PRINT April 1992


It seems impossible, in fact, to judge the eye using any word other than seductive, since nothing is more attractive in the bodies of animals and men. But extreme seductiveness is probably at the boundary of horror.
—Georges Bataille, Eye, 1929

A DISEMBODIED EYE stares into yours. Reflected on its surface is a shadowy trace—an object, or more likely a person: the reflection of the observer who observes it. This is an eye or “I” that looks back at you as you look at it, its self-aware gaze mirroring your gazing. The eye, a cut-out photograph, is mounted within another image, a silver orb resting on the pedestal created by a pair of hands and truncated forearms that come down to a base of two lips. This silver sphere reflects the hands but distorts them, suggesting an anamorphic projection, an image in a grotesquely transformative mirror. Between reflection and object reflected are a distance and a difference.

More orbs, hands, and reflections circulate. In the foreground, a series of spheres suggest celestial bodies, skyscapes, and breasts; to the left, another silvery sphere rests on two stacked hands, its reflections once again suggesting an eerie anamorphosis, and also a family of strange embryonic mutations that plays with the notion of a divided, multiple self. To the right, another pair of forearms and hands cups yet another sphere—this one a world globe. All is set against a backdrop of the cosmos, complete with stars and astrological signs. At top center is a double-headed bird, and the word Dieu (god), spelled in a column from bottom to top. Macroscopic and microscopic worlds collide.

We are looking at an untitled photomontage, the frontispiece of Aveux non avenus (Unavowed confessions), a book written and illustrated in 1930 by Claude Cahun.1 Aveux non avenus is an autobiographical collection of poems, aphoristic philosophical fragments, and recollected dreams, all reflections on the identity and androgynous sexuality of their author. It is illustrated by a group of photomontages—again, self-portraits of and by Cahun, bodily displacements and rearrangements in which she manipulates and plays with the representation of her own subjectivity. Self-portraits, in fact, circulate obsessively through all her work.

WE MAY ASK the same question the artist herself posed in these portraits: who is Claude Cahun? As the work suggests, there are many answers, but we can begin by saying that she was a little known Surrealist photographer, writer, and objectmaker, as well as a translator and political activist. Her name was actually a pseudonym. Cahun was born Lucy Schwob, in Nantes in 1894, to a wealthy Jewish intellectual family. The Symbolist writer Marcel Schwob was her uncle—an early influence. But Cahun also began to follow Surrealism when it was new, collecting first editions of the Surrealist books of the ’20s and ’30s. She was familiar with André Breton’s photographic supplements to books such as Nadja (1928); and she met Breton himself in late 1932, while both were participating in the Association des Écrivains et Artistes Révolutionnaires, a fusion of an artists’ group and a communist trade union.

Cahun also participated in the Contre-Attaque group, which the Surrealists organized in response to the rise of Hitler and the spread of fascism in France. Contre-Attaque advocated an aggressive universal revolution, a new social order for workers and peasants in a union of Marxists and non-Marxists, and a class struggle against nationalism and capitalism.2 This was as close as Cahun came to membership in a political party; she might best be described as a libertarian anarchist. But her political commitment extended throughout her life and work, and had an explicitly feminist subtext. In examining issues of female self-identity and subjectivity, before they were really formulated as such, Cahun was moving toward her own liberation.3

In 1936, with her stepsister and lifelong companion, Suzanne Malherbe, Cahun moved from Paris to the Isle of Jersey, in the English Channel, where they had summered as children. (Malherbe often collaborated with Cahun, signing her own pseudonym, “Moore,” to a number of projects.) Jersey was occupied by the Germans during World War II, and the two women mounted resistance activities such as writing and distributing anti-Nazi leaflets. Cahun was jailed for a time during this period. Indeed, so little was known about her life and work until recently that some believed she had perished in a concentration camp. Actually she survived the war, and died on Jersey in 1954.4

THE IGNORANCE ABOUT CAHUN is such that there are source books on Surrealism that refer to her as a man. The error is unwittingly appropriate to her work, with its complex representation of female sexual identity. Cahun’s self-portraits provide an assortment of male and female images. In some photographs her hair is shaven or cropped, she wears a man’s suit, and her gaze is frontal, somber, and assertive. In others she wears makeup and a dress—a dress like a rag doll’s. She may also put on a mask, perhaps full face, perhaps covering only her eyes, while her head is surrounded by other masks. Such images reveal deliberate and self-conscious choices of persona.

