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Subjects of the Visual Arts: Androgyny  

, as opposed to hermaphroditism, is based on gender ambiguity rather than the display of dual sexual characteristics. An androgyne is a figure of uncertain gender in whom identifying sexual characteristics are stylized or combined.

In practice, however, artists have had little reason to observe such fine distinctions, and as a subject in art, androgyny and hermaphroditism have often been confused. Thus, the history of androgyny in visual culture is somewhat tortuous and vaguely defined; however, it nevertheless constitutes a significant and recurrent subject in art, and one that has often held special significance for glbtq people.

As a subject, androgyny has occurred in diverse geographical contexts throughout the history of art. Androgynous figures crop up in ancient Egyptian representations of gods and goddesses; likewise, Hindu deities, with their vast multitude of avatars, or personae, may simultaneously exist as both sexes, and artistic representations frequently express this fact. The Shiva Ardhanisvara, for instance--seen in numerous examples in both painting and sculpture--is male on one side and female on the other.

In times and places in which the representation of humans is forbidden or under suspicion (as occurs at various moments in both Christian and Islamic art), figures were stylized to avoid excessive naturalism, and in the process distinguishing sexual characteristics were sometimes blurred or eliminated.

In fact, probably the most famous androgynes in western art are angels, who have no sex, consistent with the belief that the angel of the Annunciation played no role in the conception of Christ. A good example of this kind of representation is Fra Angelico's famous Annunciation (ca 1437) in the monastery of San Marco in Florence.

The contemporary image of the androgyne as a beautiful youth of indeterminate sex is at least partly a legacy of Johann Joachim Winckelmann, the "father" of modern art history. The homosexual Winckelmann's adoration of Greek art (and European interest in Greek culture in general) included in many cases an undercurrent of fascination with the ancient Greek idolization of the beautiful boy, whose beauty was frequently compared to that of a woman.

Conceptions of the androgyne from the Renaissance onward in the West largely relied on such classical ideas, including the notion that the original state of humankind was androgynous (a theory attributed to Herodotus). The continuing popularity of the beautiful, androgynous inhabitants of Edward Burne-Jones's Song of Love (1868-1877) demonstrates the androgyne's ongoing appeal.

The notion of the homosexual as a sort of feminine man or masculine woman (an "invert") has contributed greatly to the popular connection of androgyny with homosexuality. Oppressed and secretive gays of earlier generations could use such images as coded references for mutual identification; and they frequently identified with androgynes as a symbol of their difference. Thus, androgynous figures in visual culture have continued to resonate with a gay and lesbian audience.

Joe A. Thomas


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The contemporary image of the androgyne is at least partly a legacy of Johann Joachim Winckelmann, who was fascinated by the Greek idolization of the beautiful boy, particularly as it was expressed in the Apollo Belvedere (above).
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   Related Entries
arts >> Overview:  Classical Art

Ancient Greek and Roman art represents a variety of homoerotic experience in several different ways.

arts >> Overview:  Indian Art

Not only is sexuality celebrated in Indian art, but many of India's gods also consider gender to be a fluid affair, sometimes manifesting as androgynes and sometimes switching gender altogether.

arts >> Overview:  Subjects of the Visual Arts: Hermaphrodites

Hermaphrodites are a common subject in ancient art, but disappear from art history until the Renaissance, when they are most often employed as non-erotic symbols of the union of opposites.

arts >> Bess, Forrest

Artist Forrest Bess was a mystic who sought to fuse male and female in his life and work; in small abstract pieces, he represented his visions, which, he believed, contained the secret of immortality.

arts >> Darger, Henry

Now considered one of the most original artists of the last half of the twentieth century, Henry Darger died completely unknown in his native Chicago.

literature >> Winckelmann, Johann Joachim

The art historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann, the first German to have been publicly acknowledged as a homosexual, developed an aesthetic deeply rooted in his homosexuality.


Feuerstein, Günther. Androgynos: Das Mann-Weibliche in Kunst und Architektur. Stuttgart: Edition Axel Menges, 1997.

MacLeod, Catriona. Embodying Ambiguity: Androgyny and Aesthetics from Winckelmann to Keller. Detroit, Mich.: Wayne State University Press, 1998.

O'Flaherty, Wendy Doninger. Women, Androgynes, and Other Mythical Beasts. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980.

Zolla, Elémire. The Androgyne: Reconciliation of Male and Female. New York: Crossroads, 1981.


    Citation Information
    Author: Thomas, Joe A.  
    Entry Title: Subjects of the Visual Arts: Androgyny  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated October 15, 2005  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2002, glbtq, Inc.  


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