You can see it in the shape of the human body: woman and man must have belonged together once, must have been one single creature. The myths of almost every people tell the story of dual-sexed, primordial human beings, of gods that embody both man and woman. Today, after the collapse of traditional, stable role models for “male” and “female”—and after the “sexual revolution”—it would seem that the theme of androgyny is a particularly hot one. In the pop culture of the rock stars (Mick Jagger, Grace Jones, Boy George, Prince), androgyny is a fascinating lure for the masses. It offers opportunities for identification in a civilization rife with deep contradictions.

On the basis of the current relevance of this theme, Ursula Prinz put together for the Neuer Berliner Kunstverein “Androgyn—Sehnsucht nach Vollkommenheit” (Androgyny—the desire for completeness), an exhibition that presented the phenomenon from antiquity to the present, from Western civilization to the cultures of Africa and Asia. The focal points were in the European realm: antiquity, the Renaissance, alchemy, fin de siècle and 20th century (especially Dada, Surrealism, and current European art). Two aspects of the theme were highlighted: a physical side, the human being of either sex who integrates physical aspects of the other sex; and a psychological and intellectual side, the search for wholeness of the spirit. The exhibition thus aimed in two directions. In the area of alchemy the theme was presented in a sober, scholarly fashion, while in Renaissance art, Symbolism, and Surrealism it was treated sensuously, loaded with eroticism. From today’s perspective, the sensual interpretations of the theme strike us as rather alienating. Suggestions of an androgynous paradise regained, as in many Symbolist paintings, come very close to the pathos of false emotion. This is why artworks that present us with the unimaginability or the problem of androgyny seem more convincing. The complexity of the phenomenon is revealed by Marcel Duchamp’s ironic treatment of the theme—as in his transvestite alter ego Rrose Sélavy, shown here in the celebrated 1921 photograph by Man Ray—and by the obsessive figures in Victor Brauner’s paintings and drawings, a group of which were selected for the exhibition.

In contemporary art, however, androgyny is really not a central theme, despite numerous fascinating examples—the work of Francesco Clemente, for instance. Jung’s concept that men have an “anima” and women an “animus” has long been a psychological truism and is rarely disputed today, while homosexuality, bisexuality, and transvestism are not as existentially upsetting as they once were. Thus, art no longer needs to illustrate these topics, to bring them to the public’s attention. For this reason androgyny extends beyond the “man/woman” theme today to include the question of the totality of life and art experiences. How do people define themselves within the force field between the material and spiritual? How can human beings find an equation for their participation in the whole process of creation? Only a few modern shamans, like the late Joseph Beuys, have tried to answer these questions, in work that connects existential and political concerns with the question of the necessity of art.

Wolfgang Max Faust

Translated from the German by Leslie Strickland.