Claude Cahun: Gender Identity, Femininity, and Representation

Claude Cahun: Gender Identity, Femininity and Representation.

Claude Cahun (née Lucy Schwob) was a photographer, writer and activist who was largely unknown until her rediscovery in the mid 1990s by French scholar Leperlier. Her approach to photography largely incorporates the photographic genre of self-portraiture and involved elaborate staging for the camera. Cahun’s eye for eccentric images has resulted in an oeuvre that is ahead of its time and seems modern even in today’s context. Recently, she has become as well known for her writings, which include Aveux non Avenus (Avowals not Admitted), a photo-illustrated compilation of poems, dreams, aphorisms, and introspective and philosophical dialogues, as well as the unpublished Heroines. But it is her photographs that have drawn the most attention, especially from feminist scholars. She styled herself over the course of her lifetime with a conscious desire to avoid gender classification, which has been the focus of the feminist scholars’ work. She in fact aspired to represent all combinations of genders– beyond the reach of a feminist classification. Cahun’s life and work are a creative response to personal and political changes, making her culturally, politically and sexually relevant. Her work with objects, self-portraits and photomontage made her one of the most innovative photographers of her day. 

There were several events in Cahun’s early life that set the course for her unorthodox lifestyle and gender-ambiguous images. In 1929, she translated into French written work by Havelock Ellis, whose theories on sexuality suggested there was a third sex that combined both feminine and masculine traits but did not entirely exist as one or the other. In her twenties she documented the Oscar Wilde trial and later published an article about the scandalous Billings Trial in London. Cahun was young at the time, and these proved to be extremely brave moves into sexual arenas. Other societal factors that played a part in her sexually ambiguous self-portraits were the visibility of the New Woman in France after the First World War. Images of the garçonne, the term for the boyish New Woman, were being debated and defining how women would become modern. A fascination with female mobility was also prevalent: women in the media were photographed riding bicycles, driving cars, flying airplanes and swimming. This freedom of movement and the New Woman were linked and helped to redefine women’s role in society, especially the role of a woman artist. There were other photographers at the time involved in taking gender-ambiguous self-portraits. Germaine Krull, for example, was taking not only androgynous images of herself but also explicit lesbian photographs, which can be seen in her series Les Amies. The lesbian, or Third Sex woman, was a popular subject for portrayal in art and literature. According to an interview by Ilse Kokula, it was reported that it was ‘chic’ to pretend to be a lesbian in the 1920s. (Otto and Rocco 144) All such factors inevitably helped define Cahun’s subject and style in her self-portraits taken in the 1920s. 

Claude Cahun was constantly working at the question of identity and representation within the sexual, aesthetic and political domain as well as in the Surrealist aesthetic and political practice. When we interpret her photographs, we are required to investigate the properties and consider the question she ultimately was asking: “Who am I?” (Lusty 116). Her identity outside of her photographs is interesting and complex. Born Lucie Schwob, she later adopted the sexually ambivalent name of Claude Cahun, illustrating her reluctance to ascribe to traditional gender roles and decision to remain androgynous, rejecting a fixed identity. As a lesbian who frequently cross-dressed in public and in private, she believed that identity did not fix the person but instead changes the culture that defines us. Cahun’s interest in issues with same-sex desire and her involvement in lesbian circles of Paris provide an important context for situating her public cross-dressing and performances of gender identity in herself portraits. 

Cahun’s appearance, like other lesbians of the time such as Radclyffe Hall, was predictive of how photography and sexology combine in an evident way around the increasing visible lesbian subject. Cahun had a wide variety of costumes in her self-portraits, which explains how clothes can help create gendered ambiguity while reflecting a widespread shift in women’s fashion and the confusion of interpreting dressing style as indicators of sexual identity. During the 1920s, women’s fashion became more masculinised, and this garçonne look was not necessarily linked with lesbian behaviour (Lusty 99). Never conforming to a particular identity, her self-image was mutable and transgressed the avant-garde, the androgynous, the lesbian and the revolutionary. She was not just a performer of the androgynous but also a representative of more multi-dimensional involvement with gender, society and politics. While there are differences in the representation of sexual identity, Cahun and Hall both use sexual orientation and portraiture as a way to present new kinds of erotic styles and sexual identities; they adhere to and object to the mythical manly lesbian. The change in Cahun’s self-portraits from a cross-dressing dandy to theatrical images lacking clear masculine and feminine style indicates that she was moving away from images relying heavily on sexual identity. 

