How to be all your multiple selves
A lesson from photographer Claude Cahun
+May 19, 2021
What do we need to set free in our life?
If the photographer Claude Cahun could have answered this question, perhaps she would have said: gender, sexual identity and identity itself.
From our childhood, we are given a precise identity by society: you are either a boy or a girl. Blue or pink. Later, we find out that it’s not always like that. It takes more shades and colors to define that multiform and many-sided creature called human being. The good or bad news is that we will likely not find a unique definition. Almost one hundred years ago, Claude Cahun knew that already and was brave enough to speak her mind. She had the audacity to subvert the traditional gender roles, challenging society and sexual conventions of that time. Maybe for this reason we have never heard of her in our art history class.
Born in France in 1894, she was a surrealist artist, a photographer, an activist and a writer. She was all of these things and more. Dealing with identities is always like shuffling a Rubik’s cube, isn’t it? Claude Cahun defined herself as genderless and changed her name from Lucy Schwob to Claude, a name suitable for men as well. “Neuter is the only gender that always suits me” she wrote in her book Aveux non Avenus (1930). No doubt about it: she was really ahead of her time, a forerunner of sexual freedom and gender fluidity.
In photography, she focused on gender differences and mixed them up, following her own rules. She wanted to explore the boundaries of the identity, trying to get away, as far as possible, from any demarcation lines. She went beyond any sort of restrictions and took her freedom back.
Photography was her personal way to navigate the complex ocean of her inner self and to break free. The camera allowed her to play different roles, using her body as a blank canvas. Her androgynous appearance helped her experiment with peculiar forms of camouflage and transvestism.
In her self-portraits, Cahun is anybody or anything she wanted to be; she acquired either a female and/or male look. Sometimes neither of them.
Going through her pictures, we can’t really say if she was a woman or a man. Does it really matter, after all? Do we really need to put ourselves in such rigid tiny boxes? Claude Cahun continues to teach us all a very important lesson. Our cultural mindset, based on fixed rules about gender and sexuality, has to be dismantled and rebuilt. This structure is really hard to soften and it is well-established in everyone, crystallized within the fabric of society we belong to. Turning upside down the social habits, reversing the accepted rules, learning to see beyond what our eyes are used to seeing: this is what Claude Cahun’s work is telling us, with her mesmerizing gaze.
Nowadays her pictures still speak very loud: she rewrote and revolutionized the legacy about femininity and masculinity. They both coexist and dwell within each of us, like two sides of the same coin. Like the moon and the sun, the night and the day.
Human identity is never fixed or still, is flowing water, constantly moving, free from genders, social rules and superstructures. It’s like glowing magma, it melts and recombines. Like Claude Cahun, we all have a chameleonic identity, we haven’t explored it yet. We must have the courage to follow this multidimensional path and to choose to be multicolored human beings.