|Que Me Veux-Tu? (What Do You Want From Me?), 1928|
André Breton, founder of the Surrealist movement, called her “one of the most curious spirits of our time.” Although she produced a huge amount of work, as well as significant writings, Claude Cahun operated on the fringes of the Parisian Sureallist movement. It was not until the 1980's that she was discovered (by François Leperlier), and soon became seen as a forerunner to queer theory and feminist art.
Born Lucy Schwob, Cahun often cross-dressed, and many of her photographs are taken by her stepsister and partner (in life as in work) Suzanne Malherbe, who went by the name Marcel Moore.
Cahun was queer, and openly so. Fully out of the closet in an era when such an identity scarcely existed. Her haunting self-portraits show evidence of this ongoing identity crisis and conflating of gender norms. In comparing her to other women in Parisian Surrealist circles Max Kozloff describes her as, "a woman who insisted on being taken seriously, while ostentatiously refusing to be treated as an object."
In Que Me Veux-Tu? a deep personal tension is made visible in a profoundly revealing portrait. An androgynous two-headed creature becomes a metaphor for a splitting of identity. In her writings she eloquently expressed her artistic and philosophical objectives: "Divide myself in order to conquer, multiply myself in order to assert myself."
This, her most revealing self-portrait, shows a sinister 'demonic' head whispering into the ear of its angelic, naively curious, twin. Which of them is speaking the title - "What do you want from me?" - is unclear. But perhaps they both are, and it is the viewer, society even, who is being addressed. For she has certainly received little affirmation about who she is from a society who didn't recognise her 'kind' as sane or healthy.
This image represents an inner conflict resulting from a profound lack of any external identity cues - which we take for granted. In her art Cahun is creating herself. Becoming human. Figuring things out for herself.
A true pioneer, we are able to be ourselves because people like her took a leap, and, as hard as it would have been, fought the status-quo to be authentic to themselves.
Here we see her freedom, but also the pain suffered in getting to it.
Max Kozloff, The Theatre of the Face: Portrait Photography Since 1900, Phaidon, 2007.