The Process of Perfection

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Etant Donnes: 1 La Chute D’Eau 2 Le Gaz  D’Eclairage-Marcel Duchamp (1946-1966)
After WWII the enigmatic Marcel Duchamp, arch avant-gardist and art world provocateur was widely have believed to have turned his back on art to dedicate himself to competitive chess. However for the next twenty years  Duchamp would work in secret on his tableau Etant Donnes: 1 La Chute D’Eau 2 Le Gaz D’Eclairage (Given: 1 The Waterfall 2 The Illuminating Gas), it was to be his final work. The tableau was only installed after Duchamp’s death in 1968 in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

It immediately caused a sensation. The tableau is only visible through two tiny peep holes which presents a mysterious scene whose meaning remains elusive. In the foreground against the painted sylvan landscape is a naked female (comprised of parchment, hair, glass, paint, cloths-pegs, and lights). Her head is hidden, all that is visible above the torso is strands of blonde hair. The posture of the body is extremely disturbing, the immediate impression is of violence against the supine figure. The model for most of the figure was Duchamp’s lover from 1946 to 1951, the Brazilian sculptor Maria Martins. After meeting Martins Duchamp increasingly introduced the erotic into his previously cerebral art and he would obsessively draw her voluptuous figure. Duchamp’s second wife Alexina (Teeny) was the model for the arm. Duchamp consulted extensively with both women during the artistic process.

A work as opaque as Etant Donnes invites all manner of interpretations. For me several features are highly suggestive of alchemy and Hermeticism. The oil lamp could be alluding to the alchemical fire that accelerates the process of perfection in the Great Work. The headless women was a frequent symbol of Mother Nature in early cultures and her position could be taken as someone ready for either childbirth or sexual intercourse. If this is the case then the spring would refer to the womb where new life is formed and nourished. Is Etant Donnes an alchemical allegory on artistic creation?

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67 thoughts on “The Process of Perfection

  1. This is a very disturbing picture , on first impression you are shocked by the position of the woman yes it could be a woman that has been murdered and left exposed to shock the finder, your interpretation has made me go back to the picture time and time again.

    I am still debating what does this mean?

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    1. It is disturbing, the contrast between the posture and the fairytale landscape causes a double take, Duchamp was opposed to what he called retinal art (art pleasing to the eye alone) and championed cerebral art. He is probably the single most influential artist of the 20th century, not necessary a good thing.

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  2. I see you posted this. 🙂 Actually I think it’s cited in the book Revenge of the Black Dahlia, or maybe it was some other book, expressing Duchamp and the Surrealist’s misogyny. Most disturbing is the ritualistic posed nature of the corpse.

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      1. Don’t worry about it. I’m not really saying this to be PC. Rather, there were questions about an acquaintance/friend of Duchamps being possibly the murderer of the Black Dahlia and that he sliced up and positioned the body in an artistic way to compete with Duchamps and other surrealists.

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      2. It is troubling however I don’t think that blame the artist for what psychopaths take out of them…the book of revelations has been the source for several serial killets

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      3. maybe. but sometimes I think there is culpability. Eg Bundy was inspired by the early pulp mags (True Detective) and the stuff in them is really sick, it’s all rape, gag, bind, torture, real BTK stuff.

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      4. It’s relative. It no doubt depends on the individual but some of it no doubt inspires. I’m sure the Columbine HS killers also got inspired by various stuff. Even Leopold and Loeb probably. Weird fantasies that grew in their imaginations that they eventually would act out.

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      5. I don’t think you can make that comparison. The true crime mags are real BTK. The ideas from Nietzsche as used by the Nazis are on a more abstract level. IDK enough specifically about the Nietzsche question. Stalin didn’t have to look to Marx for murderous acts, he had Lenin who was murderous already.

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      6. Well Nietzsche was no anti-Semite in fact he fall out with Wagner over this very matter. But his sister married one. A copy of Thus Spake Zarathusa was given to every German soldier during WWII

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  3. There was a murder not far from where where I lived, in NYC, the victim was murdered in the woods and then ritually posed and all of these flowers were placed around her by the killer.

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  4. Hmm, I don’t know about this. Twenty years he spent on it? Wow. I would say she’s supposed to be dead but she’s holding a lantern. Unless it’s a corpse that’s been posed and made to hold it. Then that seems weird…why a light. Maybe for someone to find the body. The sticks she’s laying on don’t seem comfortable so that makes me think she didn’t lay there voluntarily, and then we’re back to murder…regardless it’s very interesting. For the scene, the body has too much light on it- too much glare that washes out any detail. I wonder if that means anything or he just didn’t want to make pubic hair. 🙂
    Thanks for the link!

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  5. I don’t know why I don’t find this disturbing. I did not immediately assume death because of her holding the lamp. I also did not immediately assume that she was headless, just that it was out of sight. Can you elaborate on the peepholes? Did you actually have to get up close and peer through to see or are you saying that was the effect he created?

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    1. You have to stare through the peep-holes. Some comments I received and also some feminist commentary on the tableau suggest that it is a dead body due to the positioning and the posture and that the head is unseen. Duchamp and Man Ray scatters allusions to the esoteric throughout their careers and I think that the allusions to alchemy are deliberate.

