The Picture of Marcel Duchamp
of Marcel Duchamp done by Edward Steichen in New York in 1917
offer to our view the seductive image of the young artist. When
he arrived in the United States in June 1915, Duchamp was already
famous, thanks to the scandal sparked two years earlier by his
Nude Descending a Staircase. That painting,
exhibited at the 1913 Armory Show that had introduced European
modern art onto the new continent, did indeed enjoy a dazzling
success. If the testimony of Henri-Pierre Roché is to be
believed, the Americans considered the then-young painter to be
a celebrity: “Marcel Duchamp was, at the time, in New York,
along with Napoleon and Sarah Bernhardt, the best-known Frenchman.”
We do not know the context in which these photographs were taken.
Perhaps they were to be published in a newspaper or magazine to
illustrate an article on Duchamp. Both photos show the same charming
young man, open and carefree before the photographer. In the first
shot, Duchamp appears in profile, dressed in sober but elegant
fashion with white shirt and tie. His hair combed back, he is
raising an arm as if his hand were leaning against a wall. The
other hand, probably in his pocket, seems to suggest a relaxed
pose. The absence of any expression and the steadiness of his
gaze serve to reinforce his absorbed look, which arouses the viewer’s
curiosity. The second photo was probably taken by Steichen during
the same session. Duchamp is dressed the same way, but this time,
hands in his pockets, he looks at the lens with an air of detachment.
He is leaning nonchalantly on the leaf of a shutter. Steichen,
who was soon to start his dazzling career as a photographer of
celebrity portraits and ad campaigns, was already demonstrating
here an in-depth knowledge of the conventions for these kinds
of portraits. His photos show Duchamp as a celebrity who displays
his charm to the curious viewer without revealing anything of
his personality. They underscore the ambivalence of Duchamp’s
attitude, which hovers between inner concentration and an awareness
of being the object of others’ gazes.
these portraits, I would like to examine Duchamp’s attitude
during his stay in New York (between 1915 and 1923) as regards
his role as an artist and to retrace the path that led him to
stage himself in drag for a series of photos done in 1921 by Man
Ray. The spectacular femininity he imitates in these photos would
seem to be closely connected with the changes he was making in
his own artistic practice during the second decade of the twentieth
century. Before effecting his radical metamorphosis into Rrose
Sélavy—the name of the feminine alter ego he adopted
in the 1920s (2) —Duchamp drew inspiration from the tradition
of nineteenth-century dandyism, adapting it to the different conditions
set by the emergence of a mass culture that was already making
itself strongly felt in the United States at that time. He exported
onto the new continent the still unknown and originally Anglo-French
figure of the dandy. From this standpoint, it could be said that
the artistic personality he was in the process of establishing
was firmly anchored in nineteenth-century culture.
“The Painter of Modern Life”
By constantly affirming his originality in dress, in behavior,
and in social relations, and even down to the decorative details
of his home, the dandy attempted to make of his person a work
of art. He attached great importance to his public image, which
he carefully constructed through a set of visual strategies: the
way he posed, his clothing, his fashionable hairstyle, his detached
and aristocratic manners, his taste for refinement in all things.
He staged his subjectivity as an artificial construction. The
effect of this strategy was to privilege his outward appearance
and to maintain an aura of mystery about the alleged reality of
the person hidden behind this public image. The tension between
his indifference to all external influences and the need to exist
in front of an audience was characteristic of the dandy, such
as he was described by Charles Baudelaire in 1863 in Le peintre
de la vie moderne (the painter of modern life). Baudelaire offers
a definition of the dandy that emerges both from the description
of the artist to which this text was devoted and from his illustrations.
The confusion between the person and his work was indeed one of
the characteristics of the dandy.
relationship to art was based on the same contempt for convention
that characterized his entire attitude. In this connection, Baudelaire
expands upon the question of the signature, traditionally considered
the mark of the painter. The “painter of modern life”
can in fact do without this tangible sign that inscribes his work
within the sphere of marketable objects. He waives signing his
name because he thinks that the originality of the artist, his
genuine mark, resides rather more in his attitude: “All
his works are signed with his dazzling soul.”(3) Placing
himself on the margins of convention, he expresses an originality
that emanates both from his works and from his entire being.
