During these times of self-isolation and remote learning, visual art can still be a source of inspiration. Here, Rochelle Roberts reflects on Claude Cahun’s notable work, Self-Portrait (as weight trainer).
Claude Cahun was a French photographer and writer associated with the Surrealists. Her work was often in collaboration with her partner Marcel Moore, also an artist, and she is known mostly for her self-portraits which examine and challenge ideas of gender and identity. Her photography often shows her in a state of metamorphosis or transition, blurring the line between femininity and masculinity, hiding or revealing oneself from behind a mask (metaphorically and literally).
Since being in self-isolation and working from home, I have been staring at my bedroom walls a lot. I keep looking at the Cahun postcard and thinking about it. I’ve read articles on the internet about the photograph and written things down. I think one of the things that draws me to the image is the ambiguity and the evasive air. When I first ever saw one of Cahun’s photographs (I think around the time of the exhibition Behind the Mask, another mask at the National Portrait Gallery with Gillian Wearing), I thought she was a man dressing up as a woman. When I realised she was in fact a woman, I became interested in the multi-layered aspect of her photography, a woman projecting a man being a woman.
I got my postcard of Cahun’s Self-Portrait (as weight trainer), 1927, from Pallant House Gallery in Chichester, when I was visiting for the press view of their exhibition Radical Women. I was in a rush to leave the gallery after I’d seen the show, anxious about missing my train. Approaching the doors, I noticed the gallery shop and decided I had enough time to make a very quick visit. Whenever I visit a new gallery I try and pick up a postcard or an artwork I’ve seen there and liked. I saw the postcard of Cahun on the shelf and grabbed it immediately. I hadn’t seen the photograph in the gallery, but I’d been interested in Cahun’s work for a while and was excited at the prospect of having it up on my bedroom wall along with the rest of the postcards I’ve collected over the years. On my train