Duchamp & Androgyny:
The Concept and its Context

by Lanier Graham

For my grandson Kai


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Paul Klee, Barbarian's Venus, 1921

Barbarian's Venus by Paul Klee (1879-1940) is one of the most "barbaric" Androgyne images of the era.  She is a Venus with a penis (Fig. 18). Klee was not a member of the Surrealist circle, but sometimes exhibited with them. He was associated with Kandinsky and Marc in Munich in 1911 and 1912, then took from Cubism and Orphism the concept of fluctuating planes. Klee was thought by some to be an Alchemist when he discussed the Absolute, Nothingness, and the Ground of Being. His students at the Bauhaus (only half in jest) called him "Heavenly Father." He was one of the first modern artists to explore Androgyny in tribal art. 

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Constantin Brancusi, Princess X, 1916

Constantin Brancusi (1876-1957) was a very close friend of Duchamp. He studied Androgyne symbolism first in Theosophy and then in the tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. A book of Tibetan teachings was on his bedside table for many years. He and Duchamp worked together, played together, and seem to have shared many ideas about the etheric, the infinite, and the Androgynous. Such concepts were central to both artists. In 1916 Brancusi sculpted Princess X(Fig. 19). Most of the critics of the time did not like it. It was too abstract. One was particularly offended by the phallic form. Similar criticism greeted Brancusi's most famous work, "Bird in Space." Brancusi called it "Bird of the Ether" because the upward thrust is toward the etheric realm, beyond the realm of space and time, the realm that only Androgynous consciousness can reach. In spite of the phallic interpretations of many viewers, "Bird of the Ether" clearly is about not sexuality but transcendence.

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Figure 20
Figure 21

Jean Arp, Demeter, 1960

Jean Arp, Idol, 1950

Jean (Hans) Arp (1888-1966) often read Alchemical texts by Jacob Boehme and felt art should lead beyond self-expression to spirituality. He and his good friend Max Ernst made sure this attitude was part of the Dada movement and early Surrealism. Later he was deeply inspired by Brancusi's fluid style. He carved a number of beautiful Androgynes. His Demeter makes use of the traditional Iron Age symbolism of the Goddess-God with one breast (Fig. 20). For his Idol(Fig. 21) Arp seems to have gone farther back in time for his iconography, back to the Androgyne symbolism of the Stone Age and Bronze Age, when it was not uncommon for idols to have an abstract female body and a tall abstract phallic neck/head (Figs. 22A &22B).


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Figure 22A
Figure 22B

Old Stone Age figures thought to be Androgynes

New Stone Age/Bronze Age figures thought to be Androgynes

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Joan Miró, Dawn Perfumed by a Shower of Gold, 1954

Joan Miró (1893-1983) spoke of wanting his art to express the unity of the finite and the infinite. He was particularly interested in Stone Age art in his later years and used the ancient phallic neck/head symbolism of the Stone Age in his Androgynous painting "Dawn Perfumed by a Shower of Gold." The lower part is quite female, while the upper part is quite male (Fig. 23).




Nudes, Rroses, etc.

"Is it a woman? No.  Is it a man? No. ...I have never thought which it is. Why should I think about it?"
Marcel Duchamp discussing his painting Nude Descending a Staircase of 1912 

As we have seen, Duchamp was not the only artist of the Dada-Surrealist era interested in Androgyny. The image of the Androgyne was very important to many of the major artists in this circle. They talked about Androgynes in Alchemy, as well as in esoteric Hinduism and esoteric Buddhism wherein the Androgyne also is a primal symbol for Enlightened consciousness. They knew what the Androgyne is, and considered it the ideal condition of human awareness. This is not to say that all these artists actually attained Androgyny, but only to indicate that Androgyny was, to a large extent, their common goal. Even though many Surrealist artists rendered images of the Androgynes and were working towards the condition of Androgyny within themselves, Duchamp devoted more years of his life to articulating images of the Androgyne than any other major artist of the twentieth century, with the possible exception of his good friend Max Ernst. More has been written about Duchamp's Androgyne images than about anyone else's modern Androgyne images, but the focus of most of the literature has been on gender issues not metaphysics. This book is about metaphysics.

