Private Lives, Public Gestures

Pitting Marcel Duchamp against Rocky Balboa in a silent struggle over the Statue of Liberty and the American Dream

Rocky Balboa (2006) film still

Rocky Balboa (2006) film still

A couple of years ago, I can’t remember now exactly why, I suddenly realized that Sylvester Stallone’s most famous scene was shot within a stone’s throw from where Marcel Duchamp’s final work is permanently installed. Almost literally: it must be less than 100 yards.

Gallery 183 of the Philadelphia Museum of Art – a small room located at the south-eastern corner of the neo-classical building’s North Wing – contains nothing but a closed wooden door drilled with two small peepholes.

Look through it and you are confronted by a large hole in a brick wall, behind which a naked, female, mannequin-like body lies sprawled in a landscape tableau, holding aloft a gas lamp. Duchamp’s work is puzzlingly entitled Étant donnés: 1. La chute d’eau, 2. Le gaz d’éclairage (Given: 1. The Waterfall, 2. The Illuminating Gas) and he made it in his ‘secret’ New York studio between 1946 and 1966, at a time when it was generally assumed he had stopped producing art works.

Marcel Duchamp, Étant donnés: 1. La chute d’eau, 2. Le gaz d’éclairage, 1946-66

When I visited the museum for the first time in 2004, my taxi dropped me off at the back entrance, so it was only in retrospect that I realized that gallery 183 is next to the monumental staircase up which Stallone runs as the underdog boxer Rocky Balboa in Rocky (1976, directed by John G. Avildsen), punching the air in triumph – a gesture variously quoted not only in four of the five Rocky sequels (the last of which, Rocky Balboa, was released in 2006), but by thousands of Philadelphia tourists every year, by kids and the elderly, skinny girls and chubby geeks. This connection between Stallone’s famed filmic moment and Duchamp’s final work would be negligible if it wasn’t for the fact that the figure in Étant donnés holds up a lamp; a gesture that corresponds with Rocky’s. In their own ways, both frame the contradictions of the American Dream – its desires and frustrations, its confusions of sex and power – as seen through the eyes of an expatriate French artist and the son of an Italian blue-collar immigrant.

You could picture this link between Étant donnés and Rocky filmically, in a long, slow, backwards-moving tracking shot: like in Alfred Hitchcock’s Frenzy (1972), when the camera retreats down the stairs, and back out the front door, leaving the soon-to-be scene of a murder, drowning its horror in busy London street noise. Now, imagine being alone in the early morning at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Imagine being a camera – or a ghost – that has just witnessed the disconcerting view of that awkwardly bent body behind the door, slowly moving backwards towards the window in the adjacent gallery 182 (be careful not to bump into Duchamp’s Large Glass, 1915–23), panning sideways, moving out through the window and past the huge Ionic columns in front of it, and zooming down onto a runner coming up the stairs, sweating and dancing around in circles, like a cross between Muhammad Ali and Big Bird from Sesame Street, throwing his arms into the air against the skyline of a city that’s waking up.

Rocky, which Stallone scripted and starred in, is full of evocations of the American Dream: the idea that any immigrant can ‘make it’ as long as they are dedicated; that anyone can become someone. Rocky’s triumphant run up the steps is prepped in the plot by an earlier failed attempt that results in Sly getting a stitch in his side. In another scene, World Heavyweight Champion Apollo Creed (a character largely based on Ali, and played by Carl Weathers), lacking an appropriate opponent for a fight set for New Year’s Day (the year being 1976, the Bicentennial of the Declaration of Independence), suggests that people will like the idea that a local underdog is given a shot at the title. ‘That’s very American,’ says the smiling boxing promoter; Creed replies, ‘No, it’s very smart,’ ironically playing the ethos of opportunity against the opportunity to make profitable use of it. Creed takes a liking to Rocky’s fighter name, ‘Italian Stallion’, declaring, ‘Now who discovered America? An Italian!’ When their boxing match finally takes place, the round card girls are clad in goofy Statue of Liberty costumes.