For women artists, the construction of a self-portrait requires that action is involved in a discussion with ideological representations of the feminine. Women who do their make-up, select their clothes and do their hair are actively and consciously involved with the dominant codes of femininity and beauty. Claude’s self-portraits display these traits; she made a great effort in her wardrobe choices, wore make-up, changed her hairstyles; however, she makes no attempt to seduce. Never smiling or gazing demurely at the camera, her stances were always direct. Hair, make-up, and clothing were exaggerated. Hair was very important in her work, and her many styles were varied. She shaved it short, removed it, dyed it, grew it long. When her hair was cut short, it usually disrupted the traditional feminine values. Short hair signifies celibacy whereas long hair implies sensuality and power. Conflictingly, Cahun’s shaved head in What do you want from me? makes her appear more powerful and even seems phallic. In her Medusa self-portrait, dated 1914, pictures normally would have been taken with the woman’s hair worn up and looking down. In this image, Cahun’s dishevelled hair and forward gaze indicates confidence rather than female shyness. Cahun is often referred to as a champion of post-modern femininity, a wearer of different genders, a predecessor of Cindy Sherman and a performer of the masquerade of femininity that in fact did not exist. Her performance of femininity has been referenced in relation to the prominent paper by Freudian analyst Joan Riviere entitled “Womanliness as a Masquerade;” her analysis of femininity stated that it was defensive and staged rather than essential or innate. Riviere argued there was no such thing as femininity and feminine identity, but that womanliness was a performance, and this performance was either conscious or unconscious and was used against the opposition of men directed at women for invading their social circles (Riviere 38). Riviere’s theory of gender as a masquerade was similar to Judith Butler’s idea of gender as a performance; both were themes in Cahun’s work, not only because of the masks and costumes and mirrors, but also because it enacts the most important part of Riviere’s idea that womanliness actually did not mask anything but instead was a fallacy. 

Another important side to Cahun, as Abigail Solomon-Godeau has remarked, is that “it requires almost more of an effort to resituate Cahun in her actual time and milieu than it does to consider her work in the context of contemporary theoretical formulations about femininity, identity and representation”. It is evident that Cahun situated most of her work within self-representation, which is an important issue to contemporary feminist theory. She plays with changing identities, masquerades, and the use of masks and mirrors– all very close to today’s theories on gender, sexuality, and identity. In fact, several other women artists in the 1920s, such as Florence Henri, Frida Kahlo and Leonore Fini also related their work to the feminine identity and issues of representation. Scholars have argued this oeuvre of work by women from the Surrealist movement to today could form its own trope (Abigail Solomon-Godeau 112). 

Masks were often used in many of Cahun’s self-portraits. She was quoted as saying, “Beneath this mask, another mask. I will not stop removing all these faces.” (Jones 35) She suggests that we can firm up our identity, but it will always be a mask. Her views perhaps came from Rimbaud, by whom she was deeply influenced. He once declared, “I is another,” to which Cahun replies, “I is another – and always multiple.” (Jones 98). The idea of masking oneself was used by other artists at the time such as Frida Kahlo and Gertrud Arndt. This connection of masks, women and masquerades occurred in mainstream cinema as well and can be seen in The Devil as a Woman featuring Marlene Dietrich. In 1926, Cahun produced an essay entitled “Carnaval en Chambre,” in which she discusses masks in relation to larger issues of identity, society, the self and knowledge. She ended the piece calling for an eternal state of carnival and wrote that masks are for those who do not want to live with their intentions written on their faces (Doy 40). She made her masks of various materials, velvet, cardboard, flesh and words, with the last two being her favourites. She adds that the game of masking will lead to the inability to cause hurt or live genuinely without being detached from existence. When taking off the mask, it loses the power to astonish. The mask represents our desires, dreams and fallacies. Cahun also discusses the link between masks and desire. Most of the masks she wears do not show her eyes, illuminating the apprehension between looking and appearing. 