Baudelaire laid stress on the “need for originality,”
which made the dandy inimitable in the eyes of the masses. He
points to the codified and essentially visual nature of this sort
of originality, whose aim is to seduce an audience without showing
any authentic emotion. This strategy rested on the idea that the
dandy’s presence in a public space is a theatrical performance
in which everything expressed is the result of extreme self-control.
Such a presentation forbids him, therefore, any kind of inward
expression and favors, instead, the spectacle he himself constitutes:
“[Dandyism] is above all the burning need to make oneself
an original, contained within the outer limits of propriety. It
is a kind of self-worship. . . . It is the pleasure of surprising
others and the prideful satisfaction of never being surprised.
A dandy can be a blasé man or he can be a suffering man;
but in the latter instance, he will smile like a Lacedaemonian
bitten by a fox.”
Having resolved never to be touched by anything emotionally, the
dandy even succeeded in staging such an authentic feeling as suffering.
His visual presence thus combined superiority with dehumanization.
The display of sobriety and self-control was accompanied by the
spectacle of his privileged condition, as revealed by his clothing,
his postures, and his attitudes. These visual strategies led him
to adopt an extreme attitude that was paradoxically expressed
by the absence of all spontaneity.
The Dandy and the Flâneur
In Le peintre
de la vie moderne, Baudelaire connects the figure of the
dandy with that of the flâneur and expands upon the question
of his relationship to the urban environment. The crowd that invaded
the streets of nineteenth-century Paris was indeed one of the
favorite territories of the flâneur, whose life was immersed
in the crowd and who drew inspiration from his observation of
the life of modern metropolises. He maintained an ambivalent relationship
with the public space, of which he was a part but also of which
he remained an observer. He granted himself the freedom to look
around, the freedom to remain incognito that is enjoyed by the
voyeur: “To be outside and still feel at home; to see the
world, to be at the center of the world and remain hidden from
the world. . . .” (5)
Such freedom also
brings out the fact that the flâneur made the most of the
gender divisions characteristic of the nineteenth century. The
public space in which the flâneur and the dandy were situated
was the masculine space of the bourgeois ideology of separate
spheres that contrasted with the private and domestic space dominated
by women. The description of the flâneur’s walks through
the modern city rests upon this separation. Walter Benjamin remarked
that the flâneur circulates freely in the public space,
appropriating it for himself as a private space: “The street
becomes a dwelling for the flâneur; he is as much at home
among the façades as a citizen in his four walls.”
It is precisely
the flâneur’s masculinity that allowed him to come
and go between these two spaces and to feel at home out of doors
as if he were somewhere indoors. He also enjoyed the masculine
privilege of being able to look wherever he wanted to, the privileged
object of his gaze being woman. The Baudelairean crowd is often
an erotically charged one: in it, the flâneur may glimpse
a desirable woman. (7)
For Benjamin, the flâneur’s relationship to urban
space is connected with the emergence of consumerism, which places
the flâneur in surprising proximity to the commodity:
“The flâneur is someone abandoned in the crowd. In
this, he shares the situation of the commodity [la marchandise].
He is not aware of this special situation, but this does not diminish
its effect on him and it permeates him blissfully like a narcotic
that can compensate him for many humiliations. The intoxication
to which the flâneur surrenders is the intoxication of the
commodity around which surges the stream of customers.”
