Academic journal article Resources for Feminist Research

Shape-Shifting Beauty: The Body, Gender and Subjectivity in the Photographs of Claude Cahun

Academic journal article Resources for Feminist Research

Shape-Shifting Beauty: The Body, Gender and Subjectivity in the Photographs of Claude Cahun

Article excerpt

The figure twists its head towards the camera, offering a profile view of its face, haunting and lonely. Immediately, the body seems odd. The neck appears wrung like a cloth, as if the head has spun itself 360 degrees. From beneath the scooping collar of the shirt, a portion of scapula juts out and forms a thin vertical shadow that resembles cleavage. This strange perception is also heightened by the adjacent scapula, profiled to the right, which protrudes from the body to form a curved shape similar to that of a breast. Our gaze coasts back up to the shaved head, skull-like and cold. Though without a brow, the eye is hooded in darkness, seemingly empty. Nonetheless, it points ever so subtly in the direction of the viewer, creating additional unease in the photograph (see Fig. 1). Accordingly, a first encounter with this figure reveals an image full of tensions. It simultaneously exists in three perspectives - profile, back, and front - and with an eye that is both concealed and seeing. Contradictions confuse the coherency of the figure's identity. In place, there is a fascinating ambiguity. An unknowable essence - who and/or what is this figure? - holds the viewer. This is the Self-Portrait (c. 1920) of Claude Cahun ( 1894-1954).

Claude Cahun is labelled by historians as a so-called anorexic, lesbian, narcissist and Surrealist; however, the artist's self-portraits offer anything but clear designations of identity. She appears as a meditating oracle draped in silk; as a confident chap sporting a sailor's hat; as a small playful girl fast asleep inside a cupboard; or as a contemplative young butch posing for the camera. These are only a few of the multiple guises of the enigmatic artist. Continuously masked, doubled, performed and ambiguous, the varying representations of Cahun challenge any assumed coherence of her gender, body and subjectivity. As Cahun mutates her outer appearance from one frame to the next, the artist records a fascinating process of bodily change, an insatiable drive to transform what it is to be a visible, knowable subject. Her refusal to conform to a standard outward appearance is additionally a refusal of her culturally assigned female, feminine body. In 1930, the artist writes in her autobiographical book, Aveux non avenus, (Cancelled Confessions), "I shave my hair, tear out my teeth, breasts - anything that disturbs or irritates my gaze - stomach, ovaries, the conscious and encysted brain."1 I suggest that Cahun's passionate attack on such meaningful body parts as her breasts or ovaries not only reveals a struggle with gender conformity, but also a struggle with the correlation of "female" with "beautiful." That is, by complicating the perception of her body, gender and subjectivity, Cahun is equally complicating the perception of beauty?

In this paper, I will show that Cahun displays a manifestation of her body as "post-beautiful" a term I define as an attribute for a body that visually, discursively and metaphysically exists beyond or outside of a beautiful/ugly dichotomy. This is not to imply that the images of Cahun imply an end to beauty. On the contrary, Cahun's artwork, dated from 1911 to 1947, is situated entirely in a framework of cultural discourses that assign beauty to woman, and that continue to do so almost a century later. In spite of this, Cahun's photographs exhibit a striking resistance to the location of "female" along a binary where "beautiful" is on one end and "ugly" is on the other. A post-beautiful body, therefore, is one that rejects the dominant cultural markers and norm of beauty-a norm that while always performative and in flux, is ideally manifested by the feminine, (female) body in the contemporary West.3

Furthermore, I will suggest that the way in which Cahun achieves a sense of the post-beautiful is by shape-shifting. To shape-shift is to change intentionally the representation of one's physical form, completely or in part. Although a shape-shifter may repeatedly favour or return to a specific bodily state, a shape-shifter has no true, original, or essential material form. …

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