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      1. Hmmm… I guess. But holding the lantern. I can definitely see how you’d reach those conclusions about alchemy. However, that kind of goes against the dead body argument. Unless of course, its the whole “circle of life” idea. The body decomposes, fertilizes the flowers and the grasses, degeneration then regeneration…

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      2. There, fixed it. Take it as a compliment that I was so interested in the post that I forgot to like it and launched right into commenting about it. And while we’re at it, did you not like Galway Girl?

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  6. hmmm. There must be something wrong with me. I think this picture is rather hot. Not disturbing. She is obviously not dead…she is grasping and holding onto a light…which is still upright. This lantern may or may not mean “I’m ready to go again”. It is interesting that we are looking out as if we were in complete darkness…and she is the one holding the light. I love this picture. Yet another one today…that reminds me of the post I wrote. I can imagine those twigs being pine needles…hmm. Great work as usual… 🙂 Thanks cake.

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    1. That is the great thing about art, there are as many interpretations as they are viewers. The surrealists have been given a hard time about the male gaze, objectification, treating the woman as the other, etc. I do see some validity but I think it is a little harsh and doesn’t give credit to the women surrealists and comes from the viewpoint that all male surrealists were
      Automatically misogynistic. They liked to shock and so shocking material and themes were used. The piece is opaque and has many possible interpretations. Thanks for the support and comments

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  7. Mr. Cake, a wonderful post on Marcel Duchamp, and his work, “Etant Donnes: 1 La Chute D’Eau 2 Le Gaz D’Eclairage”. Yes, I agree with your comment above, that he “opposed… retinal art…and championed cerebral art”, thank god. I find the interesting thing, was his ability to control how the installation was viewed, I believe objectifying the visual, yet the cognitive experience was completely subjective. Quite the emotional if not disturbing experience. Again a lovely post. ~ Miss Cranes

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      1. A lot of conversation is great, the work definitely is a conversation piece. I do like it, not sure if it’s purely for the shock value, or the sheer uniqueness of the piece. Perhaps you should give some serious consideration of doing just that, a book. You’re most welcome Mr. Cake.

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      2. Well, any of those four would be lovely. At the moment I was thinking of art. You know one of those over sized coffee table books (please don’t cringe), beautiful plates of the artwork with your descriptions and interpretations below the image. You know, Cake style. What do you think?

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  8. An excellent and quite intriguing (and certainly disturbing) piece … I loved the last paragraph and your analysis of the symbolism hidden here… I wonder if “The Illuminating Gas” could have something to do with the Holocaust, given the historical context here. Maybe I am taking the symbolism too far… However I have read this in an article http://www.toutfait.com/issues/issue_3/Articles/Hoy/etantdon_en.html
    “It is thought provoking that the work was produced in the years after the Second World War, bearing the nuclear arms race in mind. Étant donnés can be seen as a ‘vanitas painting of art (and thereby civilization)’. Meaning that Duchamp must first and foremost criticize artificial (modern) art, i.e. the art that only has itself as its motif. The work praises Given, or nature, and negates the artificial, or man-made. It is a self-critical and extremely melancholy work. But that does not mean that it negates the onlooker’s experience of the work. On the contrary, the onlooker becomes the (co-) creator and interpreter of the work”. Again… The dreams of reasons as Goya would say? 😉
    Sending best wishes, friend! 😀

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    1. Thank you for this Aquileana, a wonderful piece of information.Man Ray was his best friend and was Jewish (though he doesn’t refer to the fact once in his excellent Autobiography, of course like most of the Dada/Surrealist he was a militant atheist), and when Duchamp first give up art entirely (for a while anyway) during his Buenos Aires period he did consult with Man Ray about becoming Jewish, but they both decided it was too much of a change and instead Duchamp become Rrose Selavy, his female alter ego for a period of two years. So apparently it is easier to change gender than religion. Of course you never know how seriously to take Duchamp and Man Ray with their elaborate jokes. Etant donnes as a vanitas in the nuclear age? Certainly worth a thought. Although atheists a lot of modernism is also anti-science, instead taking the third way of mysticism and occultism. Best wishes to you my thought provoking friend.

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  9. Man Ray was his best booster and was Judaic (though he doesn’t touch to the fact once in his splendid autobiography, of course like most of the Dada/Surrealist he was a war-ridden atheist), and when Duchamp 1st break up artistry entirely (for a while anyway) during his Buenos Aires period of time he did consult with Man Ray about becoming Judaic, but they both decided it was too much of a change and instead Duchamp become Rrose Selavy, his distaff modify self for a period of time of two years. meaning that Duchamp must 1st and foremost criticize artistryificial (innovative) artistry, i.e. the artistry that only has itself as its motif.

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    1. Thank you for your lengthy comments. I do admire Man Ray’s autobiography though I was kinda amazed that he didn’t once mention being Jewish, especially as it was very pertinent at the time of the Nazi invasion of France and his decision to leave. I always took from the Duchamp/Selavy that it was easier to change gender than become Jewish. Curiously enough Luis Bunuel also considered converting (for the shock value) and even went as asking his friend Pierre Unik father who was a Rabbi, but came to pretty much the same conclusion as Duchamp that it was almost impossible.

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