By Brianna Mullin
“It is very difficult to present these pages,” writes Pierre Mac Orlan in the introduction to Disavowals (Aveux non avenus), the unconventional, innovative autobiography by Surrealist photographer and writer Claude Cahun, born Lucy Schwob in 1894 in Nantes. “I think that the adventure is here, naturally interior,” he continues, “but presented the same way in which a cinematographer would allow us to see it, provided that it remains what it is meant to be: an enterprise much more cerebral than plastic” (I). Published in 1930, Disavowals is a rich, fragmented palimpsest that does not neatly place itself into the autobiographical genre: it remains, rather, a “difficult” autobiography to decipher. The narration is ambiguous, ever-fluctuating between the masculine and the feminine, the first-person and the second-person, and the text itself between poetry, prose, letters, dream sequences, and automatic writing. Each chapter is introduced by a photomontage, produced in collaboration with Cahun’s lifelong partner, Marcel Moore (born Suzanne Malherbe), whom Cahun had previously worked with for her collection of poems entitled Vues et visions in 1919. The photomontages contain fragments of photographs from Cahun’s work as a photographer and serve to transform the role of the reader into that of an active reader-spectator.
An important theme of Disavowals is narcissism. Cahun seems reticent about how to present herself to her reader-spectators and attempts, as a result, to adopt an exterior perspective in order to see herself as others see her, making herself both object and subject at the same time:
The invisible adventure.
The lens follows the eyes, the mouth, the wrinkles on skin’s surface … The expression of the face is violent, sometimes tragic. Calm, finally — the same conscious, refined calm of acrobats. A professional smile — and voilà!
Reappear the hand mirror, the red and powdered eyes. A moment. A point. Indentation.
I’m restarting (1).
Drawing from her background as a photographer, Cahun presents herself in an ekphrastic manner, observing and describing her face as in close-up in the lens of a camera; she, along with the reader-spectator, is on the outside looking in. Known for her self-portraits, Cahun imitates the photographic process of portraiture in this description, including the “professional smile” that one must often adopt in photographs, as if to not give one’s self away to the spectator so easily. If the face in the lens— violent, calm, tragic— turns on a professional smile, it’s because Cahun is orchestrating a spectacle of the self in which she picks and chooses what to show to the reader-spectator, as well as when and how to start the show (“A moment. A point. I’m restarting”).
The self is reflected here in the lens and in the hand mirror that Cahun holds. The reader-spectator sees, as a result, the artist seeing herself. This ekphrastic description finds its visual counterpart in the photomontage of the epilogue of the text in which a giant eye is presented between two hands. On the left we see a smaller set of hands holding up a mirror in which a photographic self-portrait of Cahun is simulated, reflected and multiplied; recalling the self-portrait Que me veux-tu? taken in 1928 in which the image of Cahun is doubled. On the right, another pair of hands holds a globe. This photomontage represents a kaleidoscopic abyss: the eye, surrealist symbol par excellence, demands the attention of the reader-spectator’s gaze, who, in turn, is directly implicated in the performance of the self. Cahun and the reader-spectator play interchangeable roles: the eye symbolizes the exterior perspective that Cahun would like to adopt and cannot escape and, at the same time, represents the artist’s own gaze deflected onto the reader-spectator. The mirror on the left reinforces the reflective subjectivity of the photomontage: the reader-spectator’s perspective is distorted, manipulated; dominated by that of the artist. In the same way that Cahun presents herself as object seen through the lens of a camera, in the text of the epilogue, the photomontage turns the gaze outwards towards the reader-spectator, as if to acknowledge their exterior presence, rendering them an object in Cahun’s own lens.
The important link between this photomontage and the ekphrastic description of the epilogue represents the complexity of the text-image rapport of the autobiography, as Jennifer Shaw explains: “On the one hand, the montages of Disavowals emphasize the fragmentary and the disjunctive. On the other, these fragments have an intertextual relation to one another—among texts, among images, and between texts and images” (21). This intertextual relationship allows Cahun to present a self that remains in perpetual becoming and is never quite whole or stagnant.
The photomontage of the second chapter, for example, recalls the epilogue of the text by illustrating once again Cahun’s process of representation. This photomontage, like the first one, demands the reader-spectator to partake in the artist’s introspection: the mirror and the eye function again together to create a kaleidoscopic performance in which the self acts dually as object (of the reader-spectator’s gaze) and subject (who dares to look back at the reader-spectator in defiance). The reader-spectator’s subjectivity is effaced once more in Cahun’s reflection, demonstrated by the eye at the bottom of the page. Does Cahun see herself in the gaze of the reader-spectator? The title of the chapter, “Myself (for lack of anything better)” reinforces the ways in which Cahun acknowledges and tries to combat the weight of the exterior gaze on her personal image.
