have always thought that the bird in Duchamp's 1968 etching, Morceaux
Choisis d'Après Courbet,
looks odd (Illustration 1). To me, the bird more resembles a parrot, or perhaps a pigeon,
than a falcon (faucon in French). The bird is taken to be a faucon
because Duchamp explained to Arturo Schwarz that "he's curious, and furthermore
he's a falcon, which in French yields an easy play on words; so that here
you can see a faux con and a real one."(1)
I have tried to confirm my suspicions by looking at stuffed birds in science
museums, at real birds in zoos, and at drawings and photographs of birds
in guide books. To me, Duchamp's bird just doesn't look like a falcon
or any other bird of prey. The beak is too small, the sitting position
is too upright, the body is too slender, the eye is too small and vacuous,
the feet are too unlike talons, etc. To be sure, it is not impossible
to see a falcon in Duchamp's etching, but I think there is room for doubt
about the bird's identity.(2)
As an alternative, we can read a dual-language pun in addition to the
faucon/faux con suggestion made by Duchamp himself. Namely, we
can interpret the image in terms of its being a "false" image, a "con"
in the sense of a confidence game. The faux/con in this latter
connotation would "parrot" a falcon.
to Woman with White Stockings(Illustration
2), the painting that Duchamp reworks in the print, there
is another of Courbet's paintings, Woman Holding a Parrot(Illustration
3), that is often compared with the nude in Duchamp's last
piece, Given: 1st, the Waterfall; 2nd, the Illuminating Gas.(3)(It
was the then still secret last piece that Duchamp apparently intended
to index with the print, where the bird takes the place of the viewer
at the peepholes in the assemblage.) The various connections in the
complex, voyeuristic matrix of possible meanings involving parrots and
nude women in these works indicate that Duchamp was concerned with "looking"
He manipulates the viewer's gaze.
Notice also that the
nude in Duchamp's etching looks at her stockings rather than directly
at the viewer as she does in Courbet's original painting. Given Duchamp's
changes, the viewer of the etching can be taken as a kind of dupe, a
pigeon, who can be made to misconstrue a falcon. Considering Duchamp's
interest in perceptual matters, it is possible that he was familiar
with, or interested in, psychology experiments involving perceptual
Expectation can lead to very different perceptions, especially when
the stimulus is labile. As has been pointed out by a number of scholars,
including Stephen Jay Gould and Rhonda Roland Shearer in a recent essay(6),
Duchamp was clearly up to something in the domain of "looking" and "not
looking." There is still a great deal of material in Duchamp's oeuvre
that deserves to be looked at again, and again, from various points
Arturo Schwarz, The Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp 3rd ed.(New
York: Delano, 1997), 2:885.
Thomas Girst has pointed out to me that, in the page of bird illustrations
that Duchamp used as a source for his 1967 collage Pollyperruque
(see Schwarz, 2: 871, for a discussion of this work) (figure 4)
, there is a "faucon," mirror-reversed from
Duchamp's, that is not wholly unlike the image in the etching. To my
eye, however, the differences are greater than the similarities. Girst
also reminds me that the source for Pollyperruque was identified
by Thomas Zaunschirm in his Marcel Duchamps Unbekanntes Meisterwerk
(Klagenfurt, Austria: Ritter, 1986), 101 (figure 5).
Zaunschirm also discusses Duchamp's etching (pp.
92-93), but he does not connect it with Pollyperruque. Carol
James has discussed both Pollyperruque and Morceaux choisis
d'après Courbet in her essay "An Original Revolutionary Messagerie
Rrose, or What Became of Readymades," in The Definitively Unfinished
Marcel Duchamp, ed. Thierry de Duve (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991),
277-96. James does not compare the two works in her text, but images
of them are reproduced on facing pages. I am also indebted to Girst
for pointing out that Juan Antonio Ramírez has discussed Duchamp's collage
and etching in his recent book, Duchamp: Love and Death, Even,
trans. Alexander R. Tulloch (London: Reaktion Books, 1998), 214-16.
Ramírez, apparently following Carol James's implicit comparison, argues
that "the supposed falcon (faucon) in the foreground was taken
from the parrot of Pollyperruque, a 1967 readymade." Here too,
even though I'm arguing that Duchamp's bird resembles a parrot, I think
the differences between the bird in the etching and the parrots in Pollyperruque
are greater than the similarities.
See, for example, Hellmut Wohl, "Duchamp's Etchings of Large Glass
and The Lovers," in Marcel Duchamp: Artist of the Century,
ed. Rudolf Kuenzli and Francis M. Naumann (Cambridge: MIT Press: 1989),
In this context, the general surrealist strategy of juxtaposing unlikely
items comes to mind. For example, Joan Miró's Object, 1936, has a stuffed parrot and woman's
leg with white stocking suspended in a keyhole-like opening.
See, for representative examples, see E. G. Boring, "A New Ambiguous
Figure," American Journal of Psychology 42 (1930): 444-45; J.
S. Bruner and A. L. Minturn, "Perceptual Identification and Perceptual
Organization," Journal of General Psychology 53 (1955): 21-28.
Stephen Jay Gould and Rhonda Roland Shearer "Boats
1, no. 1 (December 1999), www.toutfait.com/duchamp.jsp?postid=757&keyword=.