Portrait of Marcel Duchamp as a “queer” artist

Anyone can hide behind an opaque window. And one artist can veil several others. The Fresh Widow work, part of the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York (MOMA), reproduces in miniature a “ French window ” with squares entirely covered with black leather. The museum notice attributes the work to the facetious artist “Marcel Duchamp, American born in France, 1887-1968”. However, an inscription at the base of the sculpture window states: “Copyright, Rose Selavy, 1920”. Which makes it “the first work signed by Duchamp’s female alter ego “, so just a century ago.

Portrait of Marcel Duchamp in Rrose Sélavy (1921)-Man Ray
Portrait of Marcel Duchamp in Rrose Sélavy (1921)-Man Ray

The signature will transform to become Rrose Sélavy: “Eros, c’est la vie”, perhaps also a reference to “ Rose is a Rose is a Rose ”, by Gertrude Stein, which deals with an eternal “indefinition” . The heteronym will finally allow the Dadaist to reinvent himself as a woman with her independent creative production. Man Ray photographed Rrose Sélavy-Marcel Duchamp, with wig, fur coat, pearl necklace and hat, playing on the fluidity of sexual identities.

Was he (was she? Were they?) So queer ahead of his time, as the buzzword, intentionally ambiguous term is in use now? A hundred years ago, did the Einstein of modern art also play with gender or sexual identity, as many artists and mere contemporaries do today?

“Dadaism is fundamentally anti-standard. Everything goes there, including heteronormative norms, which allows some men to claim a share of femininity, and some women, a so-called androgynous identity. So talk about queer for the time of a hundred years ago, why not, ”comments art historian Julie Richard.

“Some purists claim that the term queer cannot be attributed to a historical body of work. It would be anachronism. I think it’s wrong and too restrictive. Already, at the beginning of the XX E century, in certain clubs of New York, the LGBTQ community appropriated the term, which means “strange”, to transcend it, and draw from it the positive. This nominative process dates back a century and it is necessary to reexamine history through the codes of queer identity , I would even say of the queer approach to art at all times. ”

Follow the guide

Only, nothing is as simple as it seems with Marcel Duchamp, and this additional strangeness leads to even more complex ramifications involving the work Fountain of 1917. There is nothing more fascinating than this ready- made . At the turn of 2000, when The Guardian asked dozens of art historians what was the most important work of the XX th century, the urinal won .

“ Fountain establishes a paradigm in art,” says Ms. Richard. Marcel Duchamp had in fact made another ready-made before, the wheel on a stool, in 1913, but the urinal is much more radical. The object is presented as is, but upside down, without modification, except for the signature: R. Mutt. It diverts the object from its initial function. By offering it to the Salon des Indépendants, he says that what counts in deciding what art is is the authority of the artist. ”

The American art historian Amelia Jones was the first to take a different interest in Marcel Duchamp, first to criticize his fetishization by his colleagues, then to show that Fountain is a collective creation produced in collaboration with one, two or even three people.

Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven (1874-1927) is one of the creative people. Born Elsa Hildegard Plötz in Pomerania, she moved to Berlin, then to the United States in 1910. She married Baron Leopold Freytag-Loringhoven (who committed suicide shortly after), led a penniless bohemian life in Greenwich Village, returned to Europe in 1923, died in Paris.

The baroness is drawn more and more from oblivion. The Quebec art historian studies the performances in public space of the baroness and another queer artist before the hour, the Frenchwoman Claude Cahun (1894-1954). This work is part of the recent revival of research on the so-called historical avant-garde (Peter Bürger), Futurism, Surrealism and Dadaism. Publications and exhibitions are multiplying. The study of the contribution of women to these artistic movements is enriched in particular by the renewed perspective of gender studies .

The dada spirit

The list of collaborators and artists (we are not talking about muses-model-mistresses à la Picasso) is constantly growing. Just for hype, we can quote Hannah Höch, Sophie Taeuber-Arp, Emmy Hennings, Suzanne Duchamp, Céline Arnauld and, of course, the baroness. German art historians Renate Wiehager and Katharina Neuburger have just published Duchamp and the Women und di Frauen , which presents a hundred women artists, writers, patrons or gallery owners who have gravitated around Duchamp.

