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The endlessly enigmatic Monsieur Duchamp

September 26, 2009 |  3:00 pm


Marcel Duchamp served for many years as both a prince and court jester to modern art in the 20th century. While creating some well-known works, he also punctured pretensions with jokes, pranks, aphorisms and a perpetual hunt for new byways of art. Then he announced he was abandoning art, giving it all up to play chess. But he was not telling the truth.

He worked in secret for 20 years, assembling a huge, fanciful and puzzling diorama. When he died in 1968, only a few people knew about his secret. His obituaries were respectful but did not rank him among the giants.

A year after his death, the Philadelphia Museum of Art installed the secret work and displayed it to the public. While some patrons were shocked by its sexuality, it soon became a magnet for young artists looking for new paths to take their own work. Duchamp’s masterpiece, known as “Étant donnés,” a shortened form of its French title, is now regarded as one of the most powerful and dynamic influences on contemporary art.

Museums rarely devote an entire exhibition to a single work. But the Philadelphia museum holds "Étant donnés" in such high esteem that, on the 40th anniversary of its installation, it has mounted a show — simply titled “Marcel Duchamp: Étant donnés” — that describes in great detail how Duchamp conceived and constructed the work. The show, which closes Nov. 29 and goes nowhere else, (though “Étant donnés” remains as before on permanent display), comprises more than 100 objects, including body casts, drawings, photos and other pieces that shed light on the creation. There is even a loose-leaf notebook in which Duchamp set down detailed instructions, in handwritten French, on how to take the work apart and put it back together again.

Read Stanley Meisler's account of this show about a modern landmark.

Photo: "Etant donnes," exterior. Credit: Philadelphia Museum of Art