What is it?
A bronze mold of the female figure’s genitals in Duchamp’s last great work Étant donnés—an elaborate erotic tableau of a nude with her legs spread, seen through a voyeuristic peep hole in a door.

Why did he make it?
Duchamp once famously announced he had given up art for chess, but whilst attempting to become a grandmaster he was secretly at work on his masterpiece Étant donnés. The only indication that he was still a practicing artist were the strange objects that began popping up out of the blue of which Female Fig Leaf is one.

What was the idea behind Female Fig Leaf?
Fig leaves have been used in Western sculpture since the Renaissance to conceal male and female genitalia. Female Fig Leaf works as one of Duchamp’s linguistic puns, for instead of concealing the female vulva the sculpture works as a counter-object, returning what is hidden to sight.

On the left Man Ray, Portrait of Rrose Sélavy, 1921 and on the right Man Ray, Portrait of Rrose Sélavy

So he is playing with ideas of eroticism?
Absolutely, Female Fig Leaf has an explicit erotic meaning as an imprint taken directly from the body. Duchamp frequently played with the erotic in his work, thematizing sexual intercourse and molding breasts out of foam. The accompanying piece to Female Fig Leaf, entitled Dart Object (a pun on the term “objet d'art”), is a phallis taken from the rib support of the female figure in Étant donnés, thus inverting the biblical creation of Eve from Adam's rib.

What did Duchamp say about it?
When asked about the erotic content of Female Fig Leaf, Duchamp answered: “Enormous. Visible or conspicuous, or, at any rate, underlying… It is really a way to try to bring out in the daylight things that are constantly hidden.”

How many were made?
Duchamp made two plaster molds of Female Fig Leaf in 1950. One was given to Man Ray as a present before he left New York to go to Paris. A year later Man Ray oversaw the making of ten further examples in painted plaster. The Tate's version (pictured) is one of just ten additional examples produced in bronze in 1961 by a Parisian gallery, Galerie Rive Droite. 

Richard Hamilton, Readymade Shadows, 2005-2006

Why was Man Ray involved?
Meeting in 1915 in New Jersey, the two men played an impromptu game of tennis and soon became close friends. Although very different—Duchamp came from a noble French family and was classically educated while Man Ray was born to Russian immigrants in a modest Brooklyn household—they shared a love for breaking with artistic conventions and their work greatly influenced each other. 

When was it last up for auction?
In May 2015 a plaster cast edition, hand-painted by Man Ray in 1951 and numbered 10/10 on the underside, sold at Christie‘s for $785,000—double its expected estimate.