The idea of ‘butch lesbian’ identity is much under attack in the present day. Such an integral part of lesbianism and lesbian history is being stolen, side-lined, rewritten and so being made invisible.
Claude Cahun was a French, Jewish, artist and photographer who explored themes of lesbian identity as part of her work.
Cahun worked in a European age incorporating the aftermath of revolution, fascism and World War. At the time radical political, social and cultural solutions and challenges were sought from art in defiance of the perceived bourgeois mainstream. Such art aimed to confront moral, religious and state conventions. However while many of Cahun’s fellow male ‘revolutionary avant-gardes’ still produced work that either ignored or objectified women while typically promoting heterosexuality, Cahun focused on challenging constructions of ‘femininity’ while highlighting her lesbian sexuality.
As the modernist art of the era privileged the male ‘genius’ painter, Cahun employed photography, both attacking and rejecting such artistic and sexual hierarchies. The artist created work, often utilising the self-portrait, which reflected her in various guises. These included wearing what was perceived as ‘masculine’ dress and with a shaved head. Her expression and stance is also often defiant and her gaze confrontational.
In the early seventies feminist artist Valie Export created a manifesto highlighting male control of female representation as creating a patriarchal reality. The artist called for women to counteract such oppressive representation in order to transform society. Cahun’s self-portraits appear to retrospectively answer Export’s calls for self-determination, by challenging patriarchal expectations with her own interpretation of female/lesbian identity.
Some contemporary analysis of Cahun’s work however has stolen her lesbian identity, by claiming her as transgender. Such reading of the work ignores the existence of emerging and evolving lesbian identities over the 19th and 20th century. Cahun’s employment of bold gaze and stance, dress and short hair links to ideas within her era exploring female emancipation and codes incorporated into early 20th century lesbianism (e.g. the ‘‘new woman’’).
Such readings, therefore, ignore the artist in her own context and instead tries to frame her work to suit a much more contemporary particular agenda.
By wearing various guises Cahun as a female artist, exposes constructions of ‘femininity’ as a masquerade, while also highlighting her own construction of lesbian identity. Her work is in contrast to that of her contemporary Man Ray however, a male surrealist photographer who explored themes of cross dressing. While Man Ray highlights this as ‘spectacle’, Cahun is exploring her own female/lesbian identity.Cahun counters the spectator’s gaze with that of her own.
She is subject …not object.
Cahun’s work is very much about exploring her ‘self’, her womanhood, ideas of female identity of her era and her own lesbian sexuality and in doing so highlights the constraints of patriarchal representation, ‘hetero-sexism’, roles and constructs.
Cahun was clearly very much interested in the idea of woman, and womanhood more generally. This is exemplified in her own series of written monologues, ‘Heroines’, highlighting other defiant and notable women including Sappho…
Cahun was herself very much a heroine. She was a Jewish resistance activist during WW2, eventually imprisoned by the Nazi’s for her brave activities.
Cahun was both a proud lesbian and a confronting and exceptional woman and we should honour aspects of her work for highlighting and celebrating our lesbian heritage….
We will not have our history stolen.