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arts

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European Art: Twentieth Century  
 
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The Ends of the Earth illustrates Fini's refusal to accept the world as defined by men and her consequent creation of a pictorial world defined by female desires. Although erotic connotations infuse her works, the female body is never objectified; the women Fini creates are always powerful and self-possessed.

The lithograph Armine (1976), for example, features a nude male figure in profile literally chewing his fingers in desire as he gazes at the beautiful woman who is presented frontally to the viewer. Seemingly aware of her unattainable status, the woman confronts the viewer with a full-on gaze beneath raised eyebrows.

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Marcel Duchamp and Claude Cahun

Some artists who worked in the Surrealist tradition, including Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) and Claude Cahun (1894-1954), experimented with the fluidity of gender roles. Frequently understood as the creator of conceptual art, Duchamp eschewed art that appeals only to the eye in favor of art made for the mind. Ideas became the focus of his work, and was a concept that interested him.

The combination of male and female elements in Duchamp's art symbolizes duality and, by extension, the larger truth of non-duality--or the unity of all reality. In other words, two-ness actually is oneness when understood from a higher, perhaps surreal, level of perception.

Perhaps the best example of Duchamp's experimentation with gender roles is the creation of his female alter ego in 1920 named Rrose Sélavy ("Eros, c'est la vie," or "Eros, that's life"). Works that present Duchamp as a female include Belle Haleine (Beautiful Breath, 1921), a perfume bottle with a photograph of Rrose taken by Man Ray. In addition to appearing in various works of art, Rrose "signed" a number of them, as well as most of Duchamp's literary works, between 1920 and 1940.

Duchamp, a heterosexual, intended Rrose to be amusing, but he also wanted to propagate androgyny as a concept to ponder seriously. The artist also experimented with androgyny outside of his alter ego. In 1938, for example, Duchamp presented a female mannequin half dressed in his own male clothing for the Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme in Paris. The torso, chest, and arms of the figure wore a suit while the pelvis, legs, and feet remained alarmingly bare.

A contemporary of Duchamp, the French lesbian artist born Lucy Schwob lived her life under the androgynous pseudonym Claude Cahun (1894-1954). Throughout her writings and photography, Cahun explored the idea that gender is a masquerade. Her photographs, which convincingly present her as either male or female, suggest that gender is a construct.

In a 1929 self-portrait, for example, Cahun wears a blond wig and heavy make-up in an obviously elaborate charade of doll-like femininity. In a 1919 self-portrait, however, Cahun looks like a male as she sits in profile.

Cahun's photographs that present her as a mixture of male and female components are shocking, outlandish, and ingenious. In a dramatic self-portrait from 1928, Cahun is a sexy, glamorously made-up female with a scarf draped around her neck. With a twist that makes the viewer unfamiliar with Cahun's work wonder whether the sitter is male or female, the artist wears a shirt that looks like bare skin in the black and white photograph. Since the garment makes the artist's chest seem completely flat, the two nipples painted onto the fabric look male.

In another thought-provoking self-portrait from 1928, the artist, with characteristically cropped hair, presents herself as an androgynous being with her left cheek next to a mirror. Most intriguing is the fact that the unaltered mirror reflection of the artist, presented within the same image, highlights the fact that the human face is not bilaterally symmetrical.

With this photograph, Cahun suggests that the existence of "two faces" within a single individual has gender implications. She holds the jacket she is wearing to her neck with her right hand, concealing her neck from the viewer. In the mirror reflection, she appears to hold the collar open with her left hand. Thus, Cahun is able to contrast her feminine neckline, or a more feminine version of herself, with a more masculine portrayal. Within a single image, then, the artist reveals that neither identity nor the perception of identity are fixed or stable.

Cahun's photographs challenge the notion of two distinct, polar opposite genders, and they do so in an unabashed manner. In almost every self-portrait, Cahun gazes directly, unapologetically at the viewer.

While Cahun was alive, her questioning of gender roles did not end with her art works. In everyday life, Cahun dressed alternately as a male or a female and sometimes as a combination of both. She was known to make grand entrances wearing the suit of a man, monocle over one eye, on the arm of her life-long companion Suzanne Malherbe.

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