Claude Cahun

For the past year and a half I have been interested in the work of Claude Cahun. Considering themes of gender ambiguity and masquerade in her work I have spent quite some time researching, reading and writing about her. The other day I read something on twitter that linked me back to her. The tweet hash tagged something like ‘#10bestportraitsofwomenevermade’, and someone suggested Cahun’s self-portrait. I have been caught up in all sorts at the moment, with a to do list that is quite possibly as long as the Great Wall of China. For this reason I haven’t really spent much time thinking about anything other than getting as much practical work done as possible. At the moment I am spending a lot of time researching painters, because that is what I am spending most of my time doing. I have also been delving into the (freaky) world of experimental film to help develop the filmic experiments I am working on. When I came across Cahun’s image though, I had to stop and think. It was weird, I felt connected to the work somehow – probably because she was so interesting and influential to my thinking last year, I don’t know. Anyway, because of this, I read back over my critical writing on her and her work, and I feel different. I just think she’s brilliant; she was so ahead of her time.

I have posted some of the writing I did last year about her works ‘Human Frontier’, ‘Self Portrait Kneeling with Quilt’ and ‘What do you want from me’. If you find any of it interesting seriously go and research her – there’s loads on the net and a great DVD with loads of insight called ‘Playing a Part’.

Extract from essay discussing Cahun’s work in relation to Berger, Ettinger, Lacan and Mulvey’s theory of the gaze.


Claude Cahun creates her identity by rejecting the notion of a fixed identity or gender. Oscillating between genders, Cahun adopts neutral pseudonym, stating: ‘Masculine? Feminine? It depends on the situation. Neuter is the only gender that … suits me.’ (Cahun 2008 cited by Elkin no date).  Adopting the sexually ambiguous name ‘Claude’ further blurs the boundaries between genders and prevents the viewer from discovering her real, ‘Lucy’, self. Cahun avoids self revelation by constantly reinventing herself through costume and persona, staging photographs that are acted out with ‘theatrical flair’. (Playing a Part: 2006) On the edge of surrealism, Cahun differs to other surrealists who, often male, were creating images of women as isolated symbols of eroticism. By dramatically blurring the boundaries, Cahun creates gender ambiguous images that remain outside the norm, leaving little room for objectification.

Lacan, cited by Grosz, (1990) uses the gaze as a term to describe the anxiety and loss of control felt when we realise we can be seen. By introducing elements of astonishment within the work, whilst controlling the context in which it is viewed, Cahun turns this notion of anxiety on us, and encourages our curiosity, which, in support of Ettinger’s theory, overcomes the notion of objectification.

‘What do you want from me’ shows two heads, combined in conflict. Within the image there is a sense of pain, together with feelings of misery and struggle. The head on the right is contorted, watching the other with glare or hatred. The hooded eye makes us consider disfigurement, a tortured soul, evoking sympathy. The eye also makes us aware that this figure sits outside the norm; it is unusually hooded and drooping. The figure uncomfortably twists its head as far as is physically possible, conjuring up our own experiences of resistance and pain. The struggle between the heads and the tension within the neck of the twisting figure alludes to the idea of the figure being trapped within the frame of the photo; physically only ever able to look back, and never out into the world. The sense of sorrow continues through the expression on the left figure’s face. This head looks worried and anxious. It pulls away from the other and averts its gaze from the camera, creating a sense of isolation and non-belonging; it is trapped within its own sadness.

Cahun deliberately creates a strange image. The conjoined figure has multiple interpretations. We question whether we are looking at siamese twins or a representation of a schizophrenic patient, in which case we relate to our knowledge of medicine and science to understand the work. Equally, the hooded eye and contortion could lead us to consider this an image of fantasy. We refer to our knowledge of creatures within horror, such as Frankenstein’s monster, in order to understand this new being. The ambiguity within the image creates anxiety, making it difficult to view in an objectifying way, at the same time as highlighting our need to assign things an identity in order to understand them.


In Cahun’s image, to some degree we are aware that the figures have been conjoined by the camera, but the fact that photography is the chosen medium creates uncertainty; understood as a tool in which to document reality, the existence of the work as a photograph makes the content stranger. The nature of the camera instils in the viewer’s mind that this peculiar, disfigured creature existed in reality. Blurring the boundaries between reality and fantasy, at the same time as constantly reinventing herself through costume and persona, Cahun’s real self is disguised and detached from both work and viewer, and keeps the work mysterious.

Mulvey (1989) argues that the male gaze is always objectifying, and that a woman’s purpose is to please the man. (p.19) In Cahun’s image the gender and even the physical state of the conjoined figure is questionable. Cahun shaves the heads of the figure, immediately making us question gender; a bald head is typically seen as a male trait. The pale, almost translucent skin has connotations of sickness or deficiency. The heads are elongated, alien-like and made eerily unfamiliar by their exposed skulls. Cahun presents the figure to us in a way that makes it difficult to view as being female; it sits outside the norm as to what typically constitutes the feminine.

If a figure is not certainly female, can a male still view that body with lust and desire? Can they objectify it?

By removing the certainties and recognisably feminine traits from the figure, Cahun blurs the boundaries between genders to such an extent that as a male viewer, the ground on which to base an objectifying gaze is not solid enough. Further, Cahun removes the viewer’s ability to identify with the figure, or with Cahun herself. Mulvey (1989) argues that women identify with other women through viewing them. (p.21) Here, the recognisably feminine qualities do not exist, and men and women are united in their gaze; they gaze in Ettinger’s theory of curiosity and interest; they share.