According to Benjamin, the “painter of modern life”’s
qualities of impassiveness and nonchalance, as well as his display
of indifference, stem from commercial life. His dehumanization,
which is also that of the dandy, thus echoes the dehumanization
of capitalist modes of production.
connection with the commodity is also brought out by Duchamp’s
choice of readymades. In the course of his New York stay, Duchamp
gradually abandoned painting—his Grand Verre, started
in 1915, was to remain definitively unfinished in 1923—and
he devoted himself to readymades. In his interest for these mass-produced
objects, he drew upon his experience as a flâneur through
the streets of Paris and New York: the readymades are nothing
but commodities observed in store windows. He claimed for himself
the flâneur’s choice to freely buy one object among
the hundreds he may look at in the course of his walks. Duchamp
is thus suggesting that, once the artist has lost his role within
society—that is to say, once he himself has ceased to produce
unique objects—he becomes above all an observer and a commentator.
The importance Duchamp attaches to indifference and to the absence
of good or bad taste in the choice of readymades is connected
as a matter of fact with the perception the flâneur can
have of the commodities he observes through store windows. (9)
The choice of readymades is also, from this point of view, a consequence
of the dehumanization of labor in the industrial age, which renders
the idea of the painter manufacturing the picture with his own
hands an outdated notion.
quality of the readymade is also reminiscent of the person and
the artist Marcel Duchamp. From the beginning of his voyage to
the United States, indifference had indeed become a quality, not
only of his works, but also of the artist himself. The stories
told by his contemporaries underscore Duchamp’s detachment
and suggest that his charm rested on his ability to erase his
subjectivity. This attitude aroused the curiosity of the American
public, which had been awaiting the arrival of the famous cubist
painter but did not imagine that it would encounter this refined
man who hardly painted any more and posed as an intellectual.
Originality and Repetition
Insofar as it
is no longer the product of the artist’s creativity, the
readymade challenges the traditional idea of the work’s
originality and leads, thereby, to a redefinition of the role
of the artist. If henceforth all objects are manufactured and
reproduced in order to be consumed, the readymade appears as the
most radical consequence of the transformation of art brought
on by early twentieth-century technical developments. In a way,
Duchamp shares with Baudelaire the idea that artistic activity
is not to be summed up in objects; rather, it expresses itself
in one’s attitude and in the way in which one presents oneself.
The dandy’s idea of originality no doubt interests Duchamp,
who embodies in his person the tension Baudelaire described between
the erasure of inwardness and the spectacularization of one’s
person. His abandonment of painting thus succeeded in reinforcing,
in paradoxical fashion, the displacement of the notion of the
originality from the work toward the artist, which is what Duchamp
was suggesting when he contrasted the singularity of the artist
with the repetition of works: “The individual, as such,
as brain, if you will, interests me more than what he does, for
I have noticed that most artists just repeat themselves.”
refers back to the lack of originality to which all artists are
condemned when they produce works in order to satisfy the society
in which they move. They produce in this way a taste that, whether
good or bad, is for Duchamp of no value. As he explained the matter
in a 1955 interview, such artists create rather a habit than a
genuine work of art: “It’s a habit. Start the same
thing over and over again long enough, and it becomes a taste.
If you interrupt your artistic production after having created
something, that thing becomes a thing-in-itself and remains so.
But if it is repeated a certain number of times, it becomes a
In much later
declarations, Duchamp stated that the artist is first of all an
individual who keeps his distance from the general public, in
particular the public made up of his contemporaries. Nevertheless,
he underscored at the same time the spectator’s importance
within the creative process. (13) This tension between the artist
and his audience is reminiscent of the attitude of the dandy.
Like the painter described by Baudelaire, Duchamp considered himself
to be an idle artist [un artiste désœuvré]
because he had abandoned the idea of producing traditional art
objects. In light of this renunciation, he was led to construct
his artistic personality in an ambivalent way: the attention was
displaced toward his person, but this person remained out of reach.
In this self-staging, a tension was expressed between his observational
practice as a flâneur and the awareness that he was constituting
himself as the object of people’s gazes. In this way, he
was reviving the tradition of the dandy and its connection with
the flâneur, as described in Baudelaire’s text.
