Claude Cahun Autoportrait no 43 1928, photo of woman in mask
Claude Cahun
Autoportrait no 43 1928

The surrealists have sometimes been criticised for the way they portrayed women: often as the object of male sexual desires, or excessively idealised – like Joseph Cornell’s homages to glamorous female stars shown here. However, such stereotypes can be considered as a counter-attack against the equally limiting view of women as mothers or wholesome virgins promoted by church and state.

The surrealists’ re-definition of the feminine went hand-in-hand with a questioning of masculinity and the boundaries of gender identity. In 1920 Marcel Duchamp began producing works of art under a female pseudonym, Rose Sélavy. He later explained, ‘Rose was the corniest name for a girl at the time, in French, anyway.’ It also sounded like the word ‘Eros’. Sélavy was a pun on the French ‘c’est la vie’, or ‘that’s life’. Man Ray photographed Duchamp dressed up as Rose.

Gender ambiguity was central to the recently rediscovered work of Claude Cahun. Born Lucie Schwob, she adopted the more androgynous sounding name Claude Cahun and lived in Paris as part of an openly lesbian couple. She moved in surrealist circles, but never actively promoted herself as either writer or artist: her photographs, for example, were not exhibited in her lifetime. However, shaving her hair off, or wearing various disguises, Cahun used her self-portrait photographs to suggest that all forms of self-representation involved an element of masquerade.