In ‘Self Portrait (kneeling with quilt)’ Cahun sits in a sensual position. Her flesh is exposed with visible cleavage, her lips are pouted and there is bodily contact within the image; we imagine the feel of skin from seeing her touch her own. Cahun kneels on a soft fabric, making the image more tactile, as well as strengthening the reference to the bed. Comparatively, this image is much more typically feminine. Infact, Cahun’s pose has similarities to pin up poses, such as that of Marilyn Monroe:


The content of Cahun’s image has elements that reinforce Mulvey and Berger’s theories. However, Cahun averts the cameras gaze by wearing a mask, and this aversion is vital to the avoidance of an objectifying gaze. The mask makes an otherwise lusty, sexual image strange. Cahun controls what is concealed and revealed. By wearing the mask, Cahun hides her eyes and so, avoids the gaze of the viewer. Lacan cited by Phelan (1993) states: ‘seeing is fundamentally social because it relies on an exchange of gazes: one looks and one is seen’. (p.24) That is to say that when we look, we are seen, and this validates us. In this image we look but are not met by a returning gaze. Cahun causes us anxiety, because although her eyes are hidden, we can’t be certain that they are closed; there is a possibility that we can be seen, but we can’t see her. Returning to Lacan’s notion of discomfort when subject to the gaze of others’, this idea links to Foucault’s notion of a controlling gaze; Cahun controls exactly what we can and can’t see, but we have no control over how we can or can’t be seen.

The averted gaze changes the context in which we view the body. As well as having sensual connotations, Cahun’s body language suggests something quite personal. The hidden gaze makes it clear that she is not posing for the viewer, but suggests she is in a state of meditation or deep thought. She grasps at her body possibly for self-reassurance, or as an act of being caught up within her thoughts.

The eyes are also important within this image because they have the power to reassure, or to invite the viewer into the image. Returning to the image of Marilyn Monroe, her eyes are energised, inviting and coy; directed at a male audience. Within Cahun’s image her body language has sexual connotations, but the expression in her eyes is hidden; we don’t know what’s going on behind the mask, therefore, with our eyes not met, we are unsure how to view the image.

The mask that Cahun chooses to wear is important. It is clown-like, returning to notions of fantasy, as well as the circus. The pattern on the quilt takes on new meaning within the context of the mask, and becomes a part of it. The eyes on the mask are painted white, hiding Cahun’s eyes at the same time as disfiguring them; from a distance they look open, hollowed, rolled back, as though she is possessed, linking further to ideas of horror.

Phelan (1993) states that ‘reading the body as the sign of identity is the way men regulate the bodies of women’. (p.10) In this image, Cahun toys with her audience. Setting up an image that is sensual and overtly feminine, Cahun reels in her audience with recognisable typicalities that have the potential to lead to objectification. However, by choosing a mask that is obviously peculiar, Cahun rejects this and takes control of her audience. Evoking uncertainty and discomfort within us, we are unsure how to look when we can be seen, but can’t ourselves see. Thus, Cahun has again removed the possibility for objectification or identification, and has replaced it with discomfort and curiosity, becoming a creature of anxious mystery as opposed to an object of sexual desire.

In her work, Cahun avoids both Mulvey’s male, objectifying gaze and the female, indentifying gaze, and remains mysterious to her audience. By using techniques such as gender blurring and disguise, Cahun creates images that are always on the edge of something, images that demand unpacking and force out the notion of objectification by evoking our curiosity and interest in things that we don’t understand. Rejecting Lacan’s theory of singular personalities, Cahun adopts multiple personas, and relays the anxiety of being watched onto her audience. Cahun rejects the notion of the female as ‘lacking’ (Berger 1972), instead exploring all possibilities that she holds as an individual, and as a lesbian. Sure to never reveal her true self, the mystery within Cahun’s images is never lost; she will always be something waiting to be discovered.

Extract from essay Titled: ‘Critical Reflection of Cahun’s ‘Human Frontier’ and Saville’s ‘Prop’


Like Saville, Cahun blurs the genders. ‘Human Frontier’ shows an elongated head that appears strange, alien-like and eerily unfamiliar. Cahun’s chest is flattened by black cloth, further emphasizing the odd shape of the head, and strips her of typical and recognisable feminine qualities. We also notice the head is shaved, automatically leading us to question her gender, as a bald head is usually associated with being masculine. Here, the head has been shaven and deliberately misshapen; the boundaries between feminine and masculine become hard to distinguish and we question whether this subject is even human at all.


Misery exists in Cahun’s work through it’s relation to death. Barthes (1980) cited by Conley (2004) states that ‘we are always aware of mortality … whenever we look at a photograph of a human being’. That is to say, even subliminally, when we observe something resembling life we are reminded of death. This idea is emphasized in Cahun’s work through her ghostly appearance. Her pale, almost translucent skin has connotations of sickness or deficiency, whilst the disfigured shape of the skull reminds us both of a new born baby and it’s fragile, embryonic head, and that of an elderly person. The egg-like shape softens the skull so that it becomes delicate, and the tension between reminding us of something at the very start of life whilst reminding us of life near to an end, prevents us from being able to see life without death.

In Both Saville and Cahun’s work there is a rejection of clichés surrounding self-representation. Cahun doesn’t take part in the traditional self-portrait, instead choosing to avoid the cameras gaze, taking on a disguise that masks personal details. The portrait is empty of Cahun’s real personality, but is loaded with content. We are forced to question both the gender of the subject, as well as its state of being; is this someone alive, dead, or dying? Is this a human at all? Cahun confuses and deceives us, highlighting our need to assign identities as the only answer to our questions.


1 Comment on Claude Cahun

  1. This essay is fantastic and has greatly aided me in understanding Cahun’s work as well as questions of identity in general. Thank you.

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