Gloria Brame, Ph.D.

Dada and Gender: Rrose Selavy

Filed By Gloria Brame, Ph.D. | May 04, 2010 10:30 AM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment, Media, Transgender & Intersex
Tags: crossdressing, gender, Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp, Rrose Selavay, transgender

I recently did a blog show about Man Ray, notoriously strange and sexually libertine Dadaist artist. For me, one of Ray's most interesting Dadaistic excursions was his collaboration with another famous Dadist, Marcel Duchamp. Together they created a portfolio of images of Rrose Selavy, a female character who Duchamp inhabited. Rrose fascinated many artists: in addition to Ray's photos and a sculpture by Duchamp, since 1922, she has appeared in poems, plays, music and an unreleased 1990s film.

Was Duchamp transgendered? Or was Rrose pure artifice? According to curators at MIT, who recently ran a gallery show on cross-dressing, Ray and Duchamp were purely focused on shock value and consciousness raising: "the transgressive act of dressing as a woman was a strategy intended to both shock the bourgeoisie as well as to inflate the sexually intense agendas of the Surrealists whose mostly male cohort felt some threat from an emerging feminism in 1920's Paris."

Probably that too. But I think there's more to Duchamp's transformational exercises than politics and shock art. What do you see? Photo after the jump.


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For me, it's important to keep the wider world in mind. Certainly, the art world was already changing before the dislocations of the Great War. But the war's tear-down of so much that had been taken for granted within Western civilization inspired new expression across all forms of art, which was remarkable. The new thoughts on the nature of language and the absence of truth or underlying meaning in public media (reflected in both Dada sound poetry and the collages) that might be seen as a reaction formation against the ubiquitous propaganda of the war... these prefigured McLuhan's "the medium is the message."

The fundamental sense that all that had been taken for granted before was gone opened the way for the freedom to create new identities, new mediums for expression, new liberty in the selection of topics of art (Weimar fascination with Lustmord, for example) ... Dada's challenges to art and social media were compelling, then as now, because it posed basic existential questions at a time when the future was newly dangerous and unpredictable for a generation that had seen its ideals and expectations shattered utterly. It was a time for new ideas about sexuality and gender, or more ominously, race and politics.

There was also a sense of abiding betrayal, whatever your loyalties or your politics. The works of Dix, Grosz, and Scholtz do a great job of conveying this, of ugliness beneath presentation. Dada did it wonderfully well because it captured the transitional nature of its day: an international transition in values, in a sense of reality, the suddenly obvious unreliability of labels or official facts or surface impressions. This new world, removed from its expected trajectory, created a social and political world in which everyone became a chameleon of one sort or another, as they tried to accommodate themselves to their newly uncertain present.

Which I guess belatedly brings me to Duchamp, because the beauty of what Duchamp and Man Ray did was extend that challenge, one already made to so much that had been seen as fundamental and had been thrown into doubt by the war, and bring it down to something even more fundamental: gender. The art of the period reflected the new dislocations between the genders, another symptom of the war: Weimar's Lustmord art, focused on the sexualized violence against women, was but one ugly symptom.

In contrast to such contemporaries, the beauty of Duchamp's presentation might have provoked deliberately, might have been political, but it also speaks to the new possibilities of the day. It's not a coincidence that the age of Duchamp was also the age of Magnus Hirschfeld, of the best efforts yet to achieve liberty for homosexuals and gender-alternative people of every persuasion. It was a fact that could not escape Duchamp, and did not escape society at large.

The glory and tragedy of the interwar period is that so much was possible in terms of creating possibilities for liberation for gays and lesbians and transgenders. The near-term future of these efforts demonstrated only too terribly that, for a society that already felt it had lost so much in the Great War, there was so much more yet at stake, and during the horrors of the '30s and '40s, so much more yet to lose by losing.

Gloria, did you get to see that exhibit? I'd read about it but am on the other side of the country.

I'm jealous of Duchamp's great 20's finery and getting to be photographed by Man Ray. LUCKY! :-(

Gloria Brame | May 4, 2010 2:12 PM

Gina, I wish! No, I traveled to it via Internet, where I found that morsel of text.

Christina, it was a pleasure to read you. *HUG*


Thank you, Gloria, it's nice to take a break from baseball now and again, and I reliably love your feature here. ;-)