From a set of small-scale “erotic objects” created by Marcel Duchamp in the early 1950s, Feuille de vigne femelle (Female Fig Leaf) is a significant work in the artist’s oeuvre, both alluding to and anticipating the discovery of his last and most intriguing work, Etant donnés. Housed in the Philadephia Museum of Art since 1969, Duchamp worked on Etant donnés in secret.
Seemingly the first significant work that Duchamp made since abandoning, as legend would have it, all formal artistic production for chess in 1923, the erotic objects took a markedly different direction from his self-appropriation of the previous thirty years; certainly they were his first original artworks admitted to the public during this time. Yet, apparently out of nowhere, in 1950 Duchamp created Feuille de vigne femelle and Not a Shoe, given as a gift to the gallerist Julien Levy, which were swiftly followed by the phallic sculpture, Objet-Dard (Dart-Object) in 1951. Finally, in 1954 Duchamp bestowed Chastity Wedge on his new wife, Alexina ‘Teeny’ Matisse, as a wedding day gift; for the rest of their life together this curious object was kept on display in their home and taken with them wherever they travelled. Chastity Wedge saw the synthesis of the female in Feuille de Vigne Femelle and the masculine in Objet-Dard. Wedged into a block of pink dental plastic, a block of galvanized plaster represents the union of the sexes, while the title, with its allusion to celibacy, suggests otherwise.
With their punning titles each of these objects is an example of the word play that pervades Duchamp’s art. Yet, it is Feuille de vigne femelle that offers the most oblique example of Duchamp’s verbal ambiguities. Presenting an unequivocally sexual object, the title—“fig leaf”—conjures associations of prudery and concealment. In an interview with Pierre Cabanne in 1966 Duchamp outlined his view of eroticism, saying, “it’s really a way to bring out in the daylight things that are constantly hidden—that aren’t necessarily erotic—because of the Catholic religion, because of social rules. To be able to reveal them, and to place them at everyone’s disposal—I think this is important because it’s the basis of everything, and no one talks about it. Eroticism was a theme, even an ‘ism,’ which was the basis of everything I was doing at the time of the Large Glass. It kept me from being obligated to return to already existing theories, aesthetic or otherwise” (M. Duchamp, quoted in G. Parkinson, The Duchamp Book, London, 2008, p. 85). Resonating powerfully throughout his oeuvre, for Duchamp eroticism is a liberating force, a means to uncover that which may be considered provocative or subversive. Here, revisiting his enigmatic and erotic work, Le Grand Verre, Duchamp’s “bride” is laid bare, her innermost secrets revealed with the negative imprint of the vulva. For Duchamp, working on his hidden project, the title of Feuille de vigne femelle was a teasing prank on a captive audience who attempted to find connections between this flagrant work and his previous output, such as a photograph taken by Man Ray in 1924 of a tableau from Francis Picabia’s Ciné-Sketch, in which Duchamp and the artist’s model Bronia Perlmutter posed as Adam and Eve. It was only with the unveiling of Etant donnés that the context of these pieces was revealed.
As in Le Grand Verre Duchamp’s erotic objects play with the discontinuity that exists within his definition of the erotic, dislocating an already unstable understanding of identity. In the oscillation between that which is hidden and exposed, internal and external, masculine and feminine, Duchamp articulates his unstructured personal theory of the infra-mince, or “infra-thin,” a notion that outlines the slippage his work seeks to express. Chosen as the frontispiece of the first issue of the journal Le Surréalisme, meme in 1956, Feuille de Vigne Femelle was lit to appear concave rather than convex. This ambiguous image, with its rhetoric of fetishism, plays into Duchamp’s notion that the distinction between inner and outer depends on the infra-mince separation that dissolves opposites. “I believe,” said Duchamp, “in eroticism a lot, because it’s truly a rather widespread thing throughout the world, a think everyone understands. It replaces, if you wish, what other literary schools called Symbolism, Romanticism. It could be another ‘ism,’ so to speak. You’re going to tell me that there can be eroticism in Romanticism, also. But if eroticism is used as a principal basis, a principal end, then it takes the form of an “ism”, in the sense of a school” (quoted in G. Parkinson, ibid., pp. 63-64).
Despite having produced little of note since the early-1920s, in the 1950s Duchamp experienced a resurgence of interest in his art. In 1951 a major publication rethinking Duchamp and the Dada movement was published. Edited by Robert Motherwell, The Dada Painters and Poets marked a renewed fascination with an artist who had largely been out of the public eye for the previous thirty years. Largely overlooked by the dominant movement of Abstract Expressionism, nevertheless Duchamp’s impact was impossible to totally disregard and in 1951 Willem de Kooning described the artist as “a one-man movement… for me a truly modern movement because it implies that each artist can do what he thinks he ought to—a movement for each person and open to everybody” (W. de Kooning, quoted in C. Tomkins, The Bride and the Bachelors, New York, 2013, p. 377). Thanks to the advent of the Neo-Dada movement and his prevailing influence over Surrealism, spearheaded by André Breton, by the time Duchamp produced his original and provocative erotic objects the art world had begun to take notice again. Yet, while the 1950s was a period of great personal and professional happiness for the artist—he met Teeny in 1951—to the outside world it appeared he had given up more or less all formal art practice entirely. Entrusting Man Ray with Feuille de vigne femelle, and later, Teeny with Wedge of Chastity, Duchamp inducted his closest friend and beloved wife into his greatest secret; with the astonishing unveiling of Etant donnés, having given only the slightest hint at its existence with his collection of erotic objects, Duchamp, for the final time, confounded his followers.