Black leather and bluish green painted wood on a miniature French window, these are the materials used by Marcel Duchamp in his Fresh Widow readymade, introduced in the fall of 1920. This readymade can be seen as a found object that was altered by the artist’s application of capital letters, or as an art object that was created by hired craftsmen according to author’s specifications: a French window covered on the front with eight black leather panels. When the work came to the MoMA for the first time, the curators sent him an acquisition questionnaire to know more about his art piece. He left the sections about subject, references and technique blank, maintaining mystery. By presenting a French window in which it is written ‘FRESH WIDOW’, the artist is deliberately creating an excellent exercise in reading and analyzing visual rhetoric, that Monsieur Duchamp calls himself ‘an obvious enough pun’.
It is worth finding some of those puns, in order to analyze the use of leather as a metaphorical representation of this widow, and more broadly the embodiment of a human psychology in an inert art piece. First, ‘Flesh window’ will allow us to draw a parallel between flesh and leather, then ‘Fresh widow’ to find what fetishism and widowhood has in common, and at last ‘Flesh widow’, to see this art piece as a framework on leather and animality.
flesh window, leather and flesh    
Duchamp’s art piece is made of heavily cracked-with-age sheepskin, tanned in a natural finish and overlaid with acrylic black paint. This art piece is very particular, for on the one hand Duchamp had never used leather before, and on the other hand, the art piece opposes the visceral fetishist desire of tactility with the romantic symbolism of the window. It changes the certitudes of perception and cognition — indeed, the leather substitutes relative transparency for total black opacity. This parallels our skin, which is hiding our inner flesh, and by extension our own humanity and living proof. Leather is a material that attracts us and repels us at the same time, because it is a reflection of our own corporeality. The notion of flesh is as outlandish as it indicates at once the inside and the outside of the body, both sides of the skin, pores and hair, and the blood and fat covering our organs and bones. The flesh also means the carne, the hideous inside of the body in opposition to the plain skin surface. 
It seems interesting to look closely at the phenomenology of Merleau-Ponty to understand why this art piece can move the spectator just by the use of leather in it: 
‘It is that the thickness of flesh between the seer and the thing is constitutive for the thing of its visibility as for the seer of his corporeality; it is not an obstacle between them, it is their means of communication’.

In fact, the flesh is the medium of tactile perception which is enabling exchanges between the tangible and the visible. In the phenomenology of Merleau-Ponty, flesh is not only substance of a body, but the element that establishes the dimension of sensible. Likewise, no relation between us and objects is thinkable without the feeling of being or possessing our own body. To Merleau-Ponty, the flesh appears as the invisible soil that support us and makes possible the relationship between the subject and the world. This ontological flesh also refers to me to another person: the others and I, belong to the same ‘carnal tissue’. Therefore, the skin of the sheep is another thickness of flesh that comes between me and the object — the art piece. By extending, I can perceive a kind of life activity in it, it has something to do with my own mankind.
fresh widow, death, leather and fetishism
Fresh widow is the first work that records the appearence of Duchamp’s androgynous alter-ego, Rose Selavy, as if for the first time, he wanted to express a feminine point of view on life, just two years after the end of the Great War. There is some symbolism in this art piece, specifically the color of mourning, black having always been associated with widowhood in the Western world. As a matter of fact, the panes of the window are deliberately black, the windowpanes have been blocked with black leather. The expectation of a scene beyond the glass is eliminated. The window’s purpose is negated, as if vision was for now useless and the view, vacant and dead. It is a call to the other means of perception, to embrace all the signification of a new form of art through our own flesh.
It might be helpful to come up with a fair definition of what fetishism is. This noun has three significations: at first, it is ‘an excessive attention or attachment to something’, ‘a belief in or recourse to a fetish for magical purposes’, or ‘a condition in which the handling of an inanimate object (...) is a source of sexual satisfaction’. 
The artist has created a kind of fetishism around his work of art, by encouraging curators to relentlessly rub leather panels as a fetish object. Fresh Widow ‘would have to be shined every morning like a pair of shoes in order to shine like real panes’. They have to be deeply glossy, in a swarthy finish. Consequently, this window is not completely ‘sealed’: it allows ‘viewing’ yourself through the reflects of the window’s flesh, leather evoking a certain eroticism, desires, olfactory and tactile pleasures. Leather fetishism is now known as a subculture led by LGBT and BDSM communities, completely linked with eroticism and sexuality, and based on military protocols and rituals, but at the moment the art piece was created, none of them existed. Leather was just a material widely used, and the idea of conceptualizing leather as a way to express the (non-)grief of a widow is mind-blowing. 
‘We are embodied beings, we are men of this singular condition that is ours. But this condition, being incarnated, is nothing but incarnation [...]. The incarnation is the fact of having a flesh - perhaps more: to be flesh.’
This quote by Michel Henry, a French philosopher, is interesting for he tries to give the ontological definition of who we are, and what ‘flesh’ has to do with us, before getting interested in Christianity and its idea about flesh and incarnation. Indeed, widowhood has to deal with religion, the image of a happy widowhood being intimately connected with guilt, sin and flesh pleasures. The concept of ‘flesh’ according to the Bible is directly connected to sin: ‘For we know that the Law is spiritual, but I am of flesh, sold into bondage to sin’, whereas the Christ shows his flesh as food giving eternal life. To Michel Henry, the flesh may be a mediator of salvation, but this is only the receptacle and vehicle of a life that has nothing sensible or carnal in its origin. It is the spirit that gives life — the flesh itself as such can do nothing. This flesh hiding the view through the window is a carnal new way to see life, a disturbing theory of the woman that has just found her freedom again.
flesh widow, an insight on animality
The animality carries an erotic metaphor, and connotations of strangeness and excitation. For the psychoanalyst Simone Korff-Sausse, humans have an instinctual reservoir which releases animality and bestiality with massiveness, when we are outside of the social and moral conditioning:
‘The human can summon images of bestiality in the sense of an instinctual overflow that would mean crossing the anthropological barrier that guarantees the difference between humans and animals.’