Which leads us back to Duchamp. For isn’t the woman with the ‘illuminating’ gas lamp unmistakably a play on that famous gift from the French to the Americans, the Statue of Liberty: another female figure holding a torch aloft? I’m not the first to have noted the connection: Paul McCarthy and the late Allan Kaprow also discussed a possible connection between Duchamp’s work and the Statue of Liberty in relation to the lamp analogy.1

There is evidence that Duchamp might have had in mind that grand monument, which greeted him, like it has so many immigrants, when he arrived (not for the first time, but fleeing a France occupied by Nazi Germany) at Ellis Island with his first Boîte-en-valise (Box in a Suitcase, 1935–40) on 25 June 1942. In his book The Exiles of Marcel Duchamp (2007), T.J. Demos argues persuasively that Duchamp’s several experiences of being exiled from France had a major impact on his understanding of art production, although he stops short of exploring this in relation to Étant donnés, which Duchamp began working on in 1946; a year later he applied for United States citizenship.2 Also in 1946, he designed the cover for André Breton’s book of poetry Young Cherry Trees Secured Against Hares (published by View magazine in New York): the dust-jacket depicts the Statue of Liberty with its head cut out, the face of Breton appearing instead from the next page, like in a stick-your-head-through-the-hole carnival prop. As Charles Henri Ford, who published the book and commissioned its cover, remarked in an interview: ‘Duchamp always liked to be surprising and Breton, of course, was noted for not cherishing homosexuals. That’s why André Breton was put in drag.’3

In 1954, a permanent exhibition of the Arensberg Collection, which includes 43 works by Duchamp, was opened to the public at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It’s possible that the artist knew that the torch of the Statue of Liberty had first been shown on US soil in Philadelphia at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition. Whatever the case, in 1955 – shortly after he became a naturalized US citizen – Duchamp began work on the elaborate landscape tableau that forms a crucial part of Étant donnés.4

The official title of the Statue of Liberty is Liberty Enlightening the World, or La liberté éclairant le monde: the term ‘éclairant’ is echoed in Duchamp’s subtitle, Le gaz d’eclairage. In the 1870s, when the sculptor Frédéric Bartholdi designed the statue (rumour had it that its face was based on his mother’s and the body on that of his mistress), the image of a woman holding up a lamp was not uncommon, at least not in France: similar designs had appeared in the arts and in advertising.5 Apart from other influences on Bartholdi’s design – the Roman goddess Libertas or the Colossus of Rhodes – Jules Lefebvre’s painting La Vérité (Truth, 1870), shown to much acclaim in the Salon of 1870, could well have been a major one. In it, truth is personified as a naked woman standing upright in swampy darkness, confidently holding aloft the goddess’ typical attribute, a hand mirror, reflecting light in a way that makes it look suspiciously like an illuminated light-bulb. Curiously, though not unusually for the time, she has no visible vagina or pubic hair, and her skin is as white as that of a classical marble sculpture: this is an allegorical body seemingly designed to deflect desire for the sake of ‘higher’ values of truth and enlightenment. A similar motif reoccurs, albeit in a more burlesque vein, in poster adverts for gas lamps of the period by the French company Bec Auer, and Duchamp used a lamp of that brand for Étant donnés (in fact he made an etching entitled Le Bec Auer, dated January 1968, in which the woman holds up a lamp in the exact same way as in the installation).

La liberté éclairant le monde: it would befit Duchamp’s taste for puns not only to take the first part of that title literally, but also the latter, with Gustave Courbet’s L’Origine du monde (The Origin of the World, 1866) in mind. This carefully painted close-up of a reclining woman’s legs and torso includes all the genital detail that Lefebvre had so vigilantly erased. Its influence on Étant donnés has been frequently discussed; but the point here is to include the Statue of Liberty (and its possible inspiration, La Vérité) in the equation, along with a drawing by Surrealist André Masson. Psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan owned L’Origine du monde, and in 1955 he commissioned Masson to design a wooden sliding door to hide the work. Masson painted a sketch onto the wood, tracing the body in simple lines to create – with a Surrealist, and slightly smug, sense of ribaldry – an undulating landscape with hills for breasts and a waterfall for the hirsute vulva. Which inevitably brings to mind the ‘waterfall’ that is being ‘given’ in the full title of Duchamp’s work.6 Whether coincidence or not, during the same year Duchamp started working on the landscape elements of Étant donnés: a piece designed to be hidden behind a door.