A woman who represents herself as a man may express a desire for access to the kind of power that is part of male privilege in Western culture—or may not. One can dress androgynously and still maintain a relatively conventional sexual identity. Yet to the extent that such representations interrupt the restrictive gender roles assigned to women and men, they can set off complex repercussive chains of empowerment. And in Cahun’s case, her androgyny was deeply linked to her lesbianism. It represented a courageous alternative understanding of what it meant to be a woman. Just how radical a departure it was from the ruling orthodoxy of the Occupation years, and just how physically vulnerable it made her, may be judged from a passage in the diary of a German officer stationed in Jersey during the war:

There are very few Jews in the islands. The two Jewish women who have just been arrested belong to an unpleasant category. These women had long been circulating leaflets urging German soldiers to shoot their officers. At last they were tracked down. A search of the house, full of ugly cubist paintings, brought to light a quantity of pornographic material of an especially revolting nature. One woman had had her head shaved and been thus photographed in the nude from every angle. Thereafter she had worn men’s clothes. Further nude photographs showed both women practicing sexual perversion, exhibitionism and flagellation.5

Though less potentially dangerous to her, Cahun’s boyish image was also shocking in the context of mainstream French Surrealism. The male Surrealists not only advocated heterosexuality but tended to be homophobic. They may have celebrated Woman as an inspirational muse, but when it came to women, or to any woman in particular, their attitudes were on the whole decidedly limiting. In Surrealist art, women are mostly conceived as a series of unreal stereotypes: as muse, as child, as femme fatale, as ideal. Simone de Beauvoir writes, “Breton does not speak of woman as a subject. . . .deeply anchored in nature, very close to earth, she appears also to be the key to the beyond. . . . Truth, Beauty, Poetry—She is All: once more all under the form of the Other, All except herself.”6

The Surrealists were at least unified in their general opposition to bourgeois and fascist power structures. Their standard techniques of fragmentation, chance, collage, and montage, their disarticulations and reconstructions of materials, all produced “nonorganic” artworks quite unlike the classical, “organic” work of art that establishment ideology could claim as virtually a “natural” phenomenon to reinforce the status quo. In this sense Surrealist montage operates as a critique of the rationality of consumer capitalist culture.7 And Cahun was certainly influenced by this aspect of Surrealism. (She admired Max Ernst, and owned one of his photomontages, as well as a painting by Joan Miró.) But if the structures and techniques of her works resemble those of the male Surrealists, their content does not.

CAHUN AND THE OTHER FEMALE Surrealists of the ’30s set out to represent their own identity.8 But whereas artists like Léonor Fini and Leonora Carrington tended to portray women in conventional mythological and allegorical terms, Cahun constructed a bigendered or androgynous identity, photographing herself in a series of masquerades alternating between feminine and masculine personas. Her photomontages consist of fragmented body parts arranged totemically like rebuses that form no coherent whole. These displays of compartmentalized, disembodied fragments resemble the products of the Surrealist parlor game Cadarre exquis, or “Exquisite corpse,” in which different artists would each write a phrase, or draw an image, to construct a composite sentence or drawing, the overall form of which they would grasp only when the work was completed.