For the Dadaist circle, Elsa is Dada. Man Ray said so. Marcel Duchamp repeated it. Elsa von Freytag is the embodiment of the spirit of questioning conventions and ideological, aesthetic, political and identity constraints. In addition, like other Europeans, she fled the continent before the great butchery of 1914-1918, to somehow start over in America.

Research by Ms. Richard and others shows that this artist developed a whole lexicon related to plumbing. She exhibited in 1917 (the year of the urinal) a sculpture called God made of pieces of pipe forming a hydraulic siphon, like the one connected to urinals.

“She was interested in iconography of the order of the trivial and even the abject,” explains Julie Richard. It is said that she cultivated bad smells on purpose. This way of being wanted to be anti-normative. She wrote several poems about the body, including one on orgasm. She stars in a film by Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp titled La baronne shaves his pubic hair .

There is also a trace of the Duchampian debt to von Freytag in Marcel Duchamp’s correspondence. The day after the opening of the Salon des Indépendants, on April 11, 1917, he wrote to his sister that one of her friends under a male pseudonym offered a porcelain urinal and that she was refused. “This is the most striking element. He confided in an intimate correspondence. He has no reason to hide anything. ”

In her latest book, Souvenirs from the Future (Actes Sud), published this summer, the American writer Siri Hustvedt bluntly accuses Marcel Duchamp of having stolen his famous ready-made . “The baroness has been ignored and ridiculed: this is what generally happens with female artists,” she summed up in a virtual conference this summer at the Buenos Aires International Literature Festival.

An antiart art

The dada master has not revealed anything publicly to perpetuate the game, the criticism, the overthrow. The original ready-made has been destroyed. Copies have been “authenticated”, including a so-called fifth version , dated 1964, in the National Gallery of Canada .

“Marcel Duchamp revolutionized art, that’s undeniable. It is now interesting to see which acolytes he worked with and how he played with art-antiart-art notions. He was against validation by the market and the urinal completely plays that card. Elsa von Freytag thought no less. A kind of jousting has taken place to find the most eccentric idea, going against the art market and making works that are almost unsaleable or of fake value. In addition, the Salon des Indépendants opens with the butcher’s shop raging at Vimy, four days after the United States entered the war against Germany.

His poems were grouped together in 2016 under the title Body Sweats . This publication and recent research allow us to reposition this extraordinary, peerless artist. “She was difficult to understand for her contemporaries. She was queer ahead of her time. She took on a fluid gender identity. She showed an assertive masculinity. She was even arrested in 1910 when she arrived in North America, in Pittsburgh, for wearing men’s clothes. ”

She practiced strolling, strolled in the streets of New York in 1913, before Duchamp arrived in this city. “She walked around, but in an artistic way duly claimed as such. She also used to make up costumes with whatever she found on the street, including rubbish. […] This way of being did not correspond at all to what was expected of the fairer sex in the public space. His eccentricity and performance were well known and accepted in Greenwich. ”

Another fundamental question therefore consists in asking whether this queer artist before the hour had to do with Marcel Duchamp’s decision to dress himself as a woman to play Rrose Sélavy. “I think so,” says the art historian. It was in the logic of the contest between the two. They were not in competition, but in very strong intellectual stimulation. It seems logical that they revived in this way. ”

She also says that Elsa von Freytag went “much further” than Marcel Duchamp. “Him, copied the female attributes to make a character photographed in a studio. She was displayed in a fluid gender identity in public space. She practiced this fluidity in everyday life and she even dared to be naked in the street. ”

The important thing is to target the challenges of the community and to follow their evolution. The question of fluid identity, for example, was not the same 100 years ago as it is now. “When Marcel Duchamp plays Rrose Sélavy, what is he caricature? A woman of the time or her friend Elsa von Freytag? Today, transidentity asserts itself through a plurality of voices and a multitude of ways of challenging the norm. We speak of heterormativity today, which was not the case in the 1920s. “