Queer Territory: Claude Cahun and a land without labels

1 February 2017

In the first of our posts for LGBT History Month, Sarah Jaffray looks at how the artist Claude Cahun explored the parodies of gender.

In her 1930 auto-biography Disavowals artist-writer Claude Cahun addressed the question of her identity, explaining: “Shuffle the cards. Masculine? Feminine? It depends on the situation.” Long before the articulation of Queer Theory in Judith Butler’s seminal Gender Trouble (1990), Cahun and her partner (both in art and life) Marcel Moore explored the masquerade of gendered existence. They worked decades before anyone was ready to accept that gender is a social construction. 

[object Object]

Untitled [Cahun as Medusa], 1914. Print from copy negative of black and white photograph. (Jersey Heritage Trust)

Cahun is not an unknown. You might know her work or maybe you’ve seen it somewhere that you can’t place. David Bowie cited her as an influence; in recent years she has been championed as one of the only female surrealists; she and Moore were political activists who
; and the BBC label her as the first
. Her biography is well explored and
. So, what is this article about if it is not about any of these things? It is about the labels created in an attempt to define Cahun’s photo-performances.

We need to put Cahun in context. She originates out of the long 19th century, a time when the once firmly established social identities of the male and female began to disintegrate. Although cross-dressing (transvestism) is as old as writing, it was sexologist Richard von Krafft-Ebing who, with an air of scientific objectivity in his Psychopathia sexualis (1894), framed cross-dressing in Western society as sexual deviation.

 L0035131 PP/KEB/E/6/3, Man standing facing background and turning head

In this photograph from Krafft-Ebing’s study we see a person dressed in clothing typically associated with women. Categorisation of the figure as a coquettish woman in revealing attire is disrupted by the presence of facial hair. Social Identity Theory explains that categorisation of people is a normal act of cognition and that we adopt the norms of the category we feel we belong to. The person photographed here defies social conventions by embodying a confrontation of opposites: male/female. A cross-dresser defies categorisation because they are both and neither; they point to the possibility that we can be both or neither in various ways.

[object Object]

Eugen Sandow, “A New Sandow Pose (VII).”, c. 1902.

It is extraordinary to think that cross-dressing was viewed as deviation when an image like this, of turn-of-the-century ‘strongman’ celebrity Eugen Sandow, was considered the norm; both are clearly cloaking themselves in the guise of what they think gender should be. Here Sandow is overtly ‘male’. He is the caricature of manhood: rippling muscles, moustache, animalistic strength.

Regardless of intention, both images represent societal notions of the female and the male in their own complicated ways. Here enters the importance of Cahun and Moore. Some scholars believe Cahun is the very first to even write about the rigidity of gender and how it is enforced upon us from an early age. Together Cahun and Moore explore the parodies of gender through cross-dressing and gender masquerade.

[object Object]

Untitled [Don’t Kiss me I’m in Training], c. 1927. (Jersey Heritage Trust [JHT/1995/30/j])

In this work, part of a series typically entitled ‘Don’t Kiss me I’m in Training’, Cahun holds weights and wears the clothes of a boxer in training while being painted as a feminine doll, hearts, nipples and all. She embodies the parodies of both genders in one genderless, uncategorisable form. Together, the artists parody the masquerade (as Cahun called it), heightening the ridiculousness of macho and the girly.

Cahun is typically labelled as a surrealist. Again, in order to understand we must categorise. However, the movement of surrealism had quite different intentions for its artworks than the intentions that drove Cahun and Moore. Surrealism sought to merge dreams and reality (the subconscious and the conscious), creating a new absolute reality. Labelling Cahun’s performances as purely surreal diminishes them as being at the service of the misogynist art movement  that, more often than not, marginalised female artists and used the female body as an object of both revulsion and desire.

Founder of the movement André Breton wrote in 1929: “The problem of woman, is the most marvelous and disturbing problem in all the world.” Although their work fits for us in retrospect, at the time Cahun (but not Moore) was apparently just ‘tolerated’ by Breton because Cahun’s thinking was theoretically radical; their art was never officially accepted into surrealist exhibitions (until the 1980s). Moreover, Cahun and Moore’s work was never about ‘the problem of woman’ or problem of man; it sought to stretch beyond the limit of the two.

[object Object]

(Jersey Heritage Trust)

Much has been made of Cahun and Moore’s lesbian relationship in relation to the artworks when it really does not seem to impact the images at all. Wearing the masquerade of masculinity is frequently conflated with lesbianism, when for Cahun her pantomime of male (and female) was about fluidity, not sexuality. This not-knowing jars us out of the once seemingly stable categories of the masculine and the feminine and it does so without the frame of Krafft-Ebing’s ‘sexual deviation’.

[object Object]

Untitled [Cahun, shaved head, bare shoulders], c. 1928. (Jersey Heritage Trust [JHT /2003/l/3]. [5×7].)

Cahun described her work (both visual art and writing) as “imagining I am something different”. She is neither/nor proclaiming: “Neuter is the only gender that always suits me.” Most significantly, the performances staged by Moore and acted out by Cahun push us into Queer territory, forcing us to question what constitutes the category society has placed us in. It asks us to explore the potential categories we could possibly inhabit. Ultimately, Cahun, the subject, the individual dissolves every label you try to place upon her.


Sarah Jaffray is a Visitor Experience Assistant at Wellcome Collection.