The Ambivalent Masculinity of the Dandy
The visual strategy
adopted by the dandy—the attention lavished on his appearance,
down to the finest details regarding clothing, posture, and hairstyle—brought
him dangerously near to the feminine realm. In another of his
texts, My Heart Laid Bare, Baudelaire stated that women
can in no way be dandies: “Woman is natural, that
is to say, abominable; also, she is always vulgar, that is to
say, the opposite of the dandy.”(14)
While the nineteenth-century dandy was indeed an essentially masculine
figure, his masculinity had a lot in common with this sort of
artificial and constructed femininity that arises from Baudelaire’s
text. The women he describes are in reality as artificial as the
dandy, since their charm emanates directly from their finery,
their make-up, their clothing, and their whole attitude. They
have a twofold nature, as expressed in a travestying of their
identity that echoes the erasure of the dandy’s inner life.
From this point of view, the dandy offered the possibility of
a transgression of the border between the sexes—which runs
counter to the bourgeois ideals of masculinity. The spectacularization
of the self carried out by the dandy was a sign of the crisis
the bourgeois model of masculinity was undergoing. The ideals
of austerity and sobriety that characterized the bourgeois man
were in effect being threatened by this staging of the masculine
body. In pushing to the limit his sexual ambivalence, the dandy
offered the possibility of being perceived as a counter-type liable
to prove dangerous to the masculine norm. In late nineteenth-century
French culture, the dandy was indeed often considered decadent,
effeminate, and verging on the homosexual.
If the dandy was constructing his visual presence like a form
of spectacle, this self-objectification brought him close to woman.
In Western culture, it is indeed woman’s body that plays
the role of desirable object, and in nascent capitalism her image
was used as a prop for merchandise [la marchandise]. But at the
beginning of the twentieth century, the masculine body, too, was
getting mixed up in this spectacle, for it could not stand completely
aloof from this merchandise and from the desire that is tied to
consumerism. In art as well as in capitalist society in general,
masculinity is confronted with the desire of the consumer. The
dandy was a sort of prefiguration of the possibility for a man
to be represented as a woman and to be associated with desire
and with the commodity. He is also, for this reason, a potentially
transgressive figure as regards the bourgeois ideal of the difference
between the sexes.
Before the advent of movie stars, the dandy constructed his personality
as a theatrical staging that might seduce the general public.
At the turn from the nineteenth to the twentieth century, the
dandy heralded the nascent figure of the female star, whose existence
also depended upon one’s capacity to construct oneself within
one’s image. The encounter between the dandy and the first
women who attained celebrity on stage—actresses, music-hall
singers, dancers—was destined to produce what would later
become, in the course of the twentieth century, the media personality.
There indeed is an obvious proximity between the image of the
dandy and that of the star. Like the dandy, the star constructs
a self-image whose originality renders her immediately recognizable
by her public. The originality of the star is precisely what remains
unreproducible and what prevents confusion with her numerous imitations.
In his self-representation as a woman, Duchamp transferred into
his own image as an artist the characteristics of the star, in
particular the erasure of subjectivity. He also grasped that this
new form of personality derived from the encounter between dandyism
and mass culture as embodied by the female star. Whether in his
artistic production or in his image as an artist, a question arose
that proved to be constitutive of these years: the cross between
elite culture and mass culture.
Femininity as Spectacle
It was, as a matter
of fact, during his stay in the United States that, for the sake
of his own image as an artist, Duchamp appropriated for himself
the feminine stereotype being generated by mass culture. In 1921,
with Belle Haleine. Eau de voilette (Beautiful
Breath: Veil Water), he first incorporated his portrait in drag
into a bottle of perfume. In this way, he imitated the use of
the female image as a corollary of the commodity. Next, he staged
himself in feminine posture and clothing and gave a seductive
and mysterious face to his alter ego Rrose Sélavy. This
character conformed here to the image of feminine charm that dominated
the early 1920s: that of a woman who is both attractive and threatening.
