Fasten your Seatbelts
as we Prepare for our Nude Descending

by Edward D. Powers

Duchamp is an even more anti-historic being than I. -- Salvador Dalí(1)

whether you're anti or for, it's two sides of the same thing.
And I would like to be completely... nonexistent. -- Marcel Duchamp

The Passage from "Le Pendu Femelle" to "La Phallesse"

"In mathematics, it goes from a very simple theorem to a very complicated one", as Marcel Duchamp concludes his important interview with Pierre Cabanne, "but it's all in the first theorem. So, metaphysics: tautology; religion: tautology: everything is tautology, except black coffee because the senses are in control! [...] but the rest is always tautology".(3) For Duchamp, however, not only metaphysics, religion and all the rest, but also grammatical gender, and especially the sexual identities in terms of which he elaborates it, are also tautological. Here, the "very simple theorem" is the conventional division of words, in Romance languages, into masculine and feminine--and the "very complicated theorem", by contrast, the unconventional sexual identities in terms of which Duchamp elaborates grammatical gender. Indeed, Duchamp's is the distinctly modern realization that necessarily precedes alternative (e.g. feminist and queer) sexual identities, and makes them possible in the first place: the identification of gender also as a surface no less constructed than that of language or of painting.

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Figure 1
Marcel Duchamp, Fresh Widow, 1920

The strange affinity, in this respect, of Manet's Mlle. V... in the Costume of an Espada (1862) to R[r]ose Sélavy's first autograph work, Fresh Widow (1920) (Fig. 1)--in fact, a French window--is exemplary. "Woman", as a political signifier, Mlle. V reduces to the essential equivalence of painting and drag as similarly factitious; and "Spain", as an historical signifier, it self-consciously eschews in favor of a stylish "Espagnolisme". Like Mlle. V in drag, whether commenting on the making of Modernist art or the formation of modern sexual identity, Fresh Widow is also, first and foremost, a construct(ion). Analogous to language, it is made by another (the carpenter Duchamp hires) and acquired by oneself only as another (signed, albeit in block letters, by R[r]ose Sélavy). As such, it is so perfectly transparent to itself (a French window) that in order to obtain meaning it need at first achieve at least contingent opacity: whether as a French window or a fresh widow, either way, habillée en noir. In this sense, perhaps there can be no more thoroughly modern surface than the perfectly flat and opaque, black leather curtain with which Fresh Widow both occludes the "window on the world" of Renaissance perspective and, at once, asserts the analogous untransparency of modern sexual identity.(4)

To Manet's equivalence of painting and drag, their relationship to language as similarly gendered and factitious is Duchamp's essential contribution. Indeed, the mind reels at all the wonderfully non-literal translations we might come up with for one of the venerably venereal quips Duchamp so loved to invent: "A charge de revanche; à verge de rechange" [Owe a favor; replace a penis].(5) "Even Steven's" comes quickly to mind, as does, with malaprop dexterity, "Procastrination". Yet any such translation begs the more seminal question, what exactly is a "replacement penis"?--and what kind of favor can one possibly repay with tender of this sort? Although the debt here is obviously masculine, elsewhere--by Duchamp's own admission, throughout his works--the downpayment is expressly feminine, as when he observes: "l'arrhe de la peinture est du genre féminin" [the downpayment / art of painting is feminine in gender] (DDS 37; WMD 24). In this economy in which literary and artistic transactions freely participate in sexual exchange, another of the artist's fundamental "laws" as he calls them--"'cuttage' in reserve" which, he enigmatically pronounces, is limited to "razor blades which cut well" (DDS 47; WMD 31)--reveals the common currency of both the debt and downpayment of Duchamp's art to be neither castration exactly, nor its anxiety really, but rather the essential reversibility of the male-female dyad which both underlies and structures his works more generally.

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Figure 2
Figure 3
Marcel Duchamp and André Breton, Window installation for Arcane 17, 1945

Marcel Duchamp, Etant donnés: 1° la chute d'eau / 2° le gaz d'éclairage, 1946-66

Although both Duchamp's Arcane 17 window installation (1945) (Fig. 2), as well as his Etant Donnés installation (1946-66) (Fig. 3), prominently feature a female mannequin, that mannequin has been both beheaded--which is to say, emasculated of a masculinity it never possessed(6)--yet at once reprovisioned with the phallus, indeed, with either of its two most fundamental figurations in Duchamp's oeuvre: a faucet attached to her thigh in the former, a Bec Auer lamp in her hand in the latter (which I will discuss at greater length below). With no greater investment in the historical or political stakes by which sexual exchange, for Duchamp, instead becomes a matter of a sex change--of a "replacement penis", no doubt facilitated by "'cuttage' in reserve"--so too the phallus becomes a sort of "phallesse": an empty, or at least a priori indeterminate, sexual (ex)change value. Of course, a sex change can cut either way--and it is with no greater difficulty that Duchamp's pre-Surrealist fellow-traveler, Apollinaire, describes the corollary scenario in Les Mamelles de Tirésias (1917): exit Thérèse and, the tether to her balloon breasts easily severed, enter Tirésias. Thérèse "gives a great cry and opens her blouse", read Apollinaire's stage instructions, "her breasts pop out... and as she lets them go[,] they fly up, balloons on the end[s] of strings".(7)

