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Étant donnés
Étant donnés: 1. La chute d’eau, 2. Le gaz d’éclairage (Given: 1. The Waterfall, 2. The Illuminating Gas), 1946-66
Marcel Duchamp, American (born France)
Mixed-media assemblage: wooden door, bricks, velvet, wood, leather stretched over an armature of metal, twigs, aluminum, iron, glass, Plexiglas, linoleum, cotton, electric lights, gas lamp (Bec Auer type), motor, etc.
7 feet 11 1/2 inches x 70 inches (242.6 x 177.8 cm)
Gift of the Cassandra Foundation, 1969
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About Étant donnés…

No photograph can communicate the intensity of the unique visual experience of seeing Marcel Duchamp’s Étant donnés: 1. La chute d’eau, 2. Le gaz d’éclairage (Given: 1. The Waterfall, 2. The Illuminating Gas), which the artist constructed in total secrecy over a twenty-year period, from 1946 to 1966. The unsuspecting viewer encounters a spectacular sight: a realistically constructed simulacrum of a naked woman lying spread-eagle on a bed of dead twigs and fallen leaves. In her left hand, this life-size mannequin holds aloft an old-fashioned illuminated gas lamp of the Bec Auer type, while behind her, in the far distance, a lush wooded landscape rises toward the horizon. This brightly illuminated backdrop consists of a retouched collotype collage of a hilly landscape with a dense cluster of trees outlined against a hazy turquoise sky, replete with fluffy cotton clouds. The only movement in the otherwise eerily still grotto is a sparkling waterfall, powered by an unseen motor, which pours into a mist-laden lake on the right.

Duchamp began work on his diorama-like assemblage when he was actively involved in Surrealist exhibition design and closely aligned with the aims and ideals of the international Surrealist movement. Indeed, a close examination of the history of the work and its construction reveals that Duchamp was responding to the changing conditions of Surrealism both during and after World War II, when group members embraced tarot cards, black magic, pagan rituals, arcane imagery, and, above all, a new conception of Eros. As Surrealism recast itself in the 1940s in reaction to the rise of fascism and the carnage of World War II, its protagonists increasingly turned to an interior world, such as the one seen behind the massive Spanish wooden door in Étant donnés, which separates the viewer from an unexpected and unimaginable landscape, visible only by looking through the peepholes.