Claude Cahun’s Self-portrait (1928), was created in an interwar European age incorporating the aftermath of the First World War, revolution, rising fascism and the rapidly shifting effects of capitalism. All impacted on culture.
This was an age in which radical political, social and cultural challenges were sought from art in defiance of the perceived bourgeois mainstream.
Such revolutionary artists included the Surrealists.
The ‘First Manifesto of Surrealism’ (1924) declared a commitment to ‘complete nonconformism’ (Breton, 1924).
It was in this context that French, Jewish, lesbian Cahun, an artist associated with the movement, created her work.
(Claude Cahun, Self-Portrait, Silver gelatin print on paper, 1928)
In terms of contents, Cahun’s work highlights the artist standing by a mirror, within a sparse domestic setting. Her attire of ‘masculine’ checked jacket is notably highlighted. Cahun engages the spectator with her strong, direct and almost confrontational glance. Her mirror image, however, appears to look away raising questions of the role of the gaze in terms of artist and spectator.
Cahun’s use of photography, a medium viewed as a low art form in comparison to ideas surrounding painting in the era, was in itself an avant-garde attack on mainstream artistic values and expectations. The work was also probably collaborative with Cahun’s female life partner Marcel Moore and such female collaboration is in itself a rejection of notions of the individual male artist genius.
Cahun’s work is not thought to have been created for commercial or particular artistic approval and was more widely publically highlighted in a later postmodern context, as part of a feminist recovery of women’s art history.
The artist’s exploration of gender role and lesbianism has been the subject of much postmodernist feminist analysis. It has been viewed, for example, as an important work in terms of a woman artist shaping and controlling her own representation. Cahun’s androgynous imagery is clearly a challenge to traditional ideas of female/heterosexual representation. The artist demonstrates agency by utilising the self-portrait genre in which she has control over her female body as both subject and object.
(Catherine Opie, Dyke, 1993)
It is also an important work therefore, in that it signifies female self-awareness in presentation which may be compared to much later feminist and lesbian post-modern artworks of the late 20th century and beyond.
Cahun’s employment of bold gaze and stance, jacket and short hair links to ideas within her own eras bohemian explorations of female emancipation and sexuality (e.g. the ‘‘new woman’’). Cahun’s work was created free from the pressure of commercial concerns which enabled the artist to work more courageously in terms of her expression of her womanhood and lesbianism, while challenging conventions on gender role.
Like Frida Kahlo’s work Self–Portrait with Cropped Hair (1940), Cahun’s work subverts traditional ideas of female vanity and the artist’s cropped hair rejects conventional notions of female sexuality.
(Frida Kahlo, Self–Portrait with Cropped Hair, 1940)
Cahun’s photograph may also be compared to the work of fellow Surrealist photographer Man Ray, who explored themes of cross-dressing (e.g.Rrose Sélavy (1921), below). The male photographer, with artist Duchamp, however, construct a ‘feminine’ identity in which the emphasis is on ‘spectacle’. This aligns itself with conventional oppressive and limited views of ‘woman’ as object in male interpreted representation.
(Man Ray, Portrait of Rrose Selavy (Marcel Duchamp), 1921)
In contrast Cahun presents herself as countering the spectator’s gaze with that of her own. In doing so she is no longer the object of the gaze, but the active subject of an important and challenging work on gender construction and expression of herself as a woman and a lesbian.