Editorial of Febrary 11th 2005

Giovanna Zapperi
Marcel duchamp's dandyism :
the dandy, the flaneur and the beginnings of mass culture in new york during the 1910s


Françoise Coblence the commonplace and genius

Julie Ramos dandy ambivalences

Seminar of Febrary 11th 2005
Giovanna Zapperi defended her doctoral thesis in June 2005; entitled Stratégies artistiques et masculinité. Marcel Duchamp et son entourage entre avant-garde et culture de masse, 1909-1924 (Artistic strategies and masculinity: Marcel Duchamp and his entourage between the avant-garde and mass culture, 1909-1924), this dissertation was supervised by Eric Michaud at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (Paris). Among her recent publications are : “Valie Export,” Le Journal du Centre National de la Photographie (September 2003), “Matthew Barney or the Return of the Hero,” in Jan Hoet, (My Private) Heroes (exhibition catalogue; Herford: Marta, 2005), and “Rrose Sélavy. Man Ray et la mode féminine des années 1920," Garçonne et Cie in Paris und Berlin. Mode im intermedialen Kontext des 20er Jahre, ed. S. Bung and M. Zimmerman (Göttingen: Wallstein, forthcoming). She regularly writes book reviews and covers art exhibitions for Kunstform and Flash Art.
Marcel duchamp's dandyism :
the dandy, the flaneur and the beginnings of mass culture in new york during the 1910s

The Picture of Marcel Duchamp

        Two portraits 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.” (1)
        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.
        Starting from 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.
        The dandy’s 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.” (6)
        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.” (8)

        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.
        The flâneur’s 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.
        This indifferent 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. (10)

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.” (11)
        This repetition 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 taste.” (12)
        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.
        The femininity 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.
        Duchamp transposed 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.


1. Henri-Pierre 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. 55.
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: Échoppe, 1996).
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.


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Fig. 1 Edward Steichen, Marcel Duchamp, 1917. Photograph. Philadelphia Museum of Art, The Louise and Walter Arensberg Collection.

Fig. 2 Edward Steichen, Marcel Duchamp, 1917. Photograph. Private collection, Paris.


Fig. 3 Marcel Duchamp, Belle Haleine, 1921. Assisted readymade: perfume bottle with label, 16.3 x 11.2 cm. Private collection, Paris.


Fig. 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.