Gustave Courbet, L'Origine du monde (1866)

It is apparent that two things are ‘given’ in Duchamp’s work: the abstract idea of freedom and enlightenment (as visualized by Bartholdi and Lefebvre) and, equally significantly, the concrete presence of sexuality and desire (as visualized by Courbet and Masson). It seems all the more apt to permanently install a piece addressing the connection between these two types of male fantasies about female bodies in a country as torn between puritanism and hedonism as the United States.

The most disconcerting element of the work, however, is something so bluntly central to it that, perhaps as a consequence, it is often unremarked upon: namely, that the figure’s hairless vagina is not located where a vagina should be, but slightly, yet notably, to the right. Nor does it look much like a vagina: it more closely resembles a clean, bloodless, wound. Even if one assumes that the ‘off-centredness’ of this anatomic detail could have something to do with the parallax of the proto-stereoscopic view through the peepholes, it’s very unlikely that these peculiarities are unintentional, given that Duchamp took 20 years to finish the piece. Rather, they seem to suggest that the desexualized body found in 19th-century political allegories of liberty and enlightenment is violently ‘injured’ by the desiring gaze that it was designed to deflect. As a viewer of this piece I inevitably feel embarrassed, not by being cast in a re-enactment of voyeuristic desire (in that case any kind of pornography behind a peephole would have done), but by somehow having participated in a violation of Liberty herself.

The question now throbbing like a sore thumb is: why on earth should Stallone, let alone Rocky, care about all of this? In his foreword to Rocky Stories (2006), a compilation of profiles of people who have re-enacted the ‘Rocky Steps’ run, Stallone explains how, as a former Philadelphia resident, he came to see the city’s Museum of Art as an ‘intellectual bastion’ that he would ‘only look at from afar’. For Rocky, the building is a ‘magnificent structure’ where he ‘doesn’t even understand what’s inside, but only what it represents’.7 Just as much as Étant donnés is inaccessible, so, for Rocky, is the building that houses it – a stark reflection of divisions of class, education and immigration.

Stallone himself, however, has since made quite an effort to access art, though not always with success. In the 1980s, he started to make paintings in a neo-Expressionist vein, and he also burned a lot of money buying works by the likes of Anselm Kiefer and Mark Kostabi – another painter of allegorical dummy figures – for inflated prices. Allegedly, after a dispute over some works that Stallone had bought, Kostabi made a painting of the actor depicting him with a woman’s body (he later published an apology which Stallone accepted).8

The irony is that Stallone’s alter ego, Rocky, does have moments in which he adopts behaviour usually ascribed to women. In a 1996 interview, conducted by feminist writer Susan Faludi, Stallone agrees with such a reading.9 In the first Rocky film, when he takes his future wife, Adrian (note the male-sounding name), home for the first time, it’s he who takes off his shirt saying ‘it’s warm in here’, displaying his muscular shoulders and arms, moving through the apartment in a flirtatious, seductive Jane Mansfield way – leading to one of the most touchingly timid kisses in film history. He’s the one who cares about the people of his neighbourhood in a soft-spoken, ‘motherly’ way, walking a girl home he worries will otherwise become a hooker (when he meets her again in Rocky Balboa she has grown up to be a caring single mother). Later in the film, when Adrian wants sex during the run-up to his big fight, Rocky declines. The assumption, of course, is that if he consented it might adversely affect his sports performance, but there’s an undeniable sub-text that he’s ‘playing hard to get’.

Of course Duchamp, having adopted the persona of a woman named Rrose Sélavy, had a history of playful gender confusions. And, just as he used the Statue of Liberty to ‘queer’ Breton for a book cover, he inverted the process to employ the Surrealist ideal of ‘libertinage’ to queer America’s allegorical embodiment of freedom and opportunity. With all of this in mind, Duchamp’s final work and Rocky’s defining scene are not so much contradictory as complementary. Duchamp presents Liberty as twice removed: firstly, behind a closed door; secondly, cocooned by the museum and its codes of bourgeois education. But then we suddenly encounter its traumatized, fragmented body (a truly Lacanian encounter with the ‘real’). Stallone’s Rocky, in turn, presents Liberty as an accessible goal, achieved through the combined efforts of channelling anger into sportsmanship and desire into social empathy (a truly Freudian sublimation). But whether through sudden encounters or training routines, both Étant donnés and Rocky render palpable the connections between intimate dreams and desires and the seemingly abstract political ideas of freedom and opportunity.