We assimilate these images of bestiality to sexual fantasies. Humans are distinguished from animals by their ability to reason, the basis of their superiority. This distinction is consecrated by the famous Augustinian definition of a man which is ‘a rational and mortal animal. Rational to distinguish themselves from animals, mortal to distinguish themselves from angels’. To him, the flesh is a pure specimen of our fallen nature, which is subject to the empire of reason. Because the sexual excitement is ‘the largest enjoyment among those of the body’, it generates blindness of the mind, a lot of vices and vile things. The human sexual instinctual behaviors are a symptom of renunciation of reason, the denial of reasonable nature of man. What is allowed to animals is not necessarily to humans, since their nature is different. Indeed, Augustine wrote that lust is not bad for animals, which he considers naturally luxurious. Having that said, we can consider leather as a part of that animality, which Duchamp is putting just in front of our eyes, by covering with leather a closed window waiting to be opened, as the carnal desires of the fallen men we are are waiting to be satisfied.
For the French philosopher Clément Rosset, the human being seeks to distinguish himself from the animal, but he retains the idea that ‘sexual activity of the human being is paradoxically an animal-like activity, at least a foreign activity to his condition. (...) The affirmation of the human condition has as a starting point the contradictory assertion of an inherent animality to him. (...) The human being must make love like an animal; otherwise he is not a human being.’  Thus, he considers that acting like an animal can be stimulating for the human being, as it is part and parcel of his humanity. The ‘flesh widow’ is to regard as the pun that is finally questioning the use of leather as the reflect of the ontological question of the human being and his animality, which is a major topic, as much as the complex subject of emotions, sexuality and desire in widowhood.

To conclude, we can say that Duchamp has rightly been called the most fascinating inventor in contemporary art. Despite all the interpretations on the signification of the art piece, especially the fact that his readymade is defining the death of traditional art and creating a ‘fresh new kind of painting’ — paintings often being compared to windows, it goes without saying that his use of leather in Fresh Widow is a hidden master stroke. This particular use of leather is worth being noticed and analysed, since it raised the questions of corporeality and fleshy desires at a moment when women, especially widows, were going to gain their rightful place in society.
bibliographic references
Fresh Widow, The Collection of MoMA
Maurice Merleau Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible, 1968, p. 135
Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged, digital edition, 2012
Pierre Cabanne, Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp, 1971, p. 66
Michel Henry, Incarnation. Une philosophie de la chair, Seuil, 2000, p. 9
Romans 7:14, The Holy Bible. English Standard Version, Crossway Bibles, 2001
Simone Korff-Sausse, « À l’extrême limite de la vie psychique : l’animalité », Champ psy, 1 (45), 2007, p. 85
Augustine of Hippo, The City of God, VIII, 15
Clément Rosset, « Le miroir animal », Critique (L’animalité) , 1978, p. 375-376
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