Surrealism’s Gender Issues 101: Surrealism’s Female Masquerade


Surrealism’s Gender Issues 101 articles intend to illustrate the problems Surrealism’s artworks generated regarding gender and sexuality, especially women’s. Each article will explore a different artwork and analyse the issues they represent or the way some artists have dealt with them through their art. This series will delve into this by examining artworks by Meret Oppenheim, Hans Bellmar, Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray and Claude Cahun. The article series will be divided into five parts:

Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp dressed as Rrose Selavy, 1924.

After the First World War, France was determined to reconstruct their lost population. With great concern regarding the declining birth rate, the situation escalated to the point in which it became a national duty to procreate to raise the levels. A considerable motivation for this was the moralistic desire to suppress sexual activity not conducive to reproduction, stripping societies sexuality and drawing their attention to sex just as an act. Anything outside of just intercourse was referred to as ‘pornography’. For women, this was a step back: they went from taking over the more masculine jobs, to replacing the men at war, to being only mothers and seen as a means to an end of procreation. In a way, perceived only as a body to be used instead of a person to be developed.

Once the war ended, the line between masculine and feminine was blurred because of the fact that women took over the workforce from men. This reversal of roles created controversy. French artist Marcel Duchamp explored the undoing normative of masculine and feminine and the clear-cut division France was implementing between the two sexes and their new and strict roles. By creating his alter ego, Rrose Selavy, he allowed himself to play with his own gender identity, defining ‘the sexual’ as the foundation of existence, as a key to life. Believing that at heart, everything is sexual love, he strongly went against what France was attempting to implement across its nation. The name Rrose Selavy is a play on words. Rrose recalls Eros, the God of sexual desire, and ‘rose’, a widespread female name and scent, as a double entendre of arroser la vie, “live it up!” (Ann Tempkin, 70). Selavy sounds like "c’est la vie," meaning “that is life” in French. The full name is a pun on identifying a life dictated by desire.

Marcel Duchamp/Man Ray, Belle Haleine, Eau de Voilette, 1921.

Rrose Selavy’s first appearance was in one of Duchamp’s first ready-made artworks, in which he took objects and reinscribed them as artworks. This artwork is Duchamp’s parody of the marketing strategies of a perfume company, changing the name and replacing the perfume label with him in drag. He named the scent Belle Haleine, translating to “beautiful breath”. At the same time, it recalls Helen of Troy, renowned as one of the most beautiful women. Underneath the name, Duchamp has written ‘Eau de Voilette’, a play on words for ‘eau de violette’ - violet water. Its translation is “veil water”, suggesting there is an intent of masking and disguising. He teases the strict ideas of self and self-representation.

Man Ray, an American photographer of the Surrealist group, took the photo on the perfume bottle. Duchamp, Selavy, and Ray worked together to visualise the game created between the two, “for each player to reflect and invert a particular concept or construct” (Ernestine Daubner, 90), suggesting that what one is the other is not, and vice versa. At the same time, she represents everything about Duchamp’s art, for example his wit and erotic undertones ( Rrose represents androgyny and gender blending, a common notion within the art-world.

Man Ray, Rrose Selavy, 1921.

Rrose Selavy and her fashionable hat present “an image of a woman constructed through highly sexualised period codes of desirable femininity drawn from a commercial vocabulary of gender signifiers: her clothing, her coy pose and feminine hand gestures, and the soft-focus effect of the pictures are conventions common to celebrity photographs and cosmetic advertisements of the period” (Jones, 1994.) This shows a struggle between the person and their identity. Jones suggests that Duchamp represented Rrose in the most feminine way, without missing a detail, down to the effect of the photograph. This suggests the transition between Duchamp and Selavy is a real one, allowing one body to be two people, two identities, two sexualities, and two genders. “Duchamp managed to balance the art of contradiction, troubling and underpinning his ideas and intentions in one fell swoop.” (

Duchamp creates an ambiguity on authorial identity pertaining to the idea of gender: the gender of the person is uncertain. The topic of gender creates an incoherence between the creator and his identity. Despite the two being the same person, there is no sameness or oneness between Rrose Selavy and Marcel Duchamp. Rrose is an object of gaze imprisoned by Duchamp - she has no real identity. She is simply a reflection of what Duchamp is not; she is a reified woman with her body solely depending on the man that made her (E. Daubner, 91 and 93). When Rrose comes to life, Duchamp is present too, however, when it is just Duchamp, Rrose is not, creating an unbalance between the two.

Bibliographical references

Bailey, B. (2008). Fragmentation, Transformation, and Self-realization: Duchamp and the Formation of the Creative Imago. Source: Notes in the History of Art, 27(2/3), 49–55.

Conley, K. (2010). Rrose Sélavy’s Ghosts: Life, Death, and Desnos. The French Review, 83(5), 964–975.

Cook, A. (1986). The “Meta-Irony” of Marcel Duchamp. The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 44(3), 263–270.

Daubner, E. (1995). Etant donnés: Rrose/Duchamp in a Mirror. RACAR: Revue d’art Canadienne / Canadian Art Review, 22(1/2), 87–96.

Hawkins, A. (2015). Meet Rrose Sélavy: Marcel Duchamp’s Female Alter Ego, AnOther,

Johnson, D. (2013). R(r)ose Sélavy as Man Ray: Reconsidering the Alter Ego of Marcel Duchamp. Art Journal, 72(1), 80–94.

Temkin, A. (1996). Of or By. Grand Street, 58, 57–72.

Visual sources

Marcel Duchamp dressed as Rrose Selavy, Man Ray, 1924. Temkin, A. (1996). Of or By. Grand Street, p 58.

Belle Haleine, Eau de Voilette, Marcel Duchamp/Man Ray, 1921.

Rrose Selavy, Man Ray, 1921. Temkin, A. (1996). Of or By. Grand Street, p 59

Author Photo

Cosima Franchetti

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