The BBC recently commissioned an article on Claude Cahun by Aindrea Emelife http://www.bbc.co.uk/culture/story/20160629-claude-cahun-the-trans-artist-years-ahead-of-her-time that suggested she was transgender, and not the lesbian artist, photographer and activist whose work was rediscovered by feminist art historians in the 1980s. On reading the article we are reminded of the importance of context – historical, political, social, cultural – and why neglecting it can have profound ramifications on how we perceive the past and consequently, the present.
The social and political landscape into which Cahun was born is entirely relevant to her subsequent art, political activism, her expressions of sexuality – Cahun was a lesbian – and her values, all of which must influence and inform how we approach her as an artist and a woman.
(Claude Cahun and lesbian life-partner Marcel Moore. Both used male pseudonyms as an act of rebellion in a patriarchal society and to significantly mirror each other. Both artists often worked together)
Claude Cahun was born Lucy Renee Mathilde Schwob in France in 1894, a fin de siècle Jewish child whose early years would be shaped by antisemitism, political and social upheaval, and then by the consequences of a devastating world war.
Three aspects of her existence would have a profound affect on her life and work as an artist; her sexuality, her race and her sex. Her work perpetually explores what it meant to be a lesbian, a Jew and a woman in a profoundly homophobic, antisemitic and misogynist culture.
Cahun began her association with the Surrealist movement in the early 1920s and both her art practice and politics reflected this. Surrealism was a movement born out of the remains of World War I. The huge death toll, the injuries and trauma inflicted on those who survived, the loss of a generation of young men – all contributed to the sense amongst a disaffected artistic, political and philosophical youth that everything previously regarded as sacrosanct was now corrupted. The war had also done nothing to erase the pernicious anti-semitism in Europe, which had evolved at the turn of the century to consider Jews as a race to be inferior and not only the Jewish religion, a theory that would be expounded as Germany recovered from the humiliation of defeat, leading ultimately to the holocaust.
As the first ‘industrial’ war, World War I signaled to many that the great human experiment of The Enlightment had failed disastrously. Andre Breton, self-styled leader of Surrealism, wrote that “All the institutions upon which the modern world rested -and which had just shown their worth in the First World War – were considered aberrant and scandalous to us. To begin with, it was the entire defense apparatus of society that we were attacking: the army, ‘justice’, the police, religion, psychiatric and legal medicine, and schooling”. Added to this was the interest in the work of Sigmund Freud and his theories on the ‘unconscious mind’. Rationalism had failed humanity, now was the time for subversion and a re-imaging of society. It is no surprise that Surrealism also embraced anarchy.
However, despite its links to anarchism and its aims to deconstruct traditional values, at that time Surrealism as a movement was deeply sexually traditional with the main players being heterosexual couples. While lesbianism was tolerated, there is evidence it was (as in the case of Man Ray’s later images) regarded primarily as a performance for the men. Breton was notorious for his homophobic tirades, which sits uneasily with the Surrealist claim to be for the emancipation of human sexuality from state and religious constraints.
In fact, this reflected Parisian society’s attitude to lesbianism; considered an ‘inversion’ and an offshoot of prostitution, at worst it was regarded as a mental illness (even by Freud), yet tolerated provided it was for the pleasure of men or at least hidden from view. However, lesbians developed their own secret codes and created meeting places and it was not uncommon for women to ‘cross-dress’ at these social gatherings. The adoption of overtly masculine dress was a coded expression of lesbianism in a culture that degraded women, rather than a denial of womanhood.
(Lesbian club in Paris , 1932)
In addition, constraints of gender within the art world and Surrealism meant that the female was so maligned, women who displayed less feminine and more masculine traits were more respected as artists. The archetype of mannish female artist and intellectual was alive and well and was adopted by many women seeking approval from the establishment. Indeed, Emelife herself resurrects this archetype by writing that Cahun ’embodied the tropes of conventional masculinity’. In doing so she is in danger of suggesting that an artistic, intellectual, politically active lesbian must in reality have been more man than woman.
(Examples of Cahun’s performances within her photographic work)
Within such a complex web of expectations and value judgements Cahun attempted to play out her anxieties and frustrations through her art, in particular, through her self-portraits. As readers of those images now we must, however, remember three important things;
- Cahun made her images, not as modern ‘selfies’, but as carefully constructed and staged performance pieces. Her photography was not a casual snap-shot of her everyday life but an artistic creation informed by her cultural and historical place in the world.
- Cahun constructed fantastical tableaux of all manner of identities – fairies, men, women, Buddhas, weightlifters – she was not fixated on presenting herself as a man. Indeed, she reveals her naked female body without any sign of distress or self-loathing. Selecting only her ‘cross-dressing’ images is neglecting the entirety of her body of work and its complexity.
- Cahun’s images are accessible to anyone who has access to the internet or to a good bookshop. They have been viewed by many people, often with no understanding of the historical and artistic genealogy of the images. When they were produced by Cahun, they would have been shared with a very small group of close friends and Surrealist acquaintances. Within that closed world, Cahun would have felt safe to express aspects of her art and personality that may have remained hidden had it been known the whold world would be a potential audience.
Aindrea Emelife illustrates her article with various of Cahun’s self portraits, each of them showing a very obvious intention to ‘mask’ her true self through theatrical costume, makeup, role play and elaborate staging.
In one we see Cahun with cropped hair, her face darkened by stage make-up and wearing a harlequin check jacket (above). She stands in front of a mirror while turning towards the lens. While Emilife chooses to read this as an image of ‘near death’ suffering, another reading could see this as an encaspsulation of Cahun’s whole art practice, her search for the real Claude Cahun whilst at the same time presenting herself in theatrical disguise. Ever conscious of antisemitism (which in the 1920s was gathering momentum in Europe and was hurtling toward its horrific conclusion), Cahun darkens her pale skin in a bravado acknowledgement of her ‘otherness’ as a Jewess. Her ‘masculine’ appearance, rather than suggest transgenderism, challenges the stringent gender roles imposed on women even within the Surrealist movement. Finally, the harlequin coat is a further visual clue, pointing us to the theatricality of her performance, the stage-play at work.
(Cahun and partner Moore in intentionally ‘mirroring’ photographs, taken at the same time, as part of their artistic collaboration)
One of the dangers of ignoring context and imposing one’s contemporary vision onto the past is that it is often at the cost of historical accuracy. Historical rigour is the basis from which historians then apply interpretation and analysis. Neglecting, misrepresenting or reinventing facts not only conceals the truth but turns the historical project from one of unearthing facts to reveal the narrative to one of bending facts to fit into a desired narrative.
That desired narrative is to claim a lesbian artist as a transgender artist. Not only is this factually innaccurate, it insults the memory of a woman who took considerable risk in her life to live and love and practice her art as a lesbian. A woman who loved women and who wrote a series of monologues in 1925, Heroines, in which she pays tribute to inspirational women of art and literature.
Claude Cahun was extraordinary, unexpected, risk-taking and original. She was not transgender. She navigated a world in which every aspect of her being – as a female artist, as a lesbian, as a Jew – was held up for scrutiny and found to be not good enough. Is it any wonder she tried on different masks and identities?