Written as part of my participation in The International Arts Journalism Institute in the Visual Arts | JUNE 10 – 26,09| American University| Washington D.C
Thrilled and intrigued, queuing a long line to the wooden gate, it seems to me that I crossed the country just to be there waiting my turn to see the big mystery revealed. I bet this was exactly the feeling that Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) wanted to arouse in his spectator. In a low lighted small room in the Philadelphia Museum of Arts, the “Etant Donnés : La Chutte D’eau, Le Gas d’Eclairage” (given in English), of Duchamp was installed.
It took me two days to get there, my introduction to the Duchamp world started one day early, in the National Portrait Gallery, where a large exhibition is dedicated just for Duchamp. The exhibition showcases approximately 100 portraits and self-portraits of Duchamp, including works by his contemporaries Man Ray, Alfred Stieglitz, Francis Picabia and Florine Stettheimer as well as portraits by a more recent generation of artists, such as Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, Sturtevant, Yasumasa Morimura, David Hammons, Beatrice Wood and Douglas Gordon. “His contemporaries didn’t understand him, by portraying him, every one of them was trying to picture him from one side, all together were trying to get the whole picture of Duchamp” points out Anne Collins Goodyear, assistant curator of prints and drawings at the National Portrait Gallery.
Duchamp, French artist, self-claimed American, broke down the boundaries in his time between works of art and everyday objects. In 1915, he landed for the first time in the United States. Forty years later he became an American citizen. Duchamp returned to France in 1923, making occasional trips back to the United States, where he settled permanently in 1942 till he died in 1968. Provocateur, intriguer, he bet in the future, he left the generation to come to recreate, reinterpret his art work.
Pressing my two hands against the wooden gates, I bend my head to look through the eye-level small holes, only way to see the last art work of Duchamp. From a certain distance from the gates, a wall from bricks broken in the middle, to reveal- but not fully – the most unexpected scene: A totally exposed nude woman laying on the grass, legs apart, head hidden behind the wall, holding a lamp in her hand, a water fall is shining in the background.
In 1923, after his well-known The Large Glass, Duchamp let it be known that he had stopped making art in order to devote himself to his favorite pastime, chess. After Duchamp’s death in 1968, it was revealed that he had actually spent the last two decades (from 1946 to 1966) of his life working secretly to accomplish his final project. Nobody knows till now what he meant by his disturbing piece: are these the gates the access to his own inner self?, an access to this profound unrevealed world? Is this exposed naked woman the mirror of his self: exposed but unidentified? Water fall, abundant nature and naked body, the femininity is omnipresent in the piece.
It was in 1920, that Duchamp invented his alter ego, Rrose Sélavy, who emerged in a series of photographs by Man Ray of Duchamp dressed as a woman. Sélavy was one of his many pseudonyms, which can be transcript phonetically in French “Eros, C’est la vie” (Eros , That’s life). Eros was the Greek god of love and lust, who hid his angelic features from his love and wife Psyche. When the seduced wife tried to reveal the secret of her husband, she lost him forever.
Is that what Duchamp intended to tell though all his artworks, completed with his last piece, that the human being is complex and dual? Duchamp elaborated the duality that he lived psychologically and socially. He kept his dual nationality and identity, which makes him, from my point of view a pure American, Don’t all Americans have this tangled identity?