What, however, does this reflexive and kaleidoscopic self truly exemplify? Does Cahun fear the judgement of others? By fragmenting the body and emphasizing the importance of her own gaze, Cahun reworks the notion of feminine narcissism. From a feminist perspective, Cahun, like Kahlo, revalorizes the “narcissism” of women in order to de-masculinize the gaze of the reader-spectator. If, “[i]n the spectatorial gaze of the male artist and constitutively male viewer, woman is defined as there-to-be-seen, all too visible; and yet she remains inscrutable, passive yet threateningly quiescent and untouchable,” (Watson & Smith 13), Cahun fabricates a female gaze in which her image dominates and disrupts the authority of the exterior gaze.
The epigraph of chapter II, “The siren succumbs to her own voice” (25), reinforces Cahun’s reworking and deconstruction of the epistemology of the patriarchal gaze that seeks to create and understand women only in terms of its domineering perception and categories. As the opening lines of the chapter explain, “The sailors are very busy with the maneuver of the ship and the chant of their flesh. The siren is the only victim of the siren” (27). Cahun’s siren does not sing to seduce men to their demise, but rather, as Jennifer Shaw eloquently explains, to sing for herself, which ultimately leads to her own self-discovery (74). By altering the myth, Cahun gives the figure of the siren agency and independence: her voice is for herself, which echoes the mission of Cahun’s autobiography. Cahun transforms the concept of feminine narcissism into what she calls in English “self-love”: “Self-love. The death of Narcissus has always seemed incomprehensible to me. Only one explanation exists: Narcissus did not love himself. He let himself be mistaken by an image. He did not know how to overcome appearances” (36). Cahun looks to unveil the faults of the original myth of Narcissus by acknowledging the dangers and falsity of appearance. If, however, appearance can be dangerous because untrue, how can one attempt to “overcome” it? Disavowals conquers appearance by presenting an excess amount of imagery, both photographic and textual, in which the self multiplies to selves, avoiding all falsehood of illusion because the text does not promise any sense of stability or wholeness or “true self” to begin with.
Cahun’s examination of the self in Disavowals renders the body an ephemeral costume, or even disguise, that is both textual and visual. In the prologue, for example, she explains the desire to fragment her body: “I wouldn’t want to sew, prick, kill than with the extreme point. The rest of the body, all that follows, what a waste of time! To only travel at the very prow of myself” (2). With words, Cahun creates an image of corporeal fabrication: “sew” and “point” reveal the precision with which the artist wants to create the presentation of her Self through the body. The body, as a result, acts as pieces of fabric that must be sewn together with a needle according to the artist’s desire. Cahun is the seamstress of her own flesh. She presents a corporeal carnival in which the body never assumes a stagnant, fixed form, but rather is constantly being modified, cut, elongated, manipulated. In the photomontage of the text’s first chapter, entitled “R.C.S. (fear)” a photo of Cahun as a young child dressed up as Pierrot dominates the bottom centre of the page. The epigraph of the chapter is an excerpt from an article Cahun had written in 1926 called “Bedroom Carnival” in which she explains: “At seven years old I was already looking for, without knowing, with the strategic boldness and motor impotence that characterize me, the sentimental adventure” (3). In the 1926 article, Cahun talks about the carnivals of her childhood and in particular her passion for the costumes of the different circus artists. By incorporating exterior works previously realized by the artist, from photographs to articles, into her autobiography, Cahun paints a composite image of herself, a multimedia palimpsest in which the visual-psychological origins of the self are reflected.
The excerpt of the article enters indirectly in dialogue with the photomontage that follows. If as a child Cahun was passionate about the costumes of carnival performers, the photomontage develops and evolves this childhood obsession by presenting and examining, in a kaleidoscopic manner, the notion of body as costume. In the centre of the page, above the photo of child-clown Cahun, is the image of the artist as an adult, dressed up as Elle from the play Bluebeard. The small image of Cahun as Elle is enlarged and inversed in the centre of the page, creating a kaleidoscopic reflection that emphasizes the transformative character of the self. The juxtaposition between child-Cahun and adult-Cahun both in costume represents the evolution of the artist from childhood to adulthood. What makes this comparison so interesting is, however, the fact that we see Cahun at these different stages in life disguised: it is the evolution of costume that we see more than the evolution of her person. In this kaleidoscopic performance, the self doubles as a social critique. Cahun presents herself in costume in order to illustrate and criticize the ways in which patriarchal society assigns “roles” to women from a young age: “For Cahun, the progression from childhood to adulthood involves a kind of masquerade— an assumption of predetermined roles— […] connected to the prescriptions of heterosexual “romance” (Shaw 41). Cahun uses the photomontage to deconstruct the farce of femininity in patriarchal society by using herself as an example. The image of the doll protruding from the head of child-Cahun reinforces the questioning of women’s passive, docile role in early 20th century society, this behaviour taught and learned from a young age.
