When one thinks of the surrealist movement, names such as Salvador Dalí, Man Ray, and André Breton come to mind. However, just as women were a part of other crucial movements in art, one woman was a foremother of surrealism and gender-exploratory portrait photography. Born Lucy Shwob, Claude Cahun adopted a pseudonym at the age of 25 as part of her artistic practice and rejection of widely accepted binary notions of gender. An out lesbian, Claude assumes the role of one of the first influential queer artists, a key figure in the world of “out” artists. to use themes of homosexuality both subtly and openly. Cahun was also a key predecessor of self-exploratory photographic portraitists such as Cindy Sherman, Catherine Opie, and Francesca Woodman.
A crucial aspect of feminist art is its characteristically collaborative nature. Cahun collaborated with her long-time partner, Marcel Moore, (who was also her step-sister, née Suzanne Malherbe) in a great portion of her works (33, Shaw). In 1930, they published a “238-page volume” containing of photographs, collages, and writings entitled “Aveux non avenus” (Disavowed Confessions) in 1930, which detailed their philosophical and artistic beliefs through surreal imagery and somewhat complicated language (33, Shaw). The writings surge with their individuality and tenacity to pursue life to its fullest—despite their being shunned by mass society.
At this point in her life, Cahun was largely influenced by the myth of Narcissus, and threaded this as a major theme in her work, specifically in Aveux non avenues. Cahun views Narcissus as a pure androgyne, and rather than using the Greek myth as a source of the character, she modeled her ideal Narcissus after that created by the Symbolists (Shaw, 36). Their exploration of the character Narcissus includes the idea that art could only be created through deep self-exploration, a continual pursuit of knowing and accepting the Self. This notion of the myth “elevate[s] Echo – the one who mirrors – from her role as a passive mirror to an active participant”, therefore deconstructing traditional gender roles and emphasizing gender fluidity (Shaw, 37). In Cahun’s mind, this “true self” did not conform to gender.
In a self-portrait from 1928, contained within the second chapter of Aveux non avenues, Claude flips the classic representation of Narcissus gazing into a pool and places herself submerged in the water, looking out towards the land. Rather than looking at a reflection of herself, Cahun creates a divide between her face and her nude body, perhaps separating what the world sees, and what she sees. Her pale form floats among the dark water, creating a stark contrast between the perceived image where Narcissus’ reflection is located, and the real image of her face. Placed among a shadowy space on the rocks, Cahun’s face blends in with the landscape when viewed from afar, but clearly protrudes into the foreground when viewed up close. Perhaps an early meditation on goddess art, Cahun illustrates the exact opposite of the traditional Narcissian representation to challenge the meaning behind the myth. Simply put, she never accepted the interpretation behind Narcissus’ death, her only conclusion being that “Narcissus didn’t love himself, he let himself fall for an image” (Shaw, 41). This rejection of the widely accepted interpretation of the myth reflects her overall counter-culture beliefs and practice, and is contained within her inverted self-portrait.
Surrealism as a whole is often criticized for its objectification of the female body, using it as a canvas on which to explore notions of the surreal. Cahun also used her body and that of Moore’s in order to further explore these concepts, yet she did it in a way that handed the power of the form back to its owner: the subject. Her temptous images glare at the viewers ironically, tauntingly.
One image, “I am training, don’t kiss me” calls upon a sort of exaggerated femininity that seems almost comical. “I am training don’t kiss me” serves as a poignant parody of the virginity complex arisen from societal and familial pressures. Cahun styles and makes herself up to such an extreme that she appears clown-or-mime-like. Instead of communicating through words, she must reply through what is written across her chest. She addresses the assumption that all girls are just waiting for their first kiss, but by placing the text “I am in training” juxtaposed with an outrageous outfit and extreme makeup, Cahun addresses the phenomena of girls being molded into “the perfect woman”. Through training in proper etiquette, to learning things about the humanities that “all girls should know”, but nothing else, women were essentially trained to be wives and mothers. Her gaze appears stern and confrontational, and she bridges the gap between the masculine and the feminine by including a painted dumbbell on her lap and a shirt with pasties that resemble the male torso. The viewer senses that Cahun is angered by this troubling necessity and brings up notions of gender performativity in an era when gender performance was highly compartmentalized. She confronts gender as a masquerade, a mere mask we are forced to wear in order to conform to the accepted norm.