Produced and reproduced by photographic means, that image occupied
the public space of modern cities via movie and advertising posters.
This association of femininity with sexuality drew its inspiration
from the leading role of woman in the visual culture of capitalism:
that of the embodiment of desire, as associated with the commodity.
Duchamp imitated by sketching out in this way a seductive look
and an affected pose was inspired in large part by the image of
the femme fatale. This figure of extreme femininity,
characterized in particular by a mysterious look, basically derives
from nineteenth-century painting and French literature, but the
image endured into the twentieth century through photography and,
above all, through movies. Its potential for seduction was tied
to the idea that woman is desirable but also destructive on account
of her sexuality. Hollywood cinema appropriated this stereotype
for itself from the start, and it contributed greatly to the media
popularization of this figure of feminine seduction.
not only the figure of the dandy but also that of the femme
fatale into American art by introducing into the New York
artistic world this figure of mystery, moral indifference, and
self-spectacle. While he was responsible for having spread this
stereotype onto the American side of the Atlantic, he was also
inspired, on the spot, by the nascent figure of the star being
spread by the then-burgeoning world of show business. The use
of photography allowed him a more direct relationship with these
female images: mass produced for mass consumption, they spread
all the more rapidly over the new continent. The transition from
the femme fatale of nineteenth-century European painting
to the American media star of the twentieth century also marks
an evolution in the imagery connected with woman as embodiment
of sexuality in the era of industrialization.
Rrose Sélavy’s gesture of pulling a fur stole around
her shoulders explicitly evoked contemporary images of movie divas.
Duchamp was consciously imitating the excessive, commodified femininity
of capitalist society, which was asserting itself at the time
thanks to photography. In the age of the assertion of mass culture,
woman, and the seductive hold she exerts upon the viewer, appeared
to be indissociable from the photographic image.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, the personal as well
as visual polarity of the dandy and of the star were crystallized
in the use of photography. The latter became the privileged form
of media support for their representation. Indeed, both of them
found themselves dependent upon the visual technologies of mass
culture. Photography allows one to construct a public image that
can oscillate between the alleged authenticity of the person—one’s
real presence when the photograph was taken—and the repertory
of existing images that fix one’s identity within the visual
codes of the age. This repertory of images is the inevitable framework
for all self-representation in which the construction of sexual
identity, in particular, is inscribed.
At the juncture between the ambivalent masculinity of the dandy
and the femininity of the mass culture-produced star, there nevertheless
exist a difference of fundamental importance. Unlike the star,
the dandy took over for himself this double pose as object of
the image and as detached observer. He was at once in the image
and outside of it, which is what allowed him to retain a certain
amount of control. His masculinity thus allowed him to protect
himself from the emotion theatricalized by woman in her on-stage
performances. In his feminine self-representation, Duchamp consciously
adopted this ambivalence of the dandy toward the mass culture
the star embodies. The choice he made to inscribe the artist’s
personality within the feminized domain of mass culture harks
back to his ambivalent positioning between the elitist realm of
avant-garde art and capitalist imagery. He pushed his dandyism
to the extremes dictated by the emergence of the star system and
completed in a certain way the process of transformation of the
artist into a star. His metamorphosis into a woman distanced him,
in effect, from the posture of the artist who asserts his originality
and his individuality, so as to inscribe his image, instead, within
the inherent repetitiveness of the commodity. Nevertheless, like
the dandy, Duchamp held an ambivalent position with regard to
his own objectification. His transformation into a woman summons
up, in effect, a complex game being played between the author
of the image and the image itself, while suggesting that the identity
of the artist is in reality unstable. He is the woman in the photograph,
but also the author of the work.
In his progressive slide toward femininity, Duchamp followed the
path shown by the encounter between the French dandy and American
mass culture, and he transposed it into his process of destruction
and reconstruction of the masculinity of the artist. Between 1910
and 1920, his self-representation questions the crisis of the
artist’s masculinity and highlights the association between
the work of art, the artist, and the commodity.