In a series of doublets more than worthy of Duchamp at his most playful--"virgin / bride, vierge / verge, peindre / [pendre], passeur / pas soeur!, Cézanne / Suzanne"(8)--de Duve analogously locates the phallus at the fulcrum of a variety of sexual (ex)changes, or "passages", which structure not only the artist's title painting, The Passage from Virgin to Bride (1912) (Fig. 4), but also his earliest signature works more generally. What separates Duchamp's Vierge [Virgin] (1912) (Fig. 5) from his Mariée [Bride] (1912) (Fig. 6) is exactly "'cuttage' in reserve"; or, as de Duve explains, a difference of "I", "the lacking signifier", which is "the phallus, the signifier of lack".(9) Thus, get rid of the "I" in "vierge" [virgin], as he observes, and you have "verge" [penis]:(10) the sign of her loss of virginity. Similarly, get rid of the "I" in "peindre" [to paint], and you have "pendre" [to hang].(11) Although beginning as "a woman to be painted"--as both Duchamp's Virgin and virgin canvas--the Bride nevertheless ends up as "a woman to be hanged";(12) or, as de Duve concludes, "[once] a woman painted, in the past participle, the Bride will now be called 'le pendu femelle' (hanged female)".(13)

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Figure 4
Figure 5
Figure 6
Marcel Duchamp, The Passage from Virgin to Bride, 1912
Marcel Duchamp, Vierge, No. 1 [Virgin], 1912
Marcel Duchamp, Mariée [Bride], 1912

Yet, neither "woman to be hanged", nor certainly "hanged female", truly embraces the genital-as-zoological quality of "Le Pendu Femelle"--both the most abstract and also the most ambivalent of Duchamp's figurations of the "phallesse"--which I would instead translate as "the female of the species which is male and hangs". For as a "hanged" and, in this sense, a dead woman, Duchamp's "Le Pendu Femelle" at once presents a dead end: a sign otherwise without reference in his works.(14) Yet, as establishing an essential homology between her sex and his own,(15) as between these and painting in turn--à la Renoir's famous dictum, that he paints "with his prick" (cf. DDS 239)--its relevance to Duchamp's works could not be more manifest. Here, where neither member is on top, but potentially both at the same time--and Mar-Cel doubly identifies as both "Mar[iée]" and "Cél[ibataire]": "Bride" and "Bachelor"--Rrose lifts her skirts to reveal the most traumatic sign of gender difference of all: for Duchamp, its essential indifference. Neither sexually nor linguistically, neither "his" nor "hers" alone, "Le Pendu Femelle" is just such a reversibly gendered, anatomical cipher--or, "phallesse". Although Duchamp's explicit figurations of "Le Pendu Femelle" are already several--and variously observable in the Passage, Bride and, severed from this last, the Large Glass (Fig. 7(c)-(e))--these merely reiterate an anterior, even atavistic formal prototype, according to which (with disconcerting, Apollinaire-like simplicity, no doubt) insert rod or piston into circle or semicircle, sphere or demisphere. Georges Bataille perfectly captures the formal logic of "Le Pendu Femelle" when he similarly identifies the "two primary motions"--"rotation and sexual movement"--to the rotating wheels of the locomotive (like the semicircular head of "Le Pendu Femelle"), driven by the in-and-out thrust of its pistons (exactly how Duchamp mechanically renders Le Pendu Femelle (1913) in Fig. 7(a)).(16) >>Next

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Figure 7a
Figure 7b
Figure 7c
Figure 7d
Figure 7e
Marcel Duchamp, Le Pendu Femelle (1913), detail from the Green Box, 1934
Marcel Duchamp, Detail (reversed) of Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2, 1912
Marcel Duchamp, Detail of The Passage from Virgin to Bride, 1912
Marcel Duchamp, Detail of The Bride, 1912
Marcel Duchamp, Detail of The Large Glass, 1915-23



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1. Salvador Dalí, The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí (1942), trans. Haakon Chevalier (N.Y.: Dover, 1993) 383. For not only the opposite point of view, but also an important critique of anti-historicist readings, see David Hopkins, "De-Essentializing Duchamp / Or... Rrose Sélavy: Dada's Mutter Stripped Bare", Art History, vol. 14, no. 2 (June 1991) 274-79. For an historical reading of Duchamp's "equivocal masculinity," see Amelia Jones, "Equivocal Masculinity: New York Dada in the context of World War I", Art History, vol. 25, no. 2 (April 2002) 162-205.

