Excerpt from ‘A BECOMING MASK’ by Lacey Minot
A masked figure stands before a curtain of lace, Venetian half masks affixed to her(1) black cloak. A volto – a white mask covering the entire face, itself in masquerade, this “countenance” mask is also known as a larva, or ghost – is pinned to her shoulder, almost like a second head. In another shot (1928), Claude Cahun, now in a Kiki de Montparnasse wig, wears the female-coded Noh mask once clutched in her right hand, in an explicitly theatrical portrayal of a feminine role.
Cahun embodies multiple personas – from aviator to pin-up weight lifter, Bluebeard’s wife to dandy gentleman – in her gender performances, blending theatre with photography to paradoxically both invite and refuse the gaze. She “incites the spectator of her self-portraits to deal with her face to face, to confront her androgyny, to acknowledge her status as exception, as singular figure outside the sanctioned norms of the male-female dichotomy.”(2) Adhering to one gender is mere distraction. “Masculine? Feminine?” Cahun writes in her anti-autobiography, Aveux non avenus (translated as Disavowed Confessions, 1929).(3) “It depends on the circumstances. Neuter is the only gender that always suits.” Cahun’s androgyny and gender play detach the signifiers from the signifieds in traditional masculine and feminine signs. Shorn hair and ringlets, bow lips and pasted nipples, dandy suit and laced bodice: as part of her costume repertoire, these are no more indicators of any essential truth or biological difference than the masks upon her cloak are functional. Artifice for artifice’s sake, as the artist plays herselves, interchangeably, before a trick mirror.
Born Lucy Renée Schwob in Nantes, Cahun began experimenting with self-portraiture at a young age. Her work would come to be defined by her collaboration with her life partner, graphic designer and fashion illustrator Marcel Moore (née Suzanne Malherbe), destabilising the “self” in the self-portrait and challenging the myth of the artist as a solitary male genius. The pair moved to Paris in the early 1920s, throwing themselves into literary studies and publication, the Surrealist movement and the avant-garde theatre scene in Montparnasse.
Breathing in the air du temps as a philosophy student at the Sorbonne, concerned with autoportrayal, Cahun was certainly versed in Freud’s theories of the alter ego, with doubling as the locus of the unnatural.(4) “To repeat, to re-present, double, supplement; in the recurrence or re-establishment of similarity; in a return to the familiar that has been repressed”: there lies Freud’s uncanny.(5) “This doubling, dividing and exchanging can,” Elisabeth Bronfen elucidates, “involve the subject in his (sic) relation to the other as he either identifies with another, as he substitutes the anterior self for his own, or as he finds himself incapable of deciding which of the two his self is.” Indeed, in Aveux, Cahun writes, “I try in vain to put my body in its place [...] to see myself in the third person.”(6) She compares the “I” (je, or the subject self) in “herself” (moi, or the object self) to the “e” in the “o” – referencing the ligature œ, used in words like œil (eye), that site of gendered power and violence, or œuvre, the body of work. Where is Cahun in relation to her image? Who is she? Which one?
In 1929, Cahun translated the work of sexologist Henry Havelock Ellis into French (La Femme dans la société, I. Hygiène sociale). A pioneering transgender theorist, Ellis proposed the neologism Eonism, from the Chevalier d’Eon, to describe a person whose “inversion” leads them “to feel like a person of the opposite sex, and to adopt, so far as possible, the tastes, habits, and dress of the opposite sex, while the direction of the sexual impulse remains normal.”(7) This goes beyond the alter ego, which so fascinated Cahun’s Surrealist contemporaries. While we hesitate to attribute Cahun’s self-representation to Eonic tendencies – for one, as a lesbian, the “direction” of her “sexual impulse” was not “normal”, and her gender play was more fluid than Ellis suggests – this is an interesting contemporaneous alternative to Joan Riviere’s masquerade. “Cahun adopted the masculine voice throughout her early writings,” queer feminist scholar Tirza True Latimer notes, “and took the gender-ambiguous nom de plume Claude Cahun in 1915.”(8) The pseudonym is, of course, a literary sort of dress-up, or cross-dressing. François Leperlier, who rediscovered Cahun after her disappearance, elaborates on the choice of the name Claude: “Used for both sexes, it picks up on a fundamental sense of ambiguity, perfectly fit for responding to Claude Cahun’s preoccupation with ... undefining herself. It enabled her to subtly switch from the feminine to the masculine,” blurring identity barriers.(9)
Masculine? Feminine? It depends.