Roché, “Vie de Marcel Duchamp,” in Écrits
sur l’art, introduced and annotated by Serge Fauchereau
(Marseille: André Dimanche, 1998), p. 239.
2. Translator: When read out loud, pronouncing
both “r”s, Rrose Sélavy sounds like “Eros,
c’est la vie,” or “Eros (love) is life.”
3. Charles Baudelaire, “Le peintre de la
vie moderne” (1863), in Curiosités esthétiques.
L'art romantique et autres œuvres critiques, edited
by Henri Lematre (Paris: Garnier, 1990), p. 459.
4. Ibid., p. 483.
5. Ibid., p. 463.
6. Walter Benjamin, Charles Baudelaire: A
Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism, trans. Harry Zohn
(London: Verso, 1997), p. 37.
7. In Les fleurs du mal, he describes
one’s desire for a woman who is glimpsed through a crowd;
see À une passante, in Charles Baudelaire, Œuvres
complètes (Paris: Robert Laffont, 1980), pp. 68-69.
On the theme of the crowd in Baudelaire, see Benjamin, Charles
Baudelaire, pp. 107-54.
8. Benjamin, Charles Baudelaire, p.
9. “There is a point I would like to establish
very clearly, viz., that the choice of these readymades was never
dictated to me by some sort of aesthetic delight. This choice
was based on a response of visual indifference, combined at the
same time with a total absence of good or bad taste . . . in fact,
a complete anaesthesia,” Marcel Duchamp, “À
propos des readymades” (1961), in Marcel Duchamp, “À
propos des readymades,” Duchamp du signe, writings
edited and introduced by Michel Sanouillet (Paris: Flammarion,
1994), p. 191.
10. See, for example, an interview published
in Art & Decoration (September 1915), reprinted in Marcel
Duchamp, Deux interviews new-yorkais. Septembre 1915 (Paris:
11. Pierre Cabanne, Marcel Duchamp. Entretiens
avec Pierre Cabanne (Paris: Pierre Belfond, 1967), p. 121.
12. Duchamp, Duchamp du signe, p. 181.
13. Duchamp explains this point in Le Processus
créatif: “All in all, the artist is not all alone
in accomplishing the act of creation, for the spectator establishes
the work’s contact with the outside world by deciphering
and by interpreting its underlying qualifications and thereby
he makes his own contribution to the creative process” (Duchamp,
Duchamp du signe, p. 180).
14. Charles Baudelaire, Mon cœur mis à
nu, in Œuvres complètes, p. 406.
Boscagli, Maurizia. Eye on the Flesh: Fashions
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obligation d’incertitude. Paris: Presses Universitaires
de France, 1988.
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Essays on Theory, Film and Fiction. Bloomington: Indiana
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De Duve, Thierry. Résonances du readymade.
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Garelick, Rhonda. Rising Star: Dandyism,
Gender, and Performance in the Fin de Siècle. Princeton,
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Huyssen, Andreas. “Mass Culture as Woman:
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Molderings, Herbert. Marcel Duchamp, Parawissenschaft,
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Mosse, Georges. The Image of Man: The Creation
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Pollock, Griselda. “Modernity and the Spaces
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Feminism, and the Histories of Art. London: Routledge 1988,
Roth, Moira. “Duchamp in America: A Self
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Straumann, Barbara. “Queen, Dandy, Diva
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1 Edward Steichen, Marcel Duchamp, 1917. Photograph.
Philadelphia Museum of Art, The Louise and Walter Arensberg
2 Edward Steichen, Marcel Duchamp, 1917. Photograph. Private
3 Marcel Duchamp, Belle Haleine, 1921. Assisted readymade:
perfume bottle with label, 16.3 x 11.2 cm. Private collection,
4 Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp as Rrose Sélavy, 1921/1924.
Photograph, 21.9 x 17.4 cm. Philadelphia Museum of Art, The
Samuel S. White 3rd and Vera White Collection.