Marcel Duchamp’s Peep Show

“Sheets of empty canvas, untouched sheets of clay. Her legs spread out before me, as her body once did”.

Pearl Jam’s “Black” is playing through my mind while I stand facing the wooden door, peering through a jagged hole and setting my eyes on what some would consider, Marcel Duchamp’s Final Offense. She’s naked, lying on her back in a bed of brown leaves and twisted sticks. A waterfall glistens in the background. Her legs are splayed out to face me, revealing what appears to be more of a large, gash between her legs than a vagina. She would appear to be dead were it not for the tiny lantern she holds out in her left hand. I suppose rigor mortis could be to blame for this since no matter how much I try I can’t see her head, only a glimpse of a blonde curl resting on her collarbone.

While I’m “peeping”, I hear a man enter the room behind me and say with disgust, “It’s still here”. He is not alone in his abhorrence for Duchamp’s work, named “Étant donnés” which means “Being Given” in French, although the English title of this piece is “The Waterfall”. Early reviewers of the diorama have referred to the piece using such words as rape, sadism and death. Duchamp referred to her as “my woman with the open pussy” and actually cast the model from a woman he was once in love with. Claiming he gave up art for chess, it took him 20 years of secrecy in order to complete the piece.

Duchamp created contempt with his work for just about his entire career. In the early 1900’s he exhibited a urinal signed “R. Mutt” at the Society for Independent Artists. When asked by the Society to remove the piece, he instead quit. Ironically the piece was selected as the most important artwork of the 20th century a few years ago. I suppose a urinal is fairly important, although in a recent poll of “Most Important Inventions”, the iPhone placed higher than the flush toilet. Hmmm.

One of Duchamp’s first controversial paintings was, “Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2” and it is simply that; an abstraction of a person who could possibly be a woman descending a staircase. At first glance, I had to look closely to see the actual human form since he painted the entire process of descent and it looks as if 6 people are blurred together while walking down the stairs. In all honesty, the “human” looks more like a wooden marionette doll without any clothes on and I can’t understand what all the fuss was about. Then again I live in 2010 where sex and porn is just a mouse-click away. In 1912 this suggestion of erotica was severely pissing people off.

Some in your face, some severely abstract, Duchamp’s work was and still is ‘something to talk about’. The largest public collection can be seen at its permanent home in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

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