Claude Cahun is many, and her work rhymes materially with this multiplicity. Treating her body as a graphic that can be cut up, cut out, pasted and printed, she materialises the notion of multiple selves in her composite images, such as the collages and photomontages published as chapter openers of Aveux. Leperlier places them between “medical case history and metamorphosis.”(10) She is a tangle of ghostly, translucent limbs, heads and torsos as the pattern of her duplicated, double-exposed bodies make up a not-quite mirror image (VIII - N. O. N.). Seated, one Claude is detached from the assemblage, posing in front of the cropped, rectangular scene like the way she is often photographed before a piece of fabric. In the latter, the textile backdrop evokes the theatre curtain; here, her own bodies become the theatrical setting. One of her heads appears projected upon her black singlet, an effect of the double-exposure that gives the impression of Claude Cahun wearing herself. She samples from her past work – her anterior selves – in another iconic composite image (IX - I. O. U.). Fractured and miniaturised, her burlesque weight trainer occupies one corner. She is cartoonishly feminine, a made-up gamine, and thus ambiguous. Opposite, eleven faces sprout from a neck, layered upon each other like so many masks. They include Cahun’s head as a masculine aviator, with her blacked-out goggles, and in costume as the devil in the theatrical production The Mystery of Adam. “Under this mask another mask,” she writes.(11) “I will never finish taking off all these faces.” Suspended above, that emblematic œ : the self in the other, in the work, in the eye.
“Self-love,” muses Cahun(12). “The death of Narcissus has always seemed the most incomprehensible. There can only be one explanation: Narcissus did not love himself. He was duped by an image. He didn’t know how to see through appearances.” In the late 19th century, Narcissus underwent a gender transformation. Female sexuality was equated with narcissism, symbolized, Ellis claims in Auto-erotism, a Psychological Study (1898), by the woman’s connection to her reflection(13). Put a mirror in her hand and call it “Vanity.” Narcissism was also attributed to homosexuality – ostentatious display, a preening self-awareness.(14) Cahun was two for two. Yet her self-portraiture, with its repeated faces and rebounding gazes, not to mention Moore’s constant out-of-frame presence, locking eyes with her partner through the camera lens, displaces the subject self. What most vexed Narcissus, Cahun imagines, was the discontinuity of his own regard.(15) Yet when the self is fragmented, any narcissistic singularity, masculine or feminine, is beside the point. “A portrait of one or the other,” she writes, “our two narcissism's drowning within, it was the impossible reflected in a magic mirror. Exchange, superposition, the fusion of desires. The unity of the image obtained through the close bond of two bodies [...]”.(16) Rather than engage with a Butlerian repetitive performance of gendered acts, Cahun captures her transformations and theatricalizes her self-consciousness. With her multiple faces and masks, she scatters the gaze.
She looks away from the mirror. She looks at us.
(1) While I have come across references to Claude Cahun as “transsexual” and her own writing attests to gender fluidity or neutrality – if we are to interpret the remarks of the first person narrator of Aveux non avenus as truthful reflections of Cahun’s identity – all of the texts I have read refer to her with feminine pronouns, and so I have chosen to keep with this convention. (2) Christy Wampole, “The Impudence of Claude Cahun”, in L’Esprit Créateur, Vol. 53, No. 1, 2013, p. 101. (3) Claude Cahun, Aveux non avenus (Paris: Editions Mille et une nuits, 2017, originally published 1930), section VII. H. U. M., np. “Masculin? féminin? mais ça dépend des cas. Neutre est le seul genre qui me convienne toujours.” My translation. (4) Sarah Howgate, ed., Gillian Wearing and Claude Cahun. Behind the mask, another mask, exhibition catalogue (London : National Portrait Gallery Publications, 2017), p. 98. (5) Elisabeth Bronfen, Over Her Dead Body. Death, femininity and the aesthetic (Manchester : Manchester University Press, 1992), p. 113. (6) Cahun, Aveux non avenus, section 1928, np. “En vain j’essaye de remettre mon corps à sa place [...] de me voir à la troisième personne. Le je en moi comme l’e pris dans l’o.” My translation. (7) Wampole, “The Impudence of Claude Cahun”, 104. (8) Tirza True Latimer, “Entre Nous: Between Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore” in GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 12, no. 2 (2006), p. 201. (9) Wampole, “The Impudence of Claude Cahun”, 104. “Usité pour les deux sexes, il ramasse le sentiment d’une ambiguïté fondamentale bien propre à répondre au souci manifesté par Claude Cahun de ... s’indéfinir. Il lui permettra de subtiles alternances du féminin au masculin de manière à prévenir, à brouiller une identification [...]” My translation. (10) François Leperlier, “Les clés des Aveux” in Claude Cahun, Aveux non avenus.(11) Cahun, Aveux non avenus, IX - I. O. U.“Sous ce masque un autre masque. Je n’en finirai pas de soulever tous ces visages.” My translation.(12) Françoise Flamant and Tirza True Latimer, “Visions émancipatrices. Portraiture et identité sexuelle dans le Paris des années vingt”, in Clio. Femmes, Genre, Histoire, No. 22 (2005), p. 253. (13) Carolyn J. Dean, “Claude Cahun’s Double”, in Yale French Studies: Same Sex/Different Text? Gay and Lesbian Writing in French, no. 90, 1996, p. 76. (14) Cahun, Aveux non avenus, II. Moi-même. (15) Ibid., I. R. C. S. “Portrait de l’un ou de l’autre, nos deux narcissismes s’y noyant, c’était l’impossible réalisé en un miroir magique. L’échange, la superposition, la fusion des désirs. L’unité de l’image obtenue par l’amitié étroite des deux corps [...]”. My translation.