Today's Times piece on the Duchamp exhibit in Philadelphia brought to mind an interesting theory behind the creation of Étant Donnés, which I read in Mark Nelson and Sarah Hudson Bayliss's book Exquisite Corpse: Surrealism and the Black Dahlia Murder.
This is from my review (a version of which appeared in Modern Painters, November 2006; I'll post a link to the whole piece soon):
The book notes that Freud interpreted the labyrinth, designed by Dedalus to imprison the minotaur, as the unconscious. If the Black Dahlia was deliberately configured to evoke that creature, based on its iteration in Surrealist works and thought, where can we find the return of the repressed? Nelson and Hayliss think that Marcel Duchamp, via Man Ray, might have been interested in the murder, and even suggest that William Copley could have acted as a courier, delivering graphic crime-scene photos from Man Ray in L.A. to M.D. in New York. No record of such a transaction exists, and it seems shaky at best to think that these artists knew that Man Ray’s friend Hodel was the murderer, and yet maintained their silence.
But it’s not unreasonable to think that they had suspicions. Exquisite Corpse’s audacious conclusion looks at Duchamp’s posthumously assembled final work, Étant donnés (1966). The splayed nude form, posed in brush, bears an uncanny resemblance to the Dahlia. Concealed behind a heavy door, viewed through a peephole, obscured by a portion of brick wall—these elements are almost a parody of repression—she holds aloft a gas lamp. Suddenly, in the context of this book, that illumination burns with new and terrifying meaning.