Cahun often recycles the same photographs in different photomontages, or crops photographs she has used elsewhere as single images and recombines them in a kind of random graft. In doing so she is exploring a notion of the self as an accumulation of selves, or a shifting set of social relations, establishing a destabilized self-portrait that posits identity as contingent and mutable. The sense of multiple selves, of masquerade, of gender as a series of conventions, and also of narcissism in her work prefigures Cindy Sherman’s photography—the black and white “Untitled Film Stills” of the late ’70s and the color images of the ’80s and ’90s, which stage stereotypical and historical feminine identities as self-portraits. Cahun’s montages engage the viewer in an idea of identity as liberating transformation, as constant becoming. The many birth images in works such as I.O.U. (Self-Pride), ca. 1930, extend this sense of the self as ever new. But there is also the sad feeling of a soul wandering in limbo from one mask to another. Is this sexually indeterminate presence a liberated self or a self in crisis?

“A mask is not primarily what it represents, but what it transforms, that is to say, what it chooses not to represent. Like a myth, a mask denies as much as it affirms. It is not made solely of what it says or thinks it is saying, but of what it excludes.”’ Claude Lévi-Strauss is writing about tribal masks as symbols of social cohesion—as symbols that enforce social cohesion. Cahun’s masks reverse this function, for the psychological complexity to which they point actually interrupts the coherent social codes of gender identity. Her self-representations go against the grain of her and our society’s constricting constructions of sexuality. In I.O.U. (Self-Pride), two columns of overlapping heads rise from a single wide neck. The different faces, of course, are all Cahun’s. An encircling text reads, “Sous ce masque un ware masque. Je n’en finirai pas de solderer tous ces visages” (Under this mask, another mask. I will never be finished with carrying all these faces). Elsewhere, a prone headless statue with a broken penis (suggesting both hermaphroditism and castration) sprouts from its navel a vascular tree that grows Cahun’s ear, hand, eye, and lips for leaves.

Masquerade in this work is part of a complex process of disengagement from rigid, gender-specific roles and hierarchies. It creates a distance between Cahun and the overdetermined image of the female, enabling her to control her self-image by rupturing the closed polarities of masculine and feminine.10 Cahun deploys her body as spectacle—but a spectacle of her own creation, a spectacle of distortion. Hence the anamorphic mirror reflections, the masks, and the shifts between masculine and feminine personas. The esthetic in these images has nothing to do with conventional ideals of beauty. Instead it verges on the grotesque, “the estranged world,” in the words of Wolfgang Kayser, who sees the grotesque body as always in the process of becoming, a process never finished or complete.11

WHAT ARE WE TO MAKE of this grotesquerie? The silver orbs and the disembodied eye of the Aveux non avenus frontispiece suggest a heightened theatricality, a sense of playful magic, mystery, and otherworldliness, but also a distorted and alienated difference. These are mirrors that do not reflect a mimetic double. Cahun’s mirrors diverge from those of the Lacanian mirror stage: instead of suggesting an idealized wholeness, as opposed to the fragmented self one feels oneself to be outside the mirror, these images and self-images suggest further distortions.12 The picture they reflect is not comforting, but reveals the subject’s identity as alienated and unintegrated in the world. It is as though, in recognizing, and affirming, and asserting one’s difference, one’s only avenue is to pass down the road of the grotesque.

Frequently in the history of anamorphosis, the figure represented is a skull, a memento mori, a reminder of death.13 In Holbein’s The Ambassadors, 1533, the world of the painting, the world of illusion, is posited as materially full, yet is slashed through with an anamorphic skull. An image of the decapitated English king Charles I, from 1649, demands a tubular mirror to correct its anamorphic distortion; at the point where one sets this mirror is a death’s head. This kind of evocation of the life in death and the death in life also appears in Cahun’s work. Embedded in her art like an anamorphosis is a nonsensical, eerie, uncanny return of the repressed, of that moment existing paradoxically before the symbolic, before the rationalization of language and image, of that primordial, pre-oedipal existence that must emerge within a foreign, frightening language. Cahun’s recessional play of identities, masks, and illusions situates the viewer vertiginously at the boundary of horror.