Mirrors are also present in many of Cahun’s images, the most famous of which is the photomontage in Aveux non Avenus, incorporating a hand-holding a mirror. The mirror is used to convey ideas about oneself, others, identification and representation. Strangely enough for a photographer, Cahun disliked that mirrors made images static and unchangeable. In Aveux non Avenus, she discusses Narcissus’s dilemma and the disruption and inadequacy of this gaze, stating that “The fascination with one’s double in the mirror is a limiting experience.” Interestingly, she claims to have been a narcissist, stating “It’s my best quality,” but then telling us “I’m lying anyway. I’m too scattered for that. My soul is fragmentary.” (Jones 36) Women artists have often used the mirror in particular. Unlike male artists who use the mirror as an aid to making a self-portrait, a woman artist using a mirror invites her to see herself as an object. The mirror is also linked to Lacan’s ideas about the so-called mirror phase and the formation of the ego. He links this identification of the self-image with narcissism, or the desire for the self. There is a difference between the “I,” the self in reality, and the ego, the imaginary site of resistance. The ego involves misrecognition, but perceiving the self in the mirror forms a concept of oneself. Lacan said this is a trap because it is a mistaken sense of wholeness and mistaken identity, which links the ego to the mirror image. Freud has stated that lesbians and gay men based their love choices on themselves; therefore it is tempting to interpret the two images of Cahun and Malherbe, looking in the mirror, as the narcissistic ego for the couple and to read this as recognition and desire (Doy 60). The gaze in the two images is different, as Cahun’s image does not meet her own gaze and can, therefore, be seen as a refusal of vanity. Her masculine appearance, body language and serious expression show that she is not addressing a male viewer. She looks away from the mirror and refuses to be objectified, thus remaining the subject. Viewing the two photos together, there lie various ambiguous meanings with the gendered gaze, self-identity and desire. 

Cahun’s personal responsiveness to Symbolism and later Surrealism has helped instil many elements of her own eccentric productions. At a young age, she was deeply influenced by Symbolism from the books her uncle Marcel Schwob wrote and other Symbolists including Oscar Wilde, Jules Laforgue, and Arthur Rimbaud, in addition to philosophers such as Schopenhauer, Stirner, Nietzsche and Jules des Gaultier (Lepelier 17). Her relationship with Symbolist icons of femininity is different from those of her uncle, who introduced her to Symbolism, which became a main influence. One of her early symbolist works, the Medusa image, depicts the femme fatale of Symbolism, whose gaze is a threat to men. It fact, it was at this time that Cahun took up “the gaze,” which became so important in her work. Her images are perhaps a representation of the feminine gaze, or a look of “feminine curiosity” (Bate 10). This gaze was normally intended for the man, and this Medusa image may have been one of her first efforts to create images of women for women. She perhaps sought to change the stereotypes of how women were photographed, and perhaps even to change the way women were viewed. Medusa was a male fantasy of femininity, along with other mythical women such as Salome and Judith (Doy 17). She was alluring yet repellent, the castrating head that makes men “harden” and turn to stone. The sexuality of these women resulted in the destruction of their male victims. Interestingly, women writers view Medusa as beautiful and empowering while male writers tend to associate her with death, danger and castration. At this time, Cahun and Malherbe were a couple, so perhaps it was not about repelling men but instead about attracting women. As her symbolist work was met with some scorn, she moved away from these images that depicted women as different to the male viewer and shifted her attention to Surrealism, where she made images that were sensual and powerful and, above all, were of unfixed sex and gender. 

