp. In the background there is a painted landscape and what looks like a flowing waterfall. Like the background scenery is at odds with the chaos of the foreground details, you see a shattered broken brick wall just at the door with the naked torso of the woman with what looks like mutilated genitals. The piece offering up many questions…are we witnessing a post attack on the woman in question or is she laying back waiting?  Me, on first view I clearly had the notion that it felt like a crime scene but the lantern puts this view at odds with that idea. I think if i were to see the piece through the door i would feel like a voyeur my eyes directed to the forbidden, an overtly sexualised form languishing unbridled in the chaos of the long grass with the beauty of nature in the background.

So yes it’s a confusing piece but wonderfully stated. Every time I look at it I feel a different nuance comes forth and makes me think differently, I don’t know much about Duchamp but this has given me a taste for finding out more….and in the end isn’t that what art is meant to do, open our eyes and see the world differently. Now I know i’m not a good writer in any way but if you would like to comment and set me straight would appreciate hearing what others think on seeing this fascinating piece.

One thought on “Etant Donnes

  1. You undersell yourself on the writing. This is a compelling and confusing piece. Duchamp, was quite like a naughty teenager which his art, high sexual themes run through them, and forces the viewer/spectator to partake in acts that they wouldn’t particularly undertake in their day to day life. His humour shines in other pieces such as Prière de toucher (See my blog for my info) which forced the viewer to take a more interactive role with his sexually charged ideas. Duchamp was the forerunner for all of what is considered modern art, associated with cubism, surrealism, Dadaism he took the mundane and turned it in to art. Notoriously taking a urinal, and displaying it as a fountain, when an exhibitor offered that he could display anything that he wanted. This opened the door for a new wave of art using anything and everything, which then paved the way for pop art and other more outlandish art forms. In this particular piece, you’re right, initially it looks like a crime scene, where something horrific has occurred, but the lamp and the waterfall are indicators of hope, where as the rubble a symbol of life. The women passively waiting holding hope. There is something new to be seen in this at each viewing. The thing to remember with Duchamp’s work is that he wanted to move away from just the retinal and create work which reached people on a spiritual level, that they could interact with and be shocked or surprised over.

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