And it is Duchamp’s letters that contain the exhibition’s big reveal: the love story. Three of them, actually, for it seems that the figure in Étant donnés is, in fact, an amalgamation of the three women Duchamp loved in the last 20 years of his life. First there’s Martins who, as his tortured writing suggests, was Duchamp’s great love (and lust—in one letter he presciently calls her “my woman with the open pussy”). The figure is cast from her body and he consulted her on each and every detail during the piece’s conception. There is also Mary Reynolds, the Parisian bookbinder who is alluded to in the parchment used to create the figure’s skin. And finally, there is Alexina “Teeny” Matisse. She and Duchamp married in 1951 and she remained his rock for the remainder of his life. Wisps of brown hair were originally visible grazing the figure’s neck but after taking up with the blond Teeny, Miss Étant donnés was made over with similarly pale tresses.
“One of things we tried to do from the beginning is provide context as to why it’s always seen as being about sex and violence—a 1960s context,” Taylor says. “I argue that the piece is really from the 1940s. It’s a disconnect that’s important to spell out. In 1949 people would have associated it more readily with Surrealism, artists like Hans Bellmer and Delvaux.”