Sounds like hell to me

Michael Wood

  • Duchamp: A Biography by Calvin Tomkins
    Chatto, 350 pp, £25.00, April 1997, ISBN 0 7011 6642 8
  • The Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp by Arturo Schwartz
    Thames and Hudson, 292 pp, £145.00, September 1997, ISBN 0 500 09250 8

You step up to the wooden door, a heavy, rustic affair set in a brick arch, and you peer through two small holes conveniently set at around head height. You do this not because you are a snoop, but because this is an installation at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Even so, you feel like a snoop, and worse. As Calvin Tomkins says, no amount of practice or mental preparation will diminish the complicated shock of what you see on the other side of the door. This has to do partly with the meticulous realism of what is in the foreground, partly with the tacky artificiality of the background; and has everything to do with the failed combination of the two, with your inability to get them to go together or even cancel each other out. The moment you reach for an overall interpretation, you feel you are losing the stubborn individuality of the bits of the scene, their separate stories. If you decide the stubborn bits are all there is, you feel you are missing a larger message, and trying to make yourself comfortable when you are not.

In the foreground, seen through a large jagged hole in a brick wall the other side of the door, is the life-size naked body of a woman, shaved pubis and genitalia open towards you – or, more precisely, an expert imitation of such a body, made of leather on a metal or plaster frame. Art historians will, and do, recognise the parodic allusion to Courbet’s The Origin of the World, but there is something about the effect of firm but slightly mottled flesh in three dimensions which takes you into another realm, that of the criminal investigation, for instance, where a corpse is often supposed to be left exactly as it is for what seems like an indecent length of time. But is this a corpse? Tomkins sees in it a satisfied woman sleeping it off, and says ‘many observers’ have found the pose ‘clearly post-coital’. The figure is anonymous, because the head is cut off, so to speak, by the brick wall and the angle of vision allowed by the holes in the door. No matter how you squint and change your position, you can’t see a face, only a hank of blonde hair. The body is lying on an alarmingly real and prickly bed of thick twigs, and – this is where the complications start – the left arm, either still alive or frozen as if in life, is outstretched, and the left hand holds an ancient gas lamp, of the kind known, after the name of their inventor, as the Bec Auer. The background is a flat and deeply unconvincing postcard-style landscape of woods and mountains, tinted purple for romantic effect. In the far right, twinkling like a pair of shoes in The Wizard of Oz, is a tiny waterfall, an alternating glow simulating, without any real plausibility, the splash of the cascade. The installation is called Etant donnés: 1. la chute d’eau/2. le gaz d’éclairage (Given: 1. the waterfall/2. the gas lamp). It is Marcel Duchamp’s last work, and was first seen in 1969, some eight months after his death.

If you work from the body towards the title of Etant donnés, you find yourself interrupted by all kinds of cultural temptations. The lamp looks allegorical, and the body too – we could call the scene the ‘Decapitated Light of the World’, or even, more theatrically, just Fanny by Gaslight. If this is a happy sexual aftermath, why, as Tomkins asks, ‘this harsh and desiccated bower’? Why is the waterfall so tiny and so kitschy, and what can it have to do with the body? And aren’t you pursuing these questions just to get away from the irreducible nearness of the human figure, the horrible intimacy with what has to feel like a violation, of privacy if nothing else? Jerrold Seigel, in The Private Worlds of Marcel Duchamp, says the body’s lack of pubic hair ‘creates as explicitly physical and ... brutal a representation of sexuality as possible’.

If you work from the title towards the body, the ground seems logically firmer, but also full of traps, invitations to over-confidence. The title is a quotation from Duchamp’s notes for his own earlier work known as the Large Glass, and formally called The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even, ‘definitively unfinished’ in 1923. Given the waterfall and the gas lamp, this note says, ‘we shall determine the conditions of instantaneous Repose (or allegorical appearance) of a succession of diverse facts which seem related to one another by laws, in order to isolate the sign of the accordance between, on the one hand, this Repose ... and, on the other hand, a selection of Possibilities authorised by these laws and also determining them.’ There is a lot of owlish hocus-pocus here – Julio Cortázar called the Large Glass the last cold joke – and the tone is perhaps more important than anything that is being said. A sexual or homicidal act is being treated as if it were an experiment in physics, as if we could proceed methodically, without a hitch or an emotion, from the gas lamp and the waterfall to the appeased or slaughtered body. When Duchamp says, later in life, that the word ‘law’ is against his principles, he is not contradicting himself, although he was not averse to that. He is reminding us of his irony.

Duchamp was born near Rouen in 1887, lived in New York for extended periods on several occasions. He was regularly treated as a founder of Dada and Surrealism, and he was certainly in sympathy with their dedication to irreverence, but he kept aloof from all movements, and indeed from most things. He was married twice, the second time happily and for 14 years, until he died; the first time for only a few months. On the first occasion the apparently unworldly master seems to have married for money and discovered there wasn’t enough, and that marriage was harder than he thought. He wasn’t that unworldly. He cared little for material goods and possessions and gave much of his own work away; but he also made a tidy living selling other people’s work, and he was a great organiser of exhibitions.

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