If, however, the evolution of Cahun as a woman is in fact an evolution of masks, does this mean that she knows herself well enough to write an autobiography? By expanding her subjectivity beyond the borders of the book, Cahun uses the self in a way that is both personal and political. Well before the third wave of feminism and the publication of Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble in 1990, Claude Cahun illustrates the ways in which gender is performative. In the same photomontage in which she is disguised as a woman, she is also seen dressed up as a man. Taken from an untitled photograph, Cahun wears a masculine torso and, like a shape viewed through a kaleidoscope, the image is multiplied and reflected on the right side of the page. The artist’s harsh look pierces through the invisible boundaries between spectator and artist in an act of defiance. She frees herself from the prescribed role of woman under patriarchal strictures by toying with preconceived notions of femininity and masculinity, oscillating at once between the two.
Cahun’s androgyny is also reflected in the words of the text. Talking about gender, the artist says: “Shuffle the cards. Masculine? Feminine? But that depends on the case. Neutral is the only genre that always works for me” (176). The text thus confirms what the images show: a “neutral” individual, not completely masculine, nor completely feminine, who reworks and questions societal definitions of gender. Through disguise, Cahun removes the masks that people must wear in patriarchal society in order to conform. Her autobiography is precisely a declaration against conformism, as Watson and Smith explain: “[…] the autobiographical subject is also inescapably in dialogue with the culturally marked differences that inflect models of identity and underwrite the formation of autobiographical subjectivity” (9). In dialogue with the first half of the 20th century, the body of Cahun is political because it is queer: it rejects all social expectation of femininity and womanhood and transforms itself into a blank canvas, a blank piece of fabric through which the artist can freely and fully express or even reinvent the self.
The different themes illustrated in the ten photomontages of Disavowals are scattered like remnants of broken glass between the different chapters of the autobiography. In the prologue, for example, the language that Cahun employs to illustrate the fabrication of self — sew, prick, point — describes the photomontage of chapter VII, imitating once again the process of ekphrasis. In this photomontage, Cahun literally sews with the “extreme point” of herself by transforming her body into a needle, with her adolescent head upside down. The scissors and the fragments of the body, legs, broken chest, reinforce the way in which the artist manipulates her body to fabricate an image of the self: form and content merge with the artist and her work. In the same way that Cahun fragments herself visually and textually, the word-image rapport fragments itself throughout the autobiography.
By actively manipulating and questioning her representation of the self, Cahun challenges each reader-spectator to create their own version of the artist through the mangled subjectivity that is presented in the palimpsest of word and image. Disavowals is a demanding performance of the self that does not provide any sort of reprieve for the reader-spectator: she/he/they are constantly being called on to participate in the art of observation and fabrication, constantly being challenged to decode the various layers of Cahun’s text and transformative subjectivity. After all, the elusiveness of the work seems to suggest that who Cahun is is itself indeterminate and contingent on our gaze interacting with her gaze, on who we think she is as she entices us to view her in a certain way in a particular moment, then in another way the next. This rich complexity makes Disavowals a veritable surrealist masterpiece that deserves to be revered alongside other great surrealist works, like Ernst’s La femme 100 têtes (1929) or Breton’s Nadja (1928). With its avant-garde aesthetics and social critiques, it remains as pertinent a work today as it was in 1930.
Cahun, Claude. Aveux non avenus in Écrits. Paris: Jean-Michel Place, 2002, p. 161-436.
Shaw, Jennifer L. Reading Claude Cahun’s Disavowals. Surrey-Burlington: Ashgate, 2013.
Watson, Julia & Sidonie Smith. “Introduction” in Interfaces: Women / Autobiography / Image / Performance. Smith, Sidonie & Julia Watson (eds.). Ann Arbor: The University of
Michigan Press, 2002, p. 1-46.
Brianna Mullin is currently a PhD student in French Literature at the University of Toronto. Her research interests include transgressive desire, humour noir and word-image studies in French surrealist literature (Nelly Kaplan, Lise Deharme, Valentine Penrose).