Étant donnés

Duchamp’s final masterpiece, Étant donnés, has been described by the artist Jasper Johns as “the strangest work of art in any museum.”1 Permanently installed at the Philadelphia Museum of Art since 1969, this elaborate assemblage offers an unforgettable and untranslatable experience to those who peep through the two small holes in the old Spanish wooden door. The unsuspecting viewer encounters a spectacular sight: a naked woman lying spread-eagled on a bed of twigs and fallen leaves. In her left hand, this life-size mannequin holds aloft an old-fashioned gas lamp of the Bec Auer type, while behind her, in the far distance, a lush landscape rises toward the horizon. This illuminated backdrop consists of a retouched photograph of a hilly landscape with a dense cluster of trees outlined against a hazy turquoise sky. The only movement in the otherwise eerily still grotto is a sparkling waterfall, actually a flickering light source powered by an unseen motor, which pours into a lake on the right. The waterfall and the illuminating gas lamp are the elements “given” in the enigmatic title, which comes from one of Duchamp’s earlier notes for The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass), suggesting an intimate connection between the themes of the two works.

The artist secretly constructed Étant donnés over a twenty-year period, during which it was generally assumed that Duchamp had given up making works of art. The piece was partly assembled from miscellaneous objects the artist collected with the assistance of his wife, Teeny. The couple visited demolition sites for bricks, the countryside around New York for twigs, and a small town near Cadaqués in Spain for the weather-worn door. These elements were transported to the artist’s studio on 14th Street in New York, where their presence added to the trompe-l’oeil realism of the assemblage, which makes one think of voyeuristic peep shows or brightly lit dioramas in natural history museums. In accordance with Duchamp’s wishes, the existence of Étant donnés became public only after his death, when the piece was installed at the Philadelphia Museum of Art following the artist’s instructions.