The story could end here, but there remains one final question: whether the connection between Étant donnés and Rocky actually resonates not only with recent history, but also with contemporary art. Two works by Dutch artist Erik van Lieshout and Chinese artist Zhao Bandi are cases in point. Lieshout’s recent Peep Show (2007) quotes Étant donnés’ closed door, including the – slightly artificial – markings where visitors would press their nose and forehead, though with only a single peephole. It was the final installation to be shown in the Wrong Gallery’s tiny exhibition space, whose locked door rendered it inaccessible to the public, and which in 2005 was moved from Chelsea in New York to the Tate Modern in London. Peep Show attempts to use this structure to project the idea of a sudden encounter with peace in a place where it seems almost impossible to imagine: Israel/Palestine. To the soundtrack of a tender hip-hop tune by Dudley Perkins (‘Momma’, 2003), which includes lines such as ‘love of my life, Momma, always showed me right from wrong’, we see a video of Jews praying at the Wailing Wall, guarded by heavily armed soldiers, and finally a brief shot of Van Lieshout and his film editor Core van der Hoeven at the same spot, wearing kippahs and giving the peace sign as if for a tourist snapshot. The title renders the work a pun that treats the desire for social harmony like sexual desire: this is literally a peepshow for peace. The seeming impossibility of solving the violent conflict in the region is addressed with a disarming wit that marries Duchamp’s paternal acerbity with Rocky’s maternal folksiness.

Zhao Bandi’s performance piece Too Impatient to Wait (2005) pre-enacts the opening of the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, in Bern, Switzerland. In a parody of the traditional ceremony, Zhao carries a flaming torch across the city to the local football stadium to ‘inaugurate’ the Games. A short video shows him running across China, holding aloft a plastic flame torch and carrying a toy panda on his shoulders. This combination of Olympic spirit and mascot also appears in Rocky Balboa, when an aged Rocky re-enacts his famous step run, this time carrying his ugly-but-lovable mongrel dog in one arm and raising the other in triumph on finally reaching the top. Zhao’s panda – a well-known symbol of China – functions as the kind of envoy that allows him to get away with critical interventions. Zhao touches a nerve: while individual desire seems less and less restricted in neo-capitalist China, and while to some extent it is possible to publicly discuss issues of social freedom, what still seems taboo is to make an explicit connection between the two. Not that everything is peachy in the West in this regard: Duchamp’s final work and Rocky’s greatest scene are powerful reminders of the fact that this connection is hard to achieve, and easy to lose.

Jörg Heiser is director of the Institute for Art in Context at the University of the Arts, Berlin, Germany.

1 Bruce Hainley, ‘Paul McCarthy’, frieze, issue 58, 2001, p. 90
2 Anne D’Hanoncourt and Kynaston McShine (eds.), Marcel Duchamp, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1989 (first edition 1973), p. 25
3 Rhonda Roland Shearer and Thomas Girst, ‘From Blues to Haikus: An interview with Charles Henri Ford’, 2000
4 D’Hanoncourt and McShine, op. cit., p. 26
5 Bartholdi was also a member of a Freemason lodge, and on the Internet one can find all sorts of conspiracy theories about the Statue of Liberty in this regard, most suggesting that it’s not a symbol of liberty, but of the secret regime of Freemasons.
6 Masson’s drawing after Courbet was a variation of an earlier drawing of 1939 based on a similar idea. Regarding Lacan, Courbet and Masson, see Günter Metken, Gustave Courbet: Der Ursprung der Welt: Ein Luststück, Prestel, Frankfurt, 1997, pp. 10–12; and , April 2005
7 Michael Vitez, Rocky Stories, Paul Dry Books, Philadelphia, 2006, p. ix
8 Steven Goss, ‘Nothing is new and anyone can be an artist’, 2003,
9 Susan Faludi, ‘The Masculine Mystique’, December 1996

Issue 113

First published in Issue 113

March 2008

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

April 2019
Janiva Ellis, Catchphrase Coping Mechanism, 2019, oil on linen, 2.2 x 1.8 m. Courtesy: the artist and 47 Canal, New York; photograph: Joerg Lohse

frieze magazine

May 2019

frieze magazine

June - July - August 2019