The Self-Portraits of Claude Cahun: Transgression, Self-Representation, and Avant-Garde Photography, 1917-1947
My PhD dissertation analyzes photographic self-portraits by French Surrealist artist Claude Cahun (pseud. Lucy Schwob, 1894-1954) to elucidate the theme of boundaries and their transgression. I locate articulations of transgressed borders as framing strategies within the photographs; in Cahuns androgyny and homosexuality; in her marginal position inside/outside the avant-garde; in her negotiation of national, racial, and geographic borders; as well as in the boundary of the photographic surface itself, pierced and reconfigured through photomontage.
Photographic self-representation allowed Cahun to invent a transgressive avant-garde persona. The Introduction recounts Cahuns rediscovery by art history in the 1980s and 1990s. Chapter One theorizes Cahuns self-conscious framing of her body whereby she poses and is framed to resemble a photograph -- as the moment of the transformation from lived subject to representation. In Chapter Two, I read the delineated boundaries in Cahuns photographs as a metaphor for her borderline existence as an alien within Surrealism, referring to gender, race, and sexuality as categories of analysis. Chapter Three locates pictorial strategies of lesbian visibility in Cahuns self-portraits and photomontages. I relate Cahuns gender-bending self-portraits and imagery of revealing and concealing (e.g. masks, mirrors) to interwar concepts of the invisible lesbian. I theorize photomontage as a space of transgression and deconstruction.
Chapter Four analyzes a selection of Cahuns self-portraits dating from c. 1938-39 and c. 1947 made in Jersey (Channel Islands, UK), where Cahun moved in 1938 and was active in the Resistance during the German Occupation. I theorize that artistic and social transgression becomes political resistance as identities and geopolitical boundaries are renegotiated.
In the self-portraits, mirroring, multiple exposures, and other photographic manifestations express the themes of borders and transgression. Cahuns photomontages made in collaboration with her partner Suzanne Malherbe destabilize the integrity of straight photography, question fixed ways of seeing, and challenge the concept of photographic authorship. I theorize Cahun and Malherbes work as an erotics of collaboration whereby the subject/object relations of photography become fluid, ambiguous, and continually transformed.