“Claude Cahun and her Divided Self(s)”- Written by Brittany Ball-Snellen (University of Alberta)

Claude Cahun, Hands, c 1929

Claude Cahun, Hands, c 1929

The self-portrait functions as one of the modes of introspective expression for the artist. In it, whether by painting, drawing, or sculpting, the artist finds liberation in color, brush stroke, facial expression, texture, medium, tone, size; all things that communicate to the viewer what the artist wishes to convey. The self portrait can portray the artist as a person of another class, age, race, era, or even sex, thus functioning as a tool for exploring one’s private fantasies, fetishes, or curiosities and embracing complete artistic freedom in representing the self. While creating the self as an artistic reproduction is a valid mode for self-exploration, it is interesting to examine the difference in how the photographic self portrait became a popular source for the same kind of contemplation. It was due to the “relatively low cost of photographic, as opposed to painted, portraiture, [that] permitted the development of the snapshot aesthetic, in which anyone could indulge their desire for self-images.”[1] Additionally, rather than creating an alternate image of the self, the artist became a literal canvas for experimenting with different facets of the self that had previously been produced through traditional modes of art.

With the photographic self-portrait, unlike painting or sculpture, the artist is reproduced in whatever way he or she wishes to be represented. Thus, it is through direct manipulation of the features of the self that the artist alters how they will be viewed, such as by using make up, costume, or masks. One artist who utilizes such props throughout her extensive body of self-portraits is Claude Cahun (formerly known as Lucy Schwob). Cahun’s oeuvre, comprising largely of self-portraits and self-portrait photomontage, demonstrates her interest in gender and the notion of the divided or multiple self.[2] In her work we can see how she “struggled with her own self-representation and with the issue of modernity’s regulation of bodies and identities through its institutions.”[3] Before I go into further detail, however, it is important to understand Cahun’s background, which will further explain how the notion of the divided self is relevant to her work.

Cahun was a 20th century Surrealist artist, writer, philosopher and activist born in Nantes, France in 1894, into a wealthy Jewish intellectual family.[4] She was surrounded by artistic influence from an early age, as her uncle, Marcel Schwob, was a Symbolist writer and co-founder of a prestigious art journal, Mercure de France. He was also an acquaintance of Oscar Wilde, whose “Salome” would have a great impact on her later in her career.[5] She began to collect first edition Surrealist books in the 20s and 30s, and was familiar with writers and theorists, such as André Breton and Jacques Lacan.[6] Although she began her artistic career in her mid-teens, her body of works remained largely unknown until the 1980s and 90s, when one of her books, Disavowals, was discovered, translated and republished by art historian François Leperlier.[7]

When Leperlier first found Cahun’s book, he thought she was a male artist, as did and still do many, due to her very androgynous—that being a gender ambiguous or an indeterminate sex—appearance; an appearance that she chose to adopt as a part of her identity as Claude Cahun.[8] By the time she was 23 years old, Cahun had fully adopted her pseudonym and left behind her former name of Lucy Schwob. She chose the first name Claude for its gender ambiguity, and adopted her maternal grandmother’s last name, Cahun.[9] In fact her stepsister, Suzanne Malherbe, also worked under the pseudonym, Marcel Moore, and became her life long collaborative partner and lover.[10] For Cahun, her androgyny was “deeply linked to her lesbianism [for] it represented courageous alternative understanding of what it meant to be a woman.”[11]

Cahun’s appropriation of a new identity has become the main source of interest for my research. Her adoption of a pseudonym is one of the many reinforcing factors that demonstrate the way in which all of her self-portrait photographs lend themselves to exploring the notion of identity. They range from depictions of her cross-dressing as a man for the theatrical roles in which she played, to nude portraits with masks and completely androgynous portraits in which she is neither masculine nor feminine. Through her use of masks, costumes, mirrors and photomontage, Cahun experiments with the multiple facets of herself. Furthermore, aside from the roles she enacts in her photographs, in her life she also had many roles, for example, she was a writer, an actress, an artist, an activist, a philosopher, as well as a Jewish woman. Cahun was “profoundly committed to exploring questions of identity—and her own identity, as a woman and as a creative person,” as well as having an interest in and examining the notion of the divided self.[12] As this term, “divided self” is frequently used throughout my research sources to describe Cahun’s objective, yet never given a concrete definition, I will refer to the divided self, as suggested by my research, to signify the idea of a feeling of relating to more than one identity.

