Today, I encountered a photograph that unearthed a whole flood of emotions in me that I have been grappling with and attempting to articulate for some time. It is a rare thing with a work of art, when it hits you between the teeth- presents itself- and manages to encapsulate a very part of you that you knew was there, simmering silently, but never allowed itself to brim to the surface. It’s a rare moment and often a disconcerting one, when a piece feels so tangible yet it appears slightly impossible to articulate exactly why. It rises intuitively as if it rose from within you itself. It resonates. It breathes.
Claude Cahun (25 October 1894 – 8 December 1954) was a French photographer, writer and artist. Her highly personal yet political work explored notions of gender and sexuality, challenging accepted social and economic boundaries. Cahun is often associated with the Parisian Surrealist movement yet introduced alternative representations into this field. The majority of the Surrealist artists were men that perpetuated the site of women’s bodies as a mode of expression and isolated eroticism. Today, I saw Cahun’s Self Portrait (kneeling wwith quilt), 1928, for the very first time.
Self-portraits are extremely vulnerable in the sense that they incorporate a certain lack of control. You are presenting an image of yourself to the world yet once this image is constructed, it lays exposed to levels of interpretation and judgment. The control in constructing your image is handed over to the eyes of the viewer who seizes it through the gaze. Lacan describes the gaze as a term loaded with feelings of anxiety and loss. Once we realize we can be seen, risks of categorization and misinterpretation are at play. Your identity is no longer safely constructed as your own.
In this self-portrait, Cahun kneels in front of the viewer in an almost religious position. An offering before the altar. Behind her, the soft fabric of a quilt looms over her body connoting an upright bed. We have the privilege of looking down on the figure, disrupting and disallowing the notion that Cahun is actually lying in a bed. That site of dreams, of sexual encounters, of vulnerability. This composition is also dramatic, theatrical almost, rising up behind her like a stage set. Through the pose and composition, she speaks of exposure on many levels. The interplay of textures highlights this exposure and creates a conversation between the fabric and the figure. The dark horizontal lines of the exposed wood floor and ceiling act like framing techniques, juxtaposing the luminescent white of the quilt and the white of her skin. Contained within this box, her own personal cell, the shadows mirror and dance across both surfaces. The bright white tone of her stomach echoes the sheet directly behind her, whilst the strong shadow cutting across the top emphasizes the mask slicing across her face. The shades and tones of her naked body melt into the background. Therefore, the quilt seems comforting and warm. Like flesh.
Yet, Cahun’s body language and gesture appear both introspective and self-defensive. Her hands curl across her chest and up to her neck, creating a barrier to her bare body. Most importantly, the mask across her eyes creates an immediate sense of shock. It is possible to incorporate Laura Mulvey’s theory of the gaze at this point; it could be argued that through this masking technique, Cahun is discounting the masculine objectifying gaze. She controls the boundaries of concealment and revelation, of inner and outer, of passive and active. We are not met by the expected returning gaze. We are unable to read any possible expression. And that’s disconcerting, possibly even linking to Foucault’s notion of a controlling gaze. The mask itself is clown-like, surreal and highly patterned like the swirls of decoration on the quilt. The eyes are painted white appearing hollowed, empty and disfigured.
However, I happen to think that the aversion of the gaze is actually highly personal. Caught in her own world of introspection, her eyes looking inward on herself; perhaps it is possible to take a moment for yourself. I believe that contemporary viewers will understand innately about the difficulties and contradictions of masks as, in a way, the concept is more paramount than ever. Physically and emotionally. We fix our facial features into a neutral mask whilst moving through the modern world, on the train, on the bus, on the pavement. The mask presented to us through technology, our own faces multiplied on screens through the flash of a camera. The mask of make-up. These are survival techniques, disavowals of complete exposure.
You can see my naked body, but you cannot see my eyes.
“Under this mask, another mask. I will never keep removing these faces.”- Claude Cahun