Of course, we know that Rose Selavy did not really exist. Rather, she was an early attempt by the artist to create a female alter ego for himself through the use of a pseudonym. The fictitious name and copyright were carefully printed in Helvetica across a small wooden base that supported a modest French window with two doors, each having four vertical sections. Instead of holding the requisite eight panes of glass in the shape of uniform squares, the panes were removed and replaced with eight carefully cut pieces of black leather. The opaque leather, in turn, prevented the viewer from seeing through the window from the inside of a room to the out-of-doors.
“But apparently, this has not been the case. In the history of art, even today—especially in the Age of Information—nothing is forever.”
Marcel Duchamp, Fresh Widow, 1920. Miniature French window, painted wood frame, and panes of glass covered with black leather, 30 1/2 x 17 5/8″ (77.5 x 44.8 cm), on wood sill 3/4 x 21 x 4″ (1.9 x 53.4 x 10.2 cm). Katherine S. Dreier Bequest. Copyright: 2012 Artists Rights Society (ARS). Courtesy of the Estate of Marcel Duchamp
Despair And The Decoding of Duchamp’s Fresh Widow
By Robert C. Morgan
By blocking vision, the viewer was prevented from enjoying the natural light illuminating the exterior landscape or the garden. Indeed, the French window had suddenly become a fresh widow. The romantic view of natural reality, seen from the interior, had been removed. The illusion was veritably dismissed, vanquished. Finally, Fresh Widow remains as a testament to a view that once was.
But this is not the end of the story. To recognize the significance of Fresh Widow, one has to know something about the history of French painting from the mid-seventeenth to the late nineteenth century. Students of the L’Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, namely those who painted en plein air in the countryside, were required to produce a convincing illusion of deep space that conformed to the appearance of a landscape. According to the painterly architect, Claude de Lorrain—a student of the inveterate formalist Nicholas Poussin—one should begin work by mapping-out three horizontal registers on the surface of the canvas. They are as follows: first, the foreground (the bottom third), second, the middle ground (the central area), and third, the background (the top third).
In other words, the canvas on which one worked would become a metaphorical window. The scale of the objects, figures, and natural simulacra seen through this window would diminish according to each register if one chose to paint, for example, from bottom to top. This formula was adhered to by the members of the French Academy for approximately two hundred and fifty years, beginning with the superlative Roman landscapes of Claude de Lorrain and culminating with the saccharine, faux aristocratic “peasant children” of Alfonse William Bougoureau who undoubtedly inspired the concomitant fall of the French Salon.
Having been born and raised in Blaineville in a haut bourgeois family, Duchamp was clearly not oblivious to this age-worn schema in French painting. In fact, he was out for revenge. Fresh Widow would become his veritable obsession. By removing transparency from the window, the illusion of a landscape outside would terminate. The window would no longer function according to its use – any more than other Readymades, such as the Bottle Rack (1914) or the Dog’s Comb (1916). The two hundred and fifty year old legacy of the window as a metaphor of perspectival landscape painting would be terminated. Art would be compelled to return to the object itself, and become increasingly non-retinal, or so Duchamp believed.
Consequently, a year later after completing Fresh Widow, Duchamp discovered that by adding an extra “R” at the beginning of his pseudonym—to make it “Rrose” instead of “Rose”—the phonetic pun would sound more accurate. The sound of his female alter Ego would correspond precisely to the French phrase: “Eros, c’est la vie!” Duchamp changed his name—and for a brief time, accepted his alter Ego—believing that painting illusions of reality would be finished once and for all.
But apparently, this has not been the case. In the history of art, even today—especially in the Age of Information—nothing is forever. Painters have unwittingly returned to painting illusions once again, including those who paint large-breasted female nudes, thus falling into despair, as did Duchamp’s forebear, Alfonse Bougoureau, who insisted on the window as his metaphor. Today, the followers of Bougoureau have no recourse, They have nowhere to go other than to profit from the formula of what their audience clearly demands, in a word: entertainment. Once again, Eros is displaced in favor of displaced illusions that infest the potential for art in the twenty-first century, which—miraculously—still beckons us ahead.