As Cahun explored the different aspects of herself through her photographs, however, it became obvious that she saw a separation between her self and the version of herself she portrayed in the photograph. Furthermore, the term “divided” also implies that there is a disconnection. If her self-portraits are meant to both portrait her self but yet at the same time explore the so-called “division” of herself, are those different aspects then separate entities from her “self” or are they collectively what makes her identity as Claude Cahun? Art critic Leslie Camhi states in her article, “A Forgotten Gender Bender,” that “her [Cahun’s] roles as an actress in avant-garde theatre… were separate from her multiple identities—as an artist, author, and activist—that she assumed in real life.”[13] While Camhi asserts that each separate role is its own separate entity, I argue that they are not separate and, rather, are extensions of the same self; there can be a division without complete severance. Therefore, in this essay I will demonstrate, through visual analysis of three of her photographic self-portraits, the way in which Cahun expresses the inseparable relationship between her divided selves. Furthermore, I will apply theories, such as Joan Riviere’s façade of feminism in her essay “Womanliness as Masquerade,” as well as the notion of the mirror stage, as described by Jacques Lacan to support my arguments.

Throughout her body of work, Cahun frequently appears in costume, thus conveying the notion of the performativity of the photograph. While she experiments with dualities between herself and the characters she portrays herself as, she also plays with the male and female binaries, in certain portraits emphasizing one gender over the other, or altogether rejecting them by creating her sexless self-portraits. Through her rejection of an overtly female identity and rather appropriating a gender ambiguous one, Cahun separated herself from early 20th century expectations of the gender norms for women. Women were viewed as naturally concerned with cultivating their appearance; it is from this very ideology that evolved the emphasis on the mirror, as symbol of vanity and self-objectification, but also as a metaphor for the process of perceiving a split between self and self-image.[14] As Gen Doy writes in her book Claude Cahun: A Sensual Politics of Photography, “inside/outside, self/other, presence/absence are conceptualized through the mediating surface of the mirror, tantalizing in its impermanent and depthless reflections.”[15]

Claude Cahun, Self Portrait, 1929

Claude Cahun, Self Portrait, 1929

In one of Cahun’s photographs, entitled only Self Portrait, ca.1929, she uses her common theme of the mirror. In this portrait, Cahun poses facing a mirror that hangs on the wall. Rather than looking at herself in the mirror, however, she stares out at the viewer. Interestingly, in this portrait we are able to see clearly both the male and female aspects that she sees in herself. Dressed in a ‘masculine’ coat, with her hair cropped short, Cahun’s serious expression and gaze confronts the viewer.[16] Conversely, in her reflection her pose and the angles her body creates are manipulated so that she appears to be much more feminine. In the reflection, her eyes are cast sideways avoiding the gaze of the viewer, her bare neck is exposed, and the way the mirror crops her reflection creates a bust-style picture framed on a wall. Furthermore, the actual Cahun’s hand and the way she holds her collar can be read as an uninviting and protective gesture, while in her reflection she seems to expose herself. Interestingly, one can see in her reflection that she is wearing a ring, which is not visible from the angle she is positioned in against the mirror. This symbolic detail can be read to increase her femininity in her reflection by suggesting that she is materialistic. In this particular photograph, Cahun represents both the objectified woman, as seen in the reflection, as well as male gaze, which she takes back from and turns on the viewer.

In addition to how the figure of Cahun functions in relation to her reflection, her use of the mirror itself is highly significant. Jacques Lacan describes the notion of the “mirror stage” in his essay, “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the/as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience,” as stage of identification in which the child realizes it is a separate being from his or her mother.[17] Gen Doy explains further that, “the mirror stage/phase is narcissistic and its function is to stave off the fragmentation of one’s self-image and subjectivity while separating the child from the surrounding world and the mother.”[18] Interestingly, according to this theory, from this early stage in childhood, the human subject both perceives its identity as other, as well as develops a desire for the self—the two fundamental concerns addressed in Cahun’s work.[19] In working with the concept of narcissism, which Lacan explains as the inability to distinguish oneself from another being, this implies that in relation to how the mirror stage can be applied to Cahun’s work, there is a lack of separation between the two versions of herself she represents.

Just as the element of narcissism reinforces the connectedness of Cahun’s selves in this portrait, so to does the literal overlapping of the figures. Her reflection in the mirror becomes an extension of herself, as it remains connected to her; her body overlaps the mirror, thus she is never physically separated from her reflection in the mirror. Here the duality of her masculine and feminine selves is both extended and contained at the same time. Cahun frequently demonstrates this concept by depicting two versions of herself in the same image. Differing from the use of the mirror, however, is the photographic technique of superimposition, in which two different images are exposed onto the same photograph. In her self-portrait Que me veux-tu? we are able to see the difference between the literal reflection versus the strange effect of superimposed photographs.