Some would begin the list of Duchamp's Androgyne images with Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 of 1912, his most famous painting. While most people simply assume the nude is female, a close examination reveals there is a gender question. Is the figure male or female? "Nu" in French can mean male or female, and the visual evidence is not conclusive. This very ambiguity is interpreted by some as being Androgynous, especially in light of the unusual way Duchamp responded to the gender question in a 1916 interview: "Is it a woman? No. Is it a man? No. To tell you the truth, I have never thought which it is. Why should I think about it?" (21) Some think the slightly later Bride  also is an Androgyne image, but that depends largely on how one interprets The Large Glass.

Others would begin the list with L.H.O.O.Q. of 1919 where Duchamp added a mustache and beard to Leonardo's "Mona Lisa," having heard that Leonardo was homosexual. This modified ready-made clearly was intended as a joke, but it also clearly was a deliberate form of Androgyne imagery.

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Figure 24
Figure 25

Marcel Duchamp, Fountain, 1917  (1964 replica)

Marcel Duchamp, Bottle Dryer, 1914  (1963 replica)

Some would begin the Androgyne list two years earlier with Fountain - the signed ready-made urinal of 1917(Fig. 24) . To declare this plumbing fixture a work of art certainly was a striking challenge to the aesthetic sensibilities of the time, and for many still is a challenge.  Even though it is now accepted as a work of art, what might be Androgynous about it? Several people interested in religion (as Duchamp himself was not) looked at this image in 1917 as an abstract form of Buddha or the Virgin Mary. Male Buddha/Holy Mother? Perhaps the combination of those two holy images would be an Androgyne? It would echo the ancient idea of Androgyny if the combination of Divine Mother/Divine Son were deliberate, but there's no evidence that this was the case in Duchamp's mind. Some (with a Freudian psychology) see this open receptacle as a female space into which a male enters. This may have been slyly sexual symbolism on Duchamp's part, but the symbolism of common copulation is not the iconography of Androgyny. The same goes for the ready-made Bottle Dryer of 1914 (Fig. 25). Some see the elements that hold the drying bottles as male and the implied bottles as female. That symbolism may be humorously sexual, but it is not inherently Androgynous.

Not so with the gender-bending character Duchamp created as a female alter ego in 1920: Rrose Sélavy. After his Mona Lisa of 1919, we find a string of Androgyne images in Duchamp's work, some humorous, some serious. He worked on these Androgyne images every decade for the rest of his life. Rrose even "signed" a number of major objects, as well as most of his literary works over the next twenty years. Was Duchamp homosexual? No. Was he bisexual? No. Neither was he homophobic. He had any number of homosexual and bisexual friends. Did he dress in drag regularly? No - only when making a work of art (Figs. 26, 27, 28). This series of male-female images from 1919 to 1942 certainly was intended to be amusing, but they also publicly propagated the idea of Androgyny as "food for thought." He did not stop thinking about the Androgyne. In 1946 Duchamp secretly began work on the monumental Androgyne image that would occupy him for most of the rest of his life.

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Figure 26
Figure 27
Figure 28

Marcel Duchamp,  "Belle Haleine (Beautiful Breath)" Perfume Bottle, with a photograph of Rrose Sélavy (alias Marcel Duchamp) by Man Ray pasted on, 1921

Marcel Duchamp, RROSE SÉLAVY in the "Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme," Paris, 1938 (female mannequin half dressed in Duchamp's clothing)
Marcel Duchamp, Compensation-Portrait in the exhibition "First Papers of Surrealism," New York, 1942

An early examination of the Androgyne in Duchamp's work was written by Arturo Schwarz in the 1960s. Some of the theoretical assumptions of Schwarz are quite strange, and have been rejected by a large number of Duchamp specialists. His articulation of the meaning of Androgyny is often imaginative and not always consistent. However, Schwarz deserves credit for his early attempt to bring Androgyny into the art-historical dialogue around Duchamp. He did so from the perspective of Alchemy, the basic principles of which he has articulated clearly. Here is a passage from his essay "The Alchemist Stripped Bare in the Bachelor, Even":

"...for the adept to achieve higher consciousness means, in the first place, acquiring 'golden understanding' (aurea apprehensio) of his own microcosm and of the macrocosm in which it fits. It is in the course of his pursuit of the Philosopher's Stone that he acquires this new awareness. Thus the quest is more important than its reward; as a matter of fact, the quest is the reward. Alchemy is nothing other than an instrument of knowledge - of the total knowledge that aims to open the way toward total liberation. ... Individuation, in the alchemical sense, entails abolishing the conflicting male-female duality within the integrated personality... . Eliade has pointed out that 'to be no longer conditioned by a pair of opposites results is absolute freedom'." (22)

Some, including Schwarz, Jack Burnham, Ulf Linde, John F. Moffitt, and others, have worked hard to have us see Duchamp as an Alchemist. Duchamp, however, offered little support for this belief. Indeed, he made efforts to deny it. When I met Duchamp in 1967 I had been studying the symbolism of Alchemy for a number of years and suspected that he might be an actual Alchemist.