Cahun’s eye/I is a questioning one. It is narcissistically turned inward, but narcissism here is put in the service of examining the artist’s own objectification as a woman. Is there an identity in the space between the masks? If so, what is it, and how is it representable? We sense in Cahun’s work that moment before one recognizes oneself, a moment that remains with us in a terror beneath the surface. Shimmering upon the surface is a world locked into representation, a world that reflects us, constructs us, and conceals from us those psychic ambiguities and erotic uncertainties that we dare not admit.

Therese Lichtenstein is a visiting assistant professor of art history at Mount Holyoke College, and a writer who lives in New York.



1. Claude Cahun, Aveux non avenus, Paris: Éditions du Carrefour. 1930.
2. See Maurice Nadeau. The History of Surrealism, trans. Richard Howard, Cambridge: Belknap Press/Harvard University Press. 1989, pp. 196–98.
3. Cahun translated into French some of Havelock Ellis’ writings on sexuality.
4. I am indebted for the biographical information in this article to Virginia Zabriskie and to François Leperlier, and want to thank both for their generosity in talking to me about Cahun. See Leperlier, Claude Cahun: Une monographie, forthcoming from Éditions Jean Michel Place, Paris, later this year—the first major book on the artist. See also, for instance, Edouard Jaguer, Les Mystères de la chambre noire: Le Surréalisme et la photographie. Paris: Flammarion, 1982, pp. 108–109. L’Amour fou: Photography and Surrealism, ed. Rosalind Krauss and Jane Livingston, New York: Abbeville Press. 1985, p. 205, perpetuates the story that Cahun died in a concentration camp: Anxious Visions, ed. Sidra Stich, New York: Abbeville Press, 1990. p. 237, corrects this misinformation, but many details of her biography remain unknown.
5. Baron von Aufsess, The von Aufsess Occupation Diary, ed. and trans. Kathleen J. Nowlan, Chichester, Sussex: Phillimore & Co. Ltd. 1985. pp. 61–62.
6. Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, New York: Vintage Books, 1974. p. 268.
7. See Peter Bürger, Theory of the Avant-Garde, trans. Michael Shaw, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984.
8. Recent revisionist texts on the women of Surrealism include Whitney Chadwick, Women Artists and the Surrealist Movement, Boston: Little, Brown, and Co., 1985, and Dada/Surrealism no. 18. University of Iowa, 1990. Curiously, these books make little mention of Cahun—who does, however, appear in more broadly revisionist books such as Krauss and Livingston and Stich.
9. Claude Lévi-Strauss. The Way of the Masks, trans. Sylvia Modleski, Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1982. p. 144.
10. For a more extended discussion of masquerade see, for instance. Joan Riviere. “Womanliness as a Masquerade,” Formations of Fantasy. ed. Victor Burgin, James Donald, and Cora Kaplan. New York and London: Methuen. 1986. pp. 35–44: and Mary Ann Doane. “Film and the Masquerade: Theorising the Female Spectator.” Screen 23 nos. 3–4, September October 1982. pp. 74–87.
11. Wolfgang Kayser, The Grotesque in Art and Literature. trans. Ulrich Weisstein, New York: McGraw Hill Book Co., 1966. p. 184.
12. See Jacques Lacan, “The Mirror Stage.” Écrits, New York: W. W. Norton, 1977. pp. 1–7. The mirror stage occurs between the ages of 6 and 18 months, when the child comes to understand that there is a difference between itself and its mother by recognizing itself in the mirror. To compensate for the new sense of a lack of wholeness and union with the mother, the child sees the mirror reflection as an ideal image. The moment is one of both an illusion of wholeness and an apprehension of a divided self, a moment of recognition and misrecognition. For a brilliant discussion of Lacan’s mirror stage see Elizabeth Grosz, Jacques Lacan: A Feminist Introduction, New York: Routledge, 1990. pp. 34–41. See also Jurgis Baltrusaitis, Le Miroir: Rélocations, science-fiction et fallacies, Paris: Editions du Seuil. 1978.
13. See Baltrušaitis, Anamorphic Art, trans. W. J. Strachan, New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1977.