Duchamp and the Dadaist Gender Offensive

On the 2nd of October 1968, artist Marcel Duchamp died in Neuilly-sur-Seine, France. His Rouen grave was engraved with the humorously defiant epitaph “Besides, it’s always the others who die!”. In death, as in life, he remained a master of sarcasm and controversy.

A puzzling development in his career occurred in 1920, when Duchamp started adopting a creative alter ego. At first, the Catholic artist was toying with the idea of assuming a Jewish identity, but found changing gender was possibly more fun. A year earlier, he had drawn a moustache and beard onto Mona Lisa’s picture from a postcard, marking a historic fascination in portraiture with androgyny and gender deception.

L.H.O.O.Q. (1919). Derivative work by the Dada...

L.H.O.O.Q. (1919). Derivative work by the Dadaist Marcel Duchamp based on the Mona Lisa. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Within Dadaism – the trend that Duchamp adhered to – artists worked increasingly towards challenging deeply-rooted gender roles. For the first time in 1920, Duchamp signed the French window ready-made Fresh Widow with his female alias Rrose Sélavy – a name which pronounced in French sounded very much like “eros, c’est la vie” (love is life). Rrose Sélavy was yet another manifestation of the Dadaist’s need for nonconformism and rebellion against bourgeois norms. Maria Buszek wrote in Naomi Sawelson-Gorse’s Women in Dada (1999):

“During this period  commodity culture itself became associated with femininity. Women were the primary consumers in an expanding market economy during World War I. Female bodies became the purveyors of commercial value in increasingly ubiquitous print advertisements, such that broad anxieties about the collapse of individualism and the corresponding threat to masculinity were often articulated by male artists and by popular culture in relation to the gender-ambiguous figure of the “New Woman” or garçonne (girl/boy).” The dangerous, even masculinized  eroticism of the New Woman marked the collapse of the boundaries between male and female and those separating (…) that had kept “proper” women out of the public arena  in nineteenth-century Europe.”

Rrose showed herself in all her transvestite glory in a series of photographic portraits by Man Ray, one of Duchamp’s closest friends. He gave her a glamorous makeover, perfected by his experience of working for Vogue magazine, complete with sensual lighting and sultry poses. Under the façade though, the angularity of Duchamp’s masculine features, which neither photographer, nor model wished to conceal, conveyed an element of stubborn defiance against prejudice in contemporary society. And as a very early statement against the rise of consumerism, Rrose’s picture appeared on the label of the perfume bottle ready-made Belle Haleine, Eau de Voilette or Beautiful Breath, Veil Water (1921).

Rrose allowed Duchamp to be daring, both emotionally and artistically. By comparison, his male urbane self appeared to be of a boring normality. Furthermore, as Amelia Jones noted, Rrose seems to have placed herself to the forefront of Performance art at the beginning of a century in which women were to express themselves increasingly in this medium.