This article is a chapter of the dissertation I recently completed writing at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University ("When Father Doesn't Know Best: Surrealism, Metaphor, Masculinity"), where it was originally presented in 1998 as part of a methodology seminar led by Robert Lubar. My great thanks, for their engaged and challenging criticism, are also owing to Jenny Liu, Linda Nochlin, Katherine Smith and Deborah Vischak.

2. Francis Roberts, "Interview with Marcel Duchamp: 'I propose to Strain the Laws of Physics'", Art News, vol. 67, no. 8 (Dec. 1968) 62.

3. Marcel Duchamp, Pierre Cabanne, Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp, trans. Ron Padgett (N.Y.: Da Capo Press, 1971) 107.

4. Cf. David Joselit, "Notes on Surface: toward a genealogy of flatness", Art History, vol. 23, no. 1 (March 2000) 19-34, where he discerns a "shift from a model of subjectivity founded in interiority to one in which the self is constituted through a play of surfaces": that is, as "psychological flatness" (p. 32).

5. Marcel Duchamp, Duchamp du Signe: Ecrits, ed. Michel Sanouillet (Paris: Flammarion, 1975) 154; The Writings of Marcel Duchamp, ed. Michel Sanouillet, Elmer Peterson (N.Y.: Da Capo Press, 1973) 107 (hereinafter cited as DDS and WMD). At times I have modified the translations used by Sanouillet and Peterson; all emphasis is my own.

6. Sigmund Freud, "Medusa's Head" (1922), in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, ed. and trans. James Strachey (London: Hogarth Press and Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1961), vol. 18, p. 273, where he succinctly posits: "To decapitate = to castrate".

7. Guillaume Apollinaire, "The Mammaries of Tiresias" (1917), in Three Pre-Surrealist Plays, trans. Maya Slater (N.Y.: Oxford University, 1997) 171. See also David Hopkins, "Men Before the Mirror: Duchamp, Man Ray and Masculinity", Art History, vol. 21, no. 3 (Sept. 1998) 318-19.

8. Thierry de Duve, Pictorial Nominalism: On Marcel Duchamp's Passage from Painting to the Readymade, trans. Dana Polan (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1991) 69.

9. De Duve, Pictorial Nominalism, p. 42.

10. De Duve, Pictorial Nominalism, p. 42.

11. De Duve, Pictorial Nominalism, p. 42.

12. De Duve, Pictorial Nominalism, p. 42.

13. De Duve, Pictorial Nominalism, p. 42.

14. Unless, of course, the "hanged female" and the decapitated female mannequins in the Arcane 17 window installation and the Etant Donnés installation are "hanged" and "decapitated" in the same "capital" sense. In this event, "Le Pendu Femelle" would indeed anticipate the phallic emphasis of the female mannequins: not only their paradoxical decapitation-as-castration (i.e. "'cuttage' in reserve"), but also their simultaneous endowment with phallic substitutes (the faucet and the lamp).

15. The essential homology of the clitoris and the penis antedates the arrival of Freudian theory in France, as when Diderot observes: "Le clitoris est un membre viril en petit". Jack Spector, Surrealist Art and Writing, 1919-1939: The Gold of Time (N.Y.: Cambridge University, 1997) 286 (n. 105). See also Sigmund Freud, "Fetishism" (1927), in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, ed. and trans. James Strachey (London: Hogarth Press and Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1961), vol. 21, pp. 152-57, where he describes "a woman's real small penis, the clitoris". On "invagination" as a fourth-dimensional trope in Duchamp's works, see "Becoming Full Circle: From PiRr to πR2", herein.

16. See Georges Bataille, "The Solar Anus" (1927; 1931), in Visions of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927-1939, ed. and trans. Allan Stoekl (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1985) 6: "The two primary motions are rotation and sexual movement, whose combination is expressed by the locomotive's wheels and pistons. These two motions are reciprocally transformed, the one into the other. Thus one notes that the earth, by turning, makes animals and men have coitus, and (because the result is as much the cause as that which provokes it) that animals and men make the earth turn by having coitus."


Figs. 1-7
©2003 Succession Marcel Duchamp, ARS, N.Y./ADAGP, Paris. All rights reserved.