Duchamp & Androgyny:
The Concept and its Context

by Lanier Graham

For my grandson Kai


The Androgyne Before & After Duchamp

"The true mythical androgyne is equally male and female at the same time."
Wendy Doniger, Women, Androgynes, & other Mythical Beasts (1980)

"...spiritual perfection consists precisely in rediscovering with oneself this androgynous nature."
Mircea Eliade, The Two and The One (1969)

As already noted, certain sacred symbols have been in use continuously for centuries. Among the best-known are double images of nonduality, e.g., those by which world religions symbolize themselves: the Yin-Yang of Taoism, the Circle-Square (or Mandala) of Buddhism, the Double Triangle of Judaism, and the Cross of Christianity. As has been discussed, each symbol is both a two-ness and a oneness. All these double images are intended to remind us of the higher unity that transcends all forms of multiplicity. What seems to be two is one ultimately. Spirit and matter are one. Sky and Earth are one. Male and female are one. 

All those double images of nonduality are rendered in a visual language that is geometric. Geometry as a sacred visual language did not become common until after the Old Stone Age. In other words, abstract geometric forms of this type are part of the settled, post-nomadic experience. There are other double-images images of nonduality which are much older, going back to the Old Stone Age. This group is pictorial, naturalistic, not geometric. The best known examples include the Double-Serpent, which began in the Paleolithic era and has continued into our time as the medical caduceus, and the Flying Serpent whose various forms include the Quetzalcoatl of the Aztecs, and the cosmic Dragons of Asia. The heavenly and the earthly are united in this symbol of what might be called bi-singularity.

The least known of these primordial pictorial symbols is the Androgyne - a single human body which is part-male and part-female. The Androgyne image also has been with us since the Paleolithic era. In Asia it is better known than in the West, where its history and meaning usually are studied only by students of sacred art, archeology, religion, and mythology. Like all works of sacred art, images of the Androgyne are teachings in and of themselves--visual expressions of metaphysical truth.

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Figure 8

Androgynes from Around The World: Europe, India, China, the Middle East, & the Americas

To introduce this mythic image - its structure, antiquity, and ubiquity - I prepared a digital collage of images from the tribal world to the modern world (Fig. 8). In this collage, we see a Stone Age work from North America, a Bronze Age image from the Near East, the Goddess Kuan Yin (with a mustache) from China, Shiva-Shakti from India, and an Alchemical Androgyne from Christian Europe. Each visual metaphor is different, but the essential teaching is the same. Nonduality refers to the highest possible level of human consciousness.

The purpose of an "illuminating image" is to illuminate. As an image that is a teaching, it can be approached in various ways. Monks can meditate deeply for years on the meaning of Androgyny as they work to become Androgynes themselves. For first-time viewers, the image can be quite shocking.  It is a very irrational image. Logic cannot comprehend it. Happily, there are other ways of knowing.                                                                                                                                               

A well-delivered shock can jolt the first-time viewers out of their habitual reliance on linear, left-brain logic. The experience can be like what happens when one tries to deal with a Zen koan, for example, trying to answer the question "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" When logic proves useless, one tends to shift into intuitive, right-brain modes of knowing. That is exactly what the abbot of every Zen koan monastery wants the monks to be doing.                         

Only when the intuition of the monks is as highly developed as their reasoning are they ready to graduate from the monastery and go out to be of service to the world. It is this internal harmony of the "male & female" within us, the "sun & moon" within us, reason and intuition within us, that makes possible the highest form of human wholeness, an Enlightened state of being. When Golden Consciousness emerges, according to the Perennial Philosophy, one is no longer self-serving, or able to love in only qualified ways. One exists for the benefit of others, and every act is an act of love.

We can also consider Androgyny from the perspective of modern brain science. At a 1978 conference of psychologists and anthropologists on bimodality I presented a paper demonstrating that there is a one-to-one relationship between how bilateral Androgyne images are rendered in sacred art and the left/right brain. His/Her left side (which actually is controlled by the right brain) always is female. His/Her right side (which actually is controlled by the left brain) always is male. Those present were as surprised as I was to see this relationship. Shortly thereafter I was invited to teach the history of sacred art at the California Institute of Asian Studies in San Francisco, where the faculty included respected practitioners of the major spiritual traditions.