Surrealism was a profoundly influential force on Cahun and Malherbe’s lives. Influenced by psychoanalysis, Surrealism sought to combat bourgeois mores by releasing their unconscious creativity. Men held the leading roles in Surrealism, but women, most prominently Cahun, also were important even though she was never an official member but just affiliated with the group. There were two reasons why women were never official members of the group. The first is that the Surrealists attitude did not encourage it. They did not think that women had any say in issues involving sex. Secondly, as David Bate states, “the position of active women intellectuals in public was precarious and to have identified with the avant-garde would be ‘doubly intolerable’, a woman and an avant-garde-doubly marginal.” (Bate 6). What is important to note, however, is that by the time the Surrealists published their first manifesto in 1924, Cahun was already publishing her work and had made self-portraits for the previous five years. She published her book Aveux non Avenus at the same time the Surrealist’s second manifesto came out. Her work, therefore, precedes the work of many of the other artists. 

The leader of the group, Andre Breton, became good friends of Cahun and Malherbe, despite his dislike of lesbians. He called her “one of the most curious spirits of our time,” and French scholar Francois Lepelier called her “one of the rare women who actively participated in this Surrealist in its most critical and complex times.” (Solomon-Godeau 112). In the 1930s, she became more involved with the Surrealist movement and featured her body less, concentrating instead on photographs of objects. In 1933, Breton was removed from the group, and Cahun soon followed suit. Her work within this group was significant and varied. At times, she utilized Surrealist subject matter and techniques that defined the Surrealist photographer: montage, double exposure, sandwich printing and solarisation. Her involvement in Marxism and psychoanalysis also made her an ideal Surrealist artist. Susan Sontag has said that her work is the “innately surreal capacity of photography to reveal the ‘fantastic disclosures’ of the subject, and that Cahun signals the indeterminacy of gendered and sexual identity in a way that implicitly foregrounds the limitations of a Surrealist political and aesthetic investment in desire.” (Lusty 5). Cahun transposes Breton’s question from “Who am I?” into “What do you want from me?” both as an external and internal question. 

In photographing herself as a lesbian subject, one where desire and gender are variable and also restrained, she challenges Breton’s homophobic ideals. Her work repeatedly questions way of interpreting Surrealism that widens our sense of the possibilities of women beyond the familiar expectations. Surrealist misogyny was prevalent regarding ideologies of the feminine, but there was still a strong attraction to the group by women artists. It was movement that allowed them to give form to feminine imagery and explore female subjectivity. It gave them a medium for social liberation as Surrealism supported their desire to escape the shackles of domesticity and motherhood. These complex social ideologies of the feminine compelled women to either conform to the public language of patriarchy or use private discourses in their work such as humour, irony, and confrontation to exacerbate their position in Surrealism. Cahun’s theatrical images are an example. It is perhaps through her many various images that embodied the feminine that she and other women Surrealists left their most valuable mark. 

One of the most important Surrealist photos in Cahun’s collection was the doll in the dresser photo taken in 1932 (Fig. 1.3). Cahun, dressed as a life-sized doll wearing socks and a bow in her hair, lies on a drawer inside a large wardrobe. Her body acts as an inanimate mannequin, with limp limbs dangling from dresser drawers giving the sense she was about to wake up at any moment (Lusty 91). Cahun appears small and fragile inside the large Victorian wardrobe, which frames her body. This image is reminiscent of Hans Bellmer’s image in his Poupee Series, where a doll lies inside a kitchen drawer. The wardrobe symbolizes domesticity, and Cahun’s doll-like figure inside symbolizes a child’s love of dressing up and transformation, which suggests both renewal and death rather than violence (which is seen in the Poupee image). The image stops time in motion where most of her other self-portraits are taken facing the camera. She is posed in a death-like way, with the enclosing drawers acting like a coffin. This theme of self-transformation is a Freudian association with the fantasy of childhood play. Additionally, the Surrealists were fascinated with dolls and the uncanny. Freud has said that dolls and automatons are actually the uncanniest objects because they disturb our usual understanding of what they represent. Dolls remind us of an earlier narcissistic childhood time, which is a phase most adults should have passed already. This phase, instead of resurfacing, should remain repressed and part of our unconscious. In Cahun’s photo, we view the uncanny differently from Freud and the Surrealists, whose views are steeped in notions of the violation of the female body (Lusty 90). Freud saw the doll as a passive, feminine object that is an image of male desire. Cahun’s doll, even though it is delicate, is not an object that can be destroyed, but one that is capable of self-mastery and transformation. 

