Feminism, Surrealism and the Theater in Claude Cahun’s Photographs

The majority of photographer Claude Cahun’s imagery is associated with the feminist Surrealist movement. Her artwork focuses on issues related to gender and identity, with a particular emphasis on sexual ambivalence. Cahun also had a career as an actress, that—although brief—serves as a natural fit with her photography. Her interest in gender and theater is fully evidenced in a photograph included in the December 9, 2010 Important Photographs & Photobooks auction.

Claude Cahun, Self-portrait with Roger Roussot in “Barbe-Bleue,” silver print, 1929.

Many of Cahun’s self-portraits possess elements of the theater, as she masquerades in front of the camera, luring the viewer into a world of fantasy. She is the epitome of the “principal character,” projecting herself in front of the curtain, while blurring the line between a photographic portrait and a theater still. The year of this image, 1929, she was also active in Le Plateau, an experimental theater troupe. Utilizing her skills at character metamorphosis, she played “Elle” in Barbe-Bleue [Bluebeard], “Satan” in Le Mystère d’Adam and “Monsieur de la première table” in Banlieue.

According to the BBC: “Cahun described herself as ‘neuter’, putting herself outside the usual categories of gender. Her adopted name helped: Claude is one of the few names in French that can be used for women and men with the same spelling and pronunciation. But Cahun is often considered through a transgender lens, as a biologically born woman who portrayed and embodied the tropes of conventional masculinity. In her autobiography, Disavowals, she wrote: “Shuffle the cards. Masculine? Feminine? It depends on the situation. Neuter is the only gender that always suits me.” Even though she was adamant about eschewing labels and categories, it is difficult to separate her life from her art, which was so centred around the idea of identity.”