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Boy meets girl: in art, hermaphrodite inspires Paula Coston more than androgyne

May 31, 2013

Portrait of a boy by Thomas Hazelhurst, c. 1800

Portrait of a boy by Thomas Hazelhurst, c. 1800

Hermaphrodite Being by Peter Hand; Peter Hand at

Hermaphrodite Being by Peter Hand, 1985-1992; Peter Hand at

Marriage (Film Portrait Collage) XXVIII by John Stezaker collage 29.6 x 23.8 cm 2007

Marriage (Film Portrait Collage) XXVIII by John Stezaker, 2007, collage 29.6 x 23.8 cm © John Stezaker; image courtesy of the Saatchi Gallery, London

Behind Mt Subasio by Alan Feltus, The Forum Gallery New York

Behind Mt Subasio by Alan Feltus, 2000-2001, oil on linen 39 1/4 x 47 1/4 inches © Alan Feltus, courtesy of Forum Gallery New York, NY

Que Me Veux-Tu? 1929 gelatin silver print 18 x 23 cm by Claude Cahun © The estate of Claude Cahun/Musee d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris

Que Me Veux-Tu? by Claude Cahun, 1929, gelatin silver print 18 x 23 cm © The estate of Claude Cahun/Musee d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris

People are contrary. OK, I’m contrary. When I lived in London, I wanted a place in the country. When I lived in the country, I wanted a place in town. Now I’m back in London, I live in a nice bourgeois area. My nearest neighbours are fourth-estaters, left-wing journalists, bloggers, writers, artists, thinkers and activists concerned about the underdog and the planet. They make me want to be with unthinking right-wing bigots or the struggling unemployed, anyone but the politically right-on. Then of course when I meet a fascist or a reactionary I want to throttle them; when I meet the financially struggling I feel uncomfortable and ashamed, out of my depth.

I didn’t want to be married, even to have a permanent partner; then, when I realised I wouldn’t be the first or have the second, I wanted one or the other, maybe even both. Then I’m a land creature; and that makes me want to fly. Finally I’m a woman; that gives me a longing to know what it would feel like to be a man. See what I mean? Contrary.

I’m not getting into others’ definitions and distinctions of the androgyne vs. the hermaphrodite (some think there’s a ‘vs.’, and some don’t.) Besides, this post doesn’t concern itself with the medical/physical condition of androgyny or hermaphroditism. This is about artistic representations of the androgyne and the hermaphrodite, as I choose to use the terms: what they do to me.

To me, androgyny – at least in art – merges the male with the female. Look at Hazelhurst’s portrait. The viewer’s eye immediately wanders to the chest, checking for the pimples of female (or male) breasts. He shows the face and not much more: there are no defining gender clues. There’s plenty of what I’d call androgynous art around: fashion, the history of pop and photography are replete with human images in which male and female marry and blur (David Bowie, Annie Lennox). For obvious reasons, these tend to focus on the face: any lower down the body, and there tend to be tell-tale signs, curves and bumps even when clothed. Focusing on the face, though, I find ‘my’ take on androgyny often beautiful, in an idealised kind of way. It seems to advocate a new gender, to argue for something united, beyond the oppositions and conflicts and prejudices and biases that may result from the gender binary we have.

But the other illustrations here inspire me differently.

Peter Hand’s sculpture – see above – displays the male and female parts quite separately and distinctly: female breasts up top (and the head, if anything, looks female), male genitalia down below. In a purely visual representation, without touching or exploring, we have no idea if Hand intends female genitalia behind and beyond the male. There’s a visual gender duality, and it’s a top-down split. But the differently gendered elements of the body don’t ‘talk to each other’.

Whereas John Stezaker’s female/male faces do. You find yourself comparing and contrasting the split halves. You feel unsettled, amused. You find yourself imagining the missing pieces. At the same time, you wish you could somehow make the ‘join’ work better – or else, sever it entirely and start again. But somehow, it’s a union you’d dearly like to work.

Alan Feltus does the same trick with two distinct bodies, two whole, gendered people. The spectator sees that one is meant to be female and one male, but – even if you don’t know his working method – you can sense that he intends somehow to bring the two together. The artist himself is, ostensibly, the male in the picture, Lani Irwin, his partner and fellow painter, the female in the frame. In reality, Feltus uses only himself as reference when he starts the faces and bodies of both male and female figures. Viewing the painting, supposedly of two separate people, self-contained and thoughtful, you can still sense their inclination towards each other’s ways of being, selves, genders, whatever. Note the hand wrapped around the foot, mirrored by ‘her’ own, resting on the floor. Even if there’s a hint of conflict, this couple still seems to want to merge.From the spirit of their facial features and their poses and their stillness, visually, already, they very nearly do.

Then there’s Claude Cahun, the French poet and photographer. Her name was Lucy Schwob, but she changed it in order to make herself sound more gender-neutral. Her work is full of gender ambiguity. Some people interpret the photo here as a kind of Siamese twinning of angel vs. devil; but to me, there are hints of gender duality as well. It’s hard to tell because any clues about the gender of either are so pared back: no hair, no makeup. And yet we still do the gender ‘compare and contrast and look for clues’ thing – don’t we? Again, there’s conflict and a contrast, and yet they’re conjoined and ‘talk’.

For me, androgyny in art is about merger, fusion, subsumption of one thing in another – maybe even the creation of a ‘third gender’. But if it’s a kind of metaphor for the consummation of the male and the female, then to me, hermaphroditism is a metaphor for the moment of anticipation, the state of being just before the two states may, perhaps, come together. One is a beautiful ideal, something finished and achieved; with the other there’s still ambivalence. It’s a flirtation with your gender opposite, a sense of options still in play.

I know which I prefer: consummation, with nothing left to know or hope for? Or flirtation, with promise of the unknown, not knowing if it’s knowable or not? Ambiguity or ambivalence? Well, as I’ve told you, I’m ambivalent, contrary.

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