Duchamp’s Dahlia or The Man Ray Mystery



A door of perception?

The first time that I read something about The Black Dahlia murder was in Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon . It must have been around the same time that I read Robert Lebel’s study on Marcel Duchamp. I was immediately struck by the similarities of the gruesome photo to be found in Anger’s book and Marcel Duchamp’s Etant donnés – his last work of art which he secretively prepared from 1947 – 1968. Imagine how surprised I was when I read Jonathan Wallis brilliant article Case Open and/or Unsolved at tout-fait The Marcel Duchamp Studies Online Journal in which he suggests that Etant donnés could have indeed been inspired by the famous murder case.

The parallels between the Black Dahlia and Étant donnés are numerous.  By far the most striking similarity involves the two bodies.  In a photograph of Elizabeth Short’s body at the crime scene, she lies in thick, tall grass not unlike the twigs that surround the body in Étant donnés; her legs spread wide displaying her sex…

In mid-January 1947 Duchamp returned from a stay in Europe, arriving in New York at the moment the Dahlia case began to unfold.  The particulars of the murder and its surrounding controversies were appearing daily in newspapers.  The New York Daily News ran headlines and follow-up stories about the Dahlia murder for several weeks.  More importantly, at the time of the killing Los Angeles was the home of the artist’s close friend Man Ray.  The relationship between these two artists is well documented, and Man Ray’s influence on Duchamp’s conception of Étant donnés has already been suggested.  In addition to being engulfed in a sea of newspaper headlines and Hollywood gossip about the killing, Man Ray, like Elizabeth Short, frequented the popular bars and clubs in Hollywood and knew many people in the jet set of the movie community. With his lifelong fascination with sado-masochism, Man Ray would certainly have taken an interest in the particulars of this crime…

Jonathan Wallis seems to be unaware of Steve Hodel’s  true-crime account Black Dahlia Avenger. As I understand it (I haven’t read the book) Hodel states that his father Dr. George Hodel was the murderer of Elisabeth Short, he also maintains that Man Ray was a personal aquaintance of his father and that his photo Minotaure was an inspiration for the manner in which the murder was executed.


The book Exquisite Corpse by Mark Nelson and Sarah Hudson Bayliss is grounded on Hodel’s assertions though without making a “definitive claim to solve the murder of Elizabeth Short”.

Our book generally supports Steve Hodel’s best-selling book Black Dahlia Avenger, which proposes that George Hodel, the author’s father, was the killer. We take exception to some of Steve Hodel’s claims in Black Dahlia Avenger, however. For instance, his attribution to his father of many other murders is provocative but highly questionable, in our view. In addition, neither of us believes that the unidentified women pictured in his father’s photo album are Elizabeth Short.

Foremost, our book asserts that this gruesome but precisely executed murder may have been a deranged attempt to imitate motifs in surrealist art. That said, we do not believe that Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp, or any other surrealist artist was directly responsible for the murder, or that the killer himself was an artist.

Click here for a description of documents about Man Ray’s aquaintance with Dr. George Hodel.

Many more informations (John Huston and the man who designed The Maltese Falcon were old buddies of Hodel) and an interesting discussion in French at Per aspera ad astra.


4 Responses to “Duchamp’s Dahlia or The Man Ray Mystery”

  1. 1 Mike

    Duchamp’s Etant Donnes is one of my favorite works of art, and I found Exquisite Corpse to be an absolutely fascinating read. Haven’t read Black Dahlia Avenger yet, but I’m not sure if it’d hold my interest as well!

    • 2 Jojo

      You can call me a Philistine, but it gives me the shivers that anybody could call the Duchamp work ‘their favorite work of art’. A headless corpse with a twig shoved into her vagina may well be art, but it’s also a sad reflection on society, then and now. As far as I’m concerned it’s this kind of abstraction and detachment from the implied suffering that is the seed of violent crime.

      from a Crown Prosecutor, Australia.

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