Tuesday, 12 June 2012

The Siren is Beguiled by Her Own Voice - Claude Cahun & The Masquerading Self

Following on from looking at narcissistic pleasures taken in the fantasy of appearance, involving an erotic desire for one's own female image, in this post I'll examine the female masquerade in evidence in the work of Claude Cahun. Cahun takes the themes I've been discussing further with explicit references to lesbianism and overt displays of role-playing and  cross-dressing. Again, photography is the perfect medium for the forging of ones subjective reality: Cahun's personae become her reality by means of photography's supposedly authentic capture of the real. As Whitney Chadwick says, "the idea of masquerade, of appearance as artifice, strikes at the very heart of identity inhabited as a natural skin. This is as intrinsic to photography as it is to its claim to document, to have a privileged relationship to the real". Photography enables the realisation of one's desires and fantasies to become someone else, to wear the costume of another’s reality, easily and apparently reliably. 

Thinking about multiple selves, the masquerade and photography, I of course first thought of Cindy Sherman - the master of guises. Yet I have chosen instead to look Claude Cahun to illustrate how women's construction of their own appearance works as a form of masquerade, as I found that Sherman's artifices were actually acutely separate from her reality as an artist. Sherman's masquerades were obviously stylised constructions of genre character type, whereas Cahun's many guises are all "her", or aspects of her self. Chadwick says of Cahun that "the artist and the individual are present within each disguise, as one of which represents an aspect of an extraordinarily complex self...there is no single original Claude to be found...authentic aspects of the original Claude are to be found in everyone of her multiple manifestations".

In a sense, then, all self portraits are manipulations and masquerades, with the sitter wearing a metaphysical mask that defines and dictates the way they would like to be perceived by others. Yet Cahun exposes her own Other, displaying her multiple selves in artworks that are locked into a circular system that is again mirrored and multiplied by the process of photographic reproduction. As Susan Bright says, "masquerade in self-portraiture may allow an artists to vicariously act out fantasies or to address a political point through someone else voice, which is both liberating and transgressive". What Cahun in her various costumes is transgressing is the notion that gender works as a fixed binary of male/female, a binary that dictates that women be "feminine" and beautiful to gain validation and men be strong, active and heterosexual. As Bright continues, "the mask offers a powerful disguise that gives photographers the chance to explore and redefine themselves, and to challenge the ways in which identities have commonly been represented and understood".

Long before the 1990's when Judith Butler expounded her now famous theories on the problems of gender identity and queer sexualities, the psychoanalyst Joan Rivière was writing in the 1920's on the attitudes of women on "feminine" identity and their behaviour or performance of their own "womanliness" under patriarchy. Although this is not a historically minded survey of artist, it is worth noting that Rivière was writing around the same period as when Cahun was producing her photographs, so there is a possibility that she was familiar with Rivière's concepts - it is known that she, like many other artists and Surrealists of the day had read Freud. Therefore using Rivière's concept of masquerade is more fitting here than the later queer theory of Butler.

Rivière's hypothesis in her essay Womanliness as Masquerade follows that women, consciously as well as unconsciously, use overtly standardised feminine dress and behaviour as a defensive strategy that protects against  the threat they would pose to patriarchy if they were to visibly assert their ideas, intellects, strength and sexualities. Instead these challenging attributes must be hidden under a veil of petty prettiness and passivity. In Rivière's collected papers the presentation of normative femininity is termed "defensive femininity", and "womanliness" as we know it is "assumed and worn as a mask". Considering the question of how genuine womanliness differs from the mask or masquerade of femininity, Rivière argues that they are indistinguishable: "my suggestion is not...that there is any such difference; whether radical or superficial, they are the same thing".

Cahun's 1928 self-portrait with mirror (below) destabilises the formal relationship of gazes, of the looker and looked-at: as we the audience look at Cahun, she looks directly back, disallowing an easy possessive visual pleasure taken in her appearance. Cahun's pose rejects the power relations proposed by Mulvey and Berger: in her photographs the compositions of traditional portraiture are used and then disrupted to draw attention to the way in which objectification works. As Doy points out, "Cahun's pose and demeanour do not address 'the male spectator'...she looks away and relegates the mirror reflection to the status of object, while she remains the subject". Standing the the middle of the frame in an androgynous loose checked coat with very close cropped hair, her gender is ambiguous: it is her choice of pose next to a mirror that expresses her self as being female. The collar of her coat is turned up, her hands grip the lapels protectively that cover her neck and jaw, but we see that in the image reflected in the mirror the smooth skin of her neck is exposed. This little reveal, whether intentional or not, is rather erotic, a peek-a-boo of smooth skin on a long neck; the curve  of light and shadow of her collar bone and the hint of décolletage is incongruous with the shapeless masculine coat.

Carol Mavor talks about experiencing what Barthes has termed the punctum while looking at the pictures of Lady Hawarden's daughters. Punctum is an almost indescribable feeling of being moved by something that in itself is almost unrepresentable. Barthes writes: "for punctum is also: sting, speck, cut, little hole – but also a cast of the dice. A photograph’s punctum is that incident that pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me)". In this photograph it is the exposure of that very vulnerable area of neck and chest that is my punctum. It is the mixing of feminine and masculine costume and pose that feels poignant and intriguing to me. It is the figure of Cahun that the eye is drawn to as she assertively stands with her body turning towards the camera/eye, yet her reflection in the mirror is also on display for our visual pleasure or visual disorientation. Therese Lichtenstein comments,  "Cahun deploys her body as spectacle – but a spectacle of her own creation, a spectacle of distortion". The viewer, gay or straight, man or woman is confused by this erotic image: is it desire or identification we feel?

Cahun's use of costume and cross-dressing exposes the constructions of femininity as being something other than natural. Her androgynous appearance is polymorphously attractive and leads one to question the standardised and repressive beauty norms that dictate how each sex most look. Unlike Sherman, Cahun is in a narcissistic preoccupation with the manifestations of her own self - she enjoys playing out each role - but this concern with gender roles is not a self centred position, but rather one that opens up questions for all genders. As Lichtenstein says, "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". In the process of making the masquerade of femininity more explicit, Cahun's many photographed personae seem to prove it as as easy to put on femininity as to take it off and instead inhabit the socially constructed idea of what a masculine self looks like. Seen altogether Cahun's many guises leave one with the impression that Cahun's neutral state is that of the Androgyne, that her photographic self-portraits express a spitting self that is neither feminine or masculine but a desirable alternative, an Other. Lichtenstein comments, "Cahun's montages engage the viewer in an an idea of identity as liberating transformation, as constant becoming". The idea of becoming is one that runs throughout the work of Cahun, although where we'll arrive at is still not yet known.

Illustrations:

Claude Cahun, Self-Portrait, 1929
Claude Cahun, Don't Kiss Me, I am in Training, 1927
Claude Cahun, Self-Portrait with Mirror, 1928

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