Marcel Duchamp

Etant donnés: 1. La chute d’eau 2. Le gaz d’éclairage

(Given: 1. The Waterfall  2. The Illuminating Gas)


Duchamp died in 1968 but his final work was yet to be revealed.  He had worked on it with two accomplices in absolute secrecy and had subtitled it: “Collapsible mock-up made between 1946 and 1966 in New York with scope for ad-libbing during assembly and disassembly.”  In 1969 Etant donnés was installed using his instruction manual (an integral part of the work, of course) in The Philadelphia Museum of Art, which was then home also to Large Glass  and other works.


Etant donnés stands in a bare room.  As you approach this dead end you’ll see a large wooden door set in an arch of brick.  The door cannot be opened but there are two small holes at eye level, which invite closer inspection.  A dark space opens through a roughly hewn hole in a brick wall onto a brilliantly lit landscape with a figure of a woman in the foreground, prone, naked and with legs splayed towards the viewer.  The figure is a palpable thing in real space—a three dimensional sculpture, like many of Duchamp’s works—but this one is for the eyes only and only from this viewpoint—the work is not available to any alternative means of access.  Dawn Ades offers the following description:

The two small holes, allowing natural bifocal looking rather than the single viewpoint that would be allowed by a keyhole, gives visual access onto further openings.  The rough hole in the brick wall is separated from the door by a short dark passage (lined in black velvet), through which the nude is seen, lying on a bed of twigs.  Her head is hidden by the edge of the brick wall, and the spectator’s first instinct is to shift position to try, in vain, to see the whole figure.

One of the features of this work is that it subverts the conditions described by Benjamin in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.”  Here is a work that simply cannot be reproduced technically.  If you want to view it you must go to Philadelphia.  The artwork, taken as a whole, is an experience that connot be achieved with out a single and present observer—viewing it is part of the action comprising the work—one looks through two holes and then on through another.  Duchamp has argued that the work of art is not performed by the artist alone: “All in all, the creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act.”  There is a feeling of paradox in this, however, given that “given” does not exploit the spectator’s creative capacities in any active or direct way but rather positions the spectator, whose “act” the work engages.


The following site provides an animated simulation of the work: Freshwidow

The Marcel Duchamp Page is always also worth a visit.

Artchive is always reliable.

Here’s a reason why photos of it won’t be any good.