Claude Cahun has become a paragon for feminists and art historians. When her work re-emerged in the late 1990s, it overlapped with people fascinated with the feminist writing of Judith Butler and Grosz, who based their work on the early theorists of Cahun’s time. It has been suggested that her self-portraits pre-empted Butler’s theory of the performativity of gender, especially its focus on the masquerade as the sign that interrupts established gender identity. There was also a great interest at the time about the work of Cindy Sherman, which resonates with Cahun’s in relation to the staging of female identity. From this point on in the 1990s, Cahun was seen as Cindy Sherman’s predecessor as well as one of the first feminist artists (Doy 10). All of these events helped her attain the star status she has today. 

Cahun has worked with some of the most important artistic and philosophical issues of our age and is recognized as a pivotal artist in the Surrealist movement, despite women’s troubled role with the movement, as well as one of the most innovative female theorists and political activists of her day. She exploits, manipulates, and disrupts the classifications of representation where women are defined through her self-portraiture. Instead of representing the body, her photos focus on the cultural coding of the body with masks, costumes, make-up and facial expressions. Her images are ultimately about disturbing psychic identifications and unravelling social identity. It should be noted that Cahun’s photography is as important as her other activities such as writing and her political propaganda with her partner Susanne Malherbe during World War II. Her work forms a totality but her photography, in particular, was the perfect medium in which to illustrate the psychoanalytic debates about sexuality and identity. Cahun’s images defy categorizations and conclusions and thrive on contradictions and ambiguity. Her commitment to such issues of feminism, representation, queer theory, lesbian, gay and bisexual studies, psychoanalysis, women’s societal role and photography are manifest in her work. By uniting photography with politics she has made a pioneering example that remains unmatched. Cahun’s astonishing art and writings and commitment to political work investigate the complex notions of identity and representation that can never be understood completely. 

-Ashley Lumb 

Works Cited 

Bate, David and Francois Leperlier. Mise En Scene: Claude Cahun, Tacita Dean, Virginia Nimarkoh. London, England. Institute of Contemporary Arts, 1994. Print. 

Catherine de Zegher, M. Inside the Visible: In, Of, and From the Feminine. Cambridge, Massachusetts. MIT Press, 1994. Print. 

Chadwick, Whitney, ed. Mirror Images Women, Surrealism, and Self-representation. Cambridge, Massachusetts. MIT Press.1998. Print. 

Downie, Louise, ed. Don’t Kiss Me: The Art of Claude Cahun & Marcel Moore. London, England. Aperture Foundation, 2006. Print. 
Doy, Gen. Claude Cahun: A Sensual Politics of Photography. London, England. I.B. Taurus, 2007. Print. 

Jones, Amelia. Self/Image: Technology, Representation and the Contemporary Subject. London, England. Routledge, 2006. Print. 

Lusty, Natalya. Surrealism, Feminism, Psychoanalysis. London, England. Ashgate, 2007. Print. 

Meskimmon, Marsha. The Art of Reflection. Women Artist’s Self-Portraiture in the Twentieth Century. London, England. Scarlet Press, 1996. Print. 

Otto, Elizabeth and Vanessa Rocco. eds. The New Woman International. Representations in Photographs and Film from the 1870s through the 1960s. Ann Arbor, MI. University of Michigan Press and the University of Michigan Library, 2011. Print. 

Rice, Shelley, ed. Inverted Odysseys: Claude Cahun, Maya Deren, Cindy Sherman. Cambridge, Massachusetts. MIT Press, 1998. Print. 

Riviere, Joan. “Womanliness as a Masquerade” in Formations of Fantasy. Burgin, Victor, ed. London, England. Routledge, 1986. Print.