As a Jewish lesbian living in France in the 1930s, Cahun’s life was in perpetual danger of being completely uprooted. This contributes to the reason why it is difficult to find a large collection of her images, for “much of her work was destroyed by Nazis during WWII” (31, A&F). Part of the Nazi regime’s agenda was to ban and destroy all art that challenged their strict set of beliefs. This makes the fact that she sported a shaved head hauntingly ironic, as it is visually apes the heart-breaking photographs of individuals imprisoned in concentration camps.
Cahun’s photos address the complexity of female voyeurism, and bring up questions of hetero versus non-hetero women as spectators. In describing Cahun’s work, curator Amelia Jones tells us that she “starts to interrogate the woman as the object of the male gaze…which in turn ruptures not only the bourgeois norms but the surrealist norms” (SFMOMA). This fact is arguably the main reason why she can be categorized as a feminist artist. Rather than follow the trend of using the female body in a purely sexualized way, she contorts its representation via modes of dressing in drag and posing nude confidently. In addition to her work as an artist, she was extremely political and aided in the distribution of anti-fascist pamphlets (Latimer). She is the only known woman to have participated so publicly in the activism of the Surrealists, and did not hesitate to continue in her activism even after being captured by Nazis. Although the general masses do not hear much about her, Cahun was regarded by her male contemporaries as an equal rather than as a muse or model for them to use in their own work (SFMOMA).
Claude Cahun explored crucial topics including identity politics and the fluidity of gender and sexuality, issues that were just starting to arise in 1920s Parisian artist quarters. Before her work, these problems were simply not talked about, and swept under the rug for the sake of upholding outrageous normativity. Her ideals have been carried on through the collision of contemporary art and social justice movements, yet perceptions of gender remain binary. Cahun’s work was clearly ahead of her time, and reminds us to reconsider how we express ourselves and view others’ gender expression.
1. In this class, we have addressed Linda Nochlin’s question, “why have there been no great female artists” on multiple occasions. Although Cahun’s work is one-of-a-kind and quite revolutionary for her era, why do you think she is lesser known than those that she influenced (i.e.. Francesca Woodman or Cindy Sherman)?
2. Do you find that Cahun’s sexual identity is a crucial component of understanding her work, or do you think her work can be analyzed without viewing it through a queer lens?
3. What are the implications of Claude’s preference to use a pseudonym rather than her given name, Lucy Schwob? Do you think it has more to do with her androgynous gender identity or a desire for artistic recognition?
4. How do you think Claude’s work fits within the feminist art movement? Why is her art characteristically feminist?
5. What do you think of Cahun’s interpretation of the myth of Narcissus? Do you agree that Narcissus most not have truly loved himself?
Jones, Amelia. “Surrealism, Gender, and Claude Cahun”
Latimer, Tirza. “Acting Out: Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore” http://www.queerculturalcenter.org/Pages/Tirza/TirzaEssay3.html
“The Many Faces of Claude Cahun” San Francisco Museum of Modern Art http://www.sfmoma.org/explore/multimedia/interactive_features/65
Reckitt, Helena, and Peggy Phelan. Art and Feminism. London: Phaidon, 2001.
Shaw, Jennifer. “Narcissus and the Magic Mirror.” Don’t Kiss Me: The Art of Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore. New York, NY: Aperture Foundation, 2006.
Fig. 1: Untitled Self-Portrait. 1928 http://1.bp.blogspot.com/_qsSkaXuuUE8/TUItaz9U32I/AAAAAAAAAEA/BFKoAkbxa6k/s1600/2+claude+cahun+que+me+veux+te+1928.jpg
Fig. 2: Untitled Self-Portrait, 1928. Don’t Kiss Me: The Art of Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore. New York, NY: Aperture Foundation, 2006. Page 34.
Fig. 3: Untitled, or “I am in Training, Don’t Kiss Me”, 1927. Don’t Kiss Me: The Art of Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore. New York, NY: Aperture Foundation, 2006. Title page.
Fig. 4: Untitled Self-Portrait, 1928. http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-SW6pzr24N8c/ThzeE8LaGRI/AAAAAAAAAG8/QDbQyOJ-ys8/s1600/claude_cahun_selfportrait.jpg