Claude Cahun, Que me veux-tu?, 1929

Claude Cahun, Que me veux-tu?, 1929

In Que me veux-tu?, ca. 1929, Cahun is portrayed twice with a shaved head. In the image of her facing toward the viewer, she appears unsettled and leans back away from the second image of herself, which appears like an extra appendage, growing out of her body. She turns as to whisper into her other self’s ear and the effect of the twisted head, with the face partly in shadow and darkened eyes results in an unsettling, schizophrenic impression. Furthermore, the obscurity in being able to distinguish which photograph is imposed upon the other emphasizes a notion of which self comes first: who represents the original self, and who is its extension? In her one representation, Cahun’s bare shoulders suggest a vulnerability that is being threatened by her second figure, that wears a sleeveless shirt, also a more masculine style article of clothing. In addition, there is a double emphasis on the notion of herself as the object of the gaze; she is subject to both the gaze of the viewer and her (other)self. There is a power struggle suggested between the two images of Cahun, which is also suggested in the title of the work.

The French translation of Que me veux-tu? into English is, “what do you want from me?”[20] Thus, Cahun asks herself questions of her own identity through the suggested communication from one figure to the next, as well as the explanatory title she uses to accompany the image. Interestingly, the poser of the question is Cahun’s masculine rendition. In the same way as presented in Cahun’s Self Portrait with the mirror, we can see in Que me veux-tu? the same masculine versus feminine representation. The figure of Cahun facing us, yet averting her gaze represents her feminine self, while the superimposed and turned figure is more masculine. It is interesting to note that in both of the portraits I have analyzed thus far, it is the masculine portrayal of Cahun that is more dominant while the feminine side is presented as disengaged and submissive.

In this way, namely in which Cahun plays with male/female binaries, these photographs demonstrate her issues surrounding gender and sexuality—as a woman living in a homosexual relationship, this was a large part of what defined her. Darryl Hill notes, in his exhibition review of the first Canadian exhibition of her works, that, “she struggled with her own self-representation and with the issue of modernity’s regulation of bodies and identities through its institutions. For Cahun, identities were positional, not fixed. She recognized the performative nature of gender and the destabilized signs of identity.”[21] Thus, is it through these photographic self-portraits that she was able to explore her own idea of gender, and how it related to herself. Perhaps for Cahun, just as gender was positional, so was identity. The androgynous disposition she assumed allowed her to be liberated from the cultural institutions to which she objected, and the characters that she played also gave her freedom to express herself. Furthermore, in expressing herself in a masculine or feminine way, she was able to convey the issues she faced as a lesbian woman in patriarchal society.

Claude Cahun, Self Portrait, 1929

Claude Cahun, Self Portrait, 1929

Having provided examples of the literal duality between male and female in Cahun’s portraits, I will now demonstrate the ways in which Cahun presented this duality in images such as her Self Portrait, ca. 1929, in which she is depicted as a single figure, wearing nothing but a mask, posed on a quilt. In this photograph, Cahun sits symmetrically on a quilt that also functions as her backdrop. With a mask that has no eyes, she sits facing the viewer; it is an inviting gesture, yet she is completely inaccessible in her inability to return the gaze of the viewer. Thus, Cahun is objectified, being the subject of the gaze, and lending herself as a vulnerable receptor of viewing. In this way, Cahun once again conveys the notion of the female as an objectified being, however, without her overt male counterpart self, the other half of the duality is less obvious.

What we must note in this case is the way in which she presents her body. Her hair is cropped short, her arms cover her breasts, and her closed legs hide her physical sex; this could be a man or a woman. Furthermore, the mask indicates an element of disguise. Without clothes, however, what exactly is intended to be the disguise? In Joan Riviere’s essay, “Womanliness as Masquerade,” she explains that, “Womanliness therefore could be assumed and worn as a mask, both to hide the possession of masculinity and to avert the reprisals expected if she was found to possess it.”[22] The juxtaposition of Cahun’s naked body, presented in a gender ambiguous manner, and this mask, indeed suggests that the mask is intended to indicate that she is commenting on the notion of disguise. In fact it could be read that, in this image, what is being disguised is her femininity—she hides the two parts of her body that would indicate her femininity, and, ironically, it is the gesture of her hiding her breasts that emphasizes the fact that the person in this photograph is a woman.