I asked each of them if the newly discovered left/right brain is an appropriate metaphor for the Perennial teaching of integrating our rational and intuitive faculties in order to attain Enlightenment. Every teacher there, Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, and Taoist, said yes--with the qualification that scientific understanding is only a partial understanding of traditional wisdom. A similar answer was given to me by a number of Tibetan Buddhists, including Lama Govinda, and the Venerable Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. These interviews supported my growing belief that the discovery of left/right brain was not a trivial fad in popular psychology but something of special importance for the modern world--a concrete, scientific way for anyone to start to think about the psychodynamics of Androgyny and striking confirmation of what Duchamp told me a decade earlier.

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Figure 9
Figure 10

Native American Androgyne, Stone Age type

African Androgyne (Sudan), Stone Age type

To see in more detail how Androgyny has been symbolized in traditional sacred art, the following selection of images provides a general overview of the various types of Androgyne iconography that have been rendered around the world from the Stone Age to the present. (20)  Representing the Stone Age is a painted image from North America. This figure has breasts and an erect phallus (Fig. 9). Among the neolithic tribes of Africa, it is typical to see images of the Androgyne with breasts and a beard (Fig. 10). That symbolism was continued by Bronze Age Egyptians. Other Bronze Age artists portrayed the Androgyne as a single body with male and female faces, often in association with the Double-Serpent and/or the Sun-Moon (Fig. 11). More widely published are Iron Age images of the Androgyne as a male-female with one breast, as Shiva-Shakti is often seen in Hindu India where there are more sculpted and painted Androgyne images than anywhere else (Fig. 12). In the esoteric tradition of Judaism, the image of Adam Kadmon is central to the Kabbalah (Fig. 13). In the esoteric tradition of Christianity, many versions of the Androgyne image fill Alchemical books and manuscripts of the Renaissance. There are more Androgyne images to be found in those books than anywhere else in the Western art of the modern era (Figs. 14&15; 16&17). In all these spiritual traditions, the Androgyne symbolizes both divinity among the Gods and Goddesses, and the possibility of psycho-cosmic wholeness here on earth.

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Figure 11
Figure 12
Figure 13

Neo-Babylonian Androgyne, Late Bronze Age/Early Iron Age type

Hindu Androgyne (Ardhanarisvara / Shiva-Shakti), Iron Age type
Jewish Androgyne (Adam Kadmon), Iron Age type
Figure 14
Figure 15

Christian Androgynes (Alchemical), 17th century

Christian Androgynes (Alchemical), 17th century
Figure 16
Figure 17
Christian Androgynes (Alchemical), 17th and 18th centuries
Christian Androgynes (Alchemical), 17th & 18th centuries


Those traditional images, especially in Stone Age art and the Alchemical book illustrations of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, were the type of Androgyne images that were known to modern artists in the early twentieth century. Inspired by such images, artists of the Dada-Surrealist era rendered many contemporary variations on this ancient theme as they searched for Androgyny within themselves. A comprehensive survey would show how virtually every major artist of the Surrealist era focused on this iconography. What follows is a small selection of their Androgyne images. The dates range from 1916 to 1954. Most of the artists represented in this portfolio were friends of Duchamp. >>Next


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20. Most of the literature on Androgynes in art is limited to the historical era, when there are written documents.  The prehistoric images have been more difficult to interpret owing to a lack of written documents.  For a century, scholars have had little to say about the many Stone Age figures that clearly have female bodies but also have strange tall neck/heads.  Many figures of this type have been classified as having the shape of a violin.  No male/female symbolism was detected.  In more recent scholarship we find the fact that there seems to be an unbroken continuity of such symbolism from the Old Stone Age through the New Stone Age, and the reasonable theory that such figures with "phallic necks" are to be interpreted as being male & female simultaneously.  For illustrations of such female figures with "phallic necks,"see Gimbutas, The Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe 6500-3500 BC (Berkeley , LA: University of California Press, 1974 & 1982; 1990) 133, 135, 154, 157, 202; and Gimbutas, The Language of the Goddess (San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 1995) 82, 183, 230, 231, 232.  The oldest figures of this female/male type in Old Europe (#356 & #357) date from between about 20,000 and 15,000 BCE.  For parallel images from other parts of the world, see Lanier Graham, "The Great Goddess-God, The Divine Androgyne," in Goddesses in Art (New York: Artabras, 1997) 43-47.