While it is true that the Androgyne is the goal of Alchemy, it is possible to have a particular interest in the Androgyne without being an Alchemist. I did not understand this at the time. Duchamp illuminated me. Here is how one of our conversations went:

It seems that almost from the beginning of your work as an artist, you have had a philosophical attitude toward what being an artist is. In one of your interviews with Sweeney, for example..., you describe Dada as a "metaphysical attitude." What you have talked about and written is permeated with the thought-feelings of a philosopher. At the end of your 1956 interview with Sweeney, you spoke of art as a path "toward regions which are not ruled by time and space."
Was that the one filmed in Philadelphia?
It was.
Yes. Perhaps that is about as much as you can say in a film being made for wide consumption. If one says too much more, the result is simply a great deal of misunderstanding. Understanding can only emerge from a co-experience, a non-verbal experience which the artist and the onlooker can share by means of aesthetic experience. So I leave the interpretation of my work to others.
Nevertheless, I think it would be correct to say that you regard the practice of art as a philosophical path toward that which is beyond time and space.
That is correct. That is my view, but only part of my view. My view is beyond and back. Some get lost "out there." My frame of reference is out of the frame and back again.
That sounds like the dance of the finite and infinite, stepping back and forth between three dimensions and four dimensions, as Apollinaire or Mallarmé would say.
So it does. No one says it better than Mallarmé!
May we call your perspective Alchemical?
We may. It is an Alchemical understanding. But don't stop there! If we do, some will think I'll be trying to turn lead into gold back in the kitchen (laughing). Alchemy is a kind of philosophy, a kind of thinking that leads to a way of understanding.
We may also call this perspective Tantric (as Brancusi would say), or (as you like to say) Perennial. The Androgyne is not limited to any one religion or philosophy. The symbol is universal. The Androgyne is above philosophy. If one has become the Androgyne one no longer has a need for philosophy. (23)


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21. Duchamp, quoted in Nixola Greeley-Smith, "Cubist Depicts Love in Brass and Glass" in The Evening World, New York (Apr. 4, 1916) 3.

22. Schwarz, in d'Harnoncourt & McShine, eds., OP. CIT. 82-83.  Mircea Eliade is the twentieth century's most widely respected historian of religions.  His name continues to appear in the Duchamp literature, e.g., Francis M. Naumann, "Marcel Duchamp: A Reconciliation of Opposites" in Kuenzli & Naumann, eds., Marcel Duchamp: Artist of the Century (Cambridge and London: MIT Press, 1989) 40, note 30.  Nothing was more important to Eliade than the symbolism of the coincidentia oppositorum. More Eliade citations are to be expected as Duchamp's metaphysics are explored in more depth.  During his visit to Kenyon College in 1960, I asked Eliade this question:  "In our seminar on the sacred art, I want to be able to point to twentieth century artists who are still connected to the sacred.  Can you suggest any?"  He replied: "That is a subject I would like to write about. There are not too many in a society that has lost touch with the sacred. But I would say Chagall is reaching for Paradise, and Brancusi knows what it means to climb the axis mundi.  Brancusi connected modern art with the Primal, and thereby injected a new vitality. Yes, I believe in Brancusi, and I'm told Brancusi believed in Duchamp.  Is his 'Mona Lisa with a Mustache' only a joke or is it also an Androgyne?  Several modern artists and writers have explored Androgyny. They are connecting with the Primal. They are worth examining.  It also would be worthwhile to explore the abstract painters of today who are reaching beyond the skin of matter for what is underneath."  See Eliade, Symbolism, The Sacred, & The  Arts (New York: Crossroad/Herder & Herder, 1986). A comprehensive study of the Androgyne in Surrealism has not been written.  It will include images by many Surrealist artists and writers and such articles as Albert Béguin, "L'Androgyne" in Minotaure, 1938.

23. Duchamp in conversation with Lanier Graham.  Quoted in Graham, Marcel Duchamp: Conversations with the Grand Master (New York: Handmade Press, 1968) 2-3.


Figs. 24-28
©2002 Succession Marcel Duchamp, ARS, N.Y./ADAGP, Paris. All rights reserved.