Cahun’s nakedness combined with the quilt on which she rests stresses the sexuality of the image. The quilt is soft and plush, and there is an eroticism indicated between the texture of her skin and the quilt. Gen Doy writes on this image:

The curves of her shoulders and legs, the contours of the mask and the patterns on the quilt echo one another, setting up rhythms within the composition. We can imagine how it feels to be sitting with an outspread crotch on the quilt, with its soft silky cover and feathers within. We may feel like touching, but cannot, for this body, and mind, are for mutual pleasure with someone else.[23]

That “someone else” indicated could be either the viewer, the person taking the photograph, or perhaps even Cahun herself. What it signifies, however, is the way that Cahun presents femininity (her body) as an object for sexual objectification. It is through their sexuality, according to Riviere, that women fantasize to both defend themselves and obtain power; however, in Cahun’s photograph, she uses the mask to cover up this association between femininity as a sexual weapon.[24]

Again, as in the previous discussed images, Cahun presents the feminine as the submissive, as demonstrated in her nude body and being blindfolded, and the assertive male role, being the viewer, who is put in the position of casting the gaze. Also, despite the fact that the literal “divided self” is absent in this work, as there is only one figure, she still is connected to the photograph because she is both the subject and the viewer of the photograph. Whether she presents herself as a “divided self,” as seen in the first two self-portraits, or as a single subject, there is no complete severance between the two representations of her self. Because she entitles these works Self Portrait, there is an intimacy established between her the works, and she expresses that these are indeed representations of different aspects of her self.

Gen Doy argues that, “she [Cahun] played a major part in making them [her photographs], but they are not ‘her’. Her works do not reflect what it is to be, say a lesbian from a Jewish background in the 1920s, or a French Trotskyist sympathizer in the 1930s.”[25] I, however, disagree with the statement that these photographic self-portraits do not express some part of Cahun, or how she viewed herself, especially due to the way she titles the work, declaring ownership physically and emotionally, and that her exploration of her own identity is such a vast part of her body of work. That she struggled with issues of gender, and the idea of identity as a masquerade in her personal life, is what becomes the prominent theme in her body of work, and thus to negate Cahun’s depictions of her self as a part of her self would be a mistake.[26]

While Jennifer Blessing observes in her book on gender performance in photography, that the fact that Cahun saw identity as a form of masquerade is indicated by the artifice of all her self-portraits Gen Doy argues that Cahun’s work cannot necessarily be viewed as performing gender and/or sexuality at all.[27] According to Doy, rather than adhering to a sort of gender discourse, her photographic self portraits tend to “pose questions about what the images mean as images in themselves; what are they, why do they exist?”[28] What my research suggests, however, is that this issue of identity as a masquerade or performance was exactly what Cahun was exploring in her work. Was gender a performance, a façade, a masquerade? To assert that it is or is not is problematic, for Cahun’s photographs both play gender roles, and reject gender roles, which is especially reinforced in her decision to adopt both an ambiguous name and overall appearance. Her choice to work with the medium of photography enabled her to perform these roles, not as roles that were separate from her self, but rather as expressions of her self. Blessing describes photography as feeding the construction of identity by “providing multiple, frequent and literal reminders of oneself as other, thus enforcing the notion of a kind of split personality: the one that sees itself looking at another one, which is itself.”[29] This notion of looking at one’s self and the separation of one’s self again goes back to Lacan’s mirror stage theory. As Cahun’s photographs were only ever intended for herself and her partner, Malherbe, it can be said that they indeed functioned as a sort of mirror or reflection of her self on which she could contemplate.[30]

When examining these photographs it is obvious that Cahun was clearly exploring the separation of self and the difference that she felt between those various versions of herself. In this way, she was able to be an artist and an author among many other things, as well as also being able to play multiple characters in her photographs. As Shelley Rice states in her book Inverted Odysseys, even when in costume she not only reveals her many facets of self, but also uncovers an evolving, more fluid concept of identity.[31] Cahun writes about the way she creates her self portraits that, “ I shave my head, wrench out my teeth, my breasts—anything that is embarrassing or annoying to look at—stomach, ovaries, the brain, conscious and covered in cysts…Post-mortem.—No. Even then, reduced to nothing, I would understand none of it.”[32] As complex of a task as it is to understand her photographs, it was as complex for Cahun to make them. What we can extract, however, is that Cahun remains as herself, a cohesive whole, undivided by her many facets. As Doy states in her book, she “mimics, mimes, stages, performs and parodies, but it is always Claude Cahun posing as this or that.”[33] Whether she presents herself in costume, drag, as gender ambiguous, masculine or feminine, Cahun’s photographic self-portraits speak for the inseparability of her and her divided selves.


[1] Jennifer Blessing, et al. Rrose is a Rrose is a Rrose: Gender Performance in Photography (Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, distributed by Harry N. Abrams, 1997), 54.

[2] Therese Lichtenstein, “A Mutable Mirror: Claude Cahun” (Artforum 30.8, 1992), 64.

[3] Darryl Hill, “Claude Cahun: Girl Guide” (Canadian Art 16.2, 1999), 82.

[4] Therese Lichtenstein, “A Mutable Mirror: Claude Cahun,” 64.

[5] Brook Adams, “Claude Cahun: The Contrary Life.” (Art in America 99.6 2011), 140.

[6] Therese Lichtenstein, “A Mutable Mirror: Claude Cahun,” 64.

[7] Leslie Camhi. “A Forgotten Gender Bender” (ARTnews 98.10, 1999), 170.

[8] Lichtenstein, “A Mutable Mirror,” 64.

[9] Adams, “Claude Cahun,” 139.

[10] Adams, “Claude Cahun,” 139.

[11] Lichtenstein, “A Mutable Mirror,” 65. Cahun did not refer to herself as a lesbian, however, the author uses this term.

[12] Blessing, et al. Rrose is a Rrose is a Rrose, 37.

[13] Leslie Camhi, “A Forgotten Gender Bender,” 170.

[14] Gen Doy, Claude Cahun: A Sensual Politics of Photography (London: I.B. Tauris, 2007), 56.

[15] Doy, Claude Cahun, 58.

[16] Doy, Claude Cahun, 61.

[17] Jacques Lacan, “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the/as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience,” in Ecrits, 2.

[18] Doy, Claude Cahun, 59.

[19] Doy, Claude Cahun, 60.

[20] Confirmed by a friend doing her Ph.D. in French literature and culture, as well as her professor.

[21] Darryl Hill, “Claude Cahun: Girl Guide, “82.

[22] Joan Rivière. “Womanliness as Masquerade” (International Journal of Pyscho-Analysis 10, 1929), 306.

[23] Doy, Claude Cahun, 38-39.

[24] Riviere, “Womanliness as Masquerade,” 307.

[25] Doy, Claude Cahun, 4.

[26] Therese Lichtenstein, “A Mutable Mirror: Claude Cahun,” 64.

[27] Blessing, et al. Rrose is a Rrose is a Rrose, 37.

[28] Doy, Claude Cahun, 54

[29] Blessing, et al. Rrose is a Rrose is a Rrose, 51.

[30] Leslie Camhi, “A Forgotten Gender Bender,” 169.

[31] Lynn Gumpert and Shelley Rice. Inverted Odysseys [Electronic Resource]: Claude Cahun, Maya Deren, And Cindy Sherman. Edited By Shelley Rice; With Contributions By Lynn Gumpert. Translated By Norman Macafee (Cambridge, Mass. : MIT Press, 1999), 10.

[32] Cahun, Claude. Disavowals: Claude Cahun (Book Review Digest Plus, H.W. Wilson ,MIT Press, 2008),

[33] Doy, Claude Cahun, 34.

Bibliography

Adams, Brooks. “Claude Cahun: The Contrary Life.” Art in America 99.6 (2011): 138-45.

Blessing, Jennifer, et al. Rrose is a Rrose is a Rrose: Gender Performance in Photography. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, distributed by Harry N. Abrams, 1997.

Cahun, Claude. Disavowals: Claude Cahun. MIT Press, 2008. Book Review Digest Plus (H.W. Wilson). Web. 8 Oct. 2013.

Camhi, Leslie. “A Forgotten Gender Bender.” ARTnews 98.10 (1999): 168-70.

Doy, Gen. Claude Cahun: A Sensual Politics of Photography, London: I.B. Tauris, 2007.

Hill, Darryl. “Claude Cahun: Girl Guide.” Canadian Art 16.2 (1999): 82.

Lacan, Jacques, Alan Sheridan, and Jacques Lacan. Écrits [Electronic Resource]: A Selection / Jacques Lacan. Translated By Alan Sheridan With A Foreword By Malcolm Bowie. n.p.: London : Routledge, 2001.

Lichtenstein, Therese. “A Mutable Mirror: Claude Cahun.” Artforum 30.8 (1992): 64-7.

Rivière, Joan. “Womanliness as Masquerade,” International Journal of Pyscho-Analysis 10 (1929): 303-313.

Written by Brittany Ball-Snellen in her 4th year of Undergraduate Studies in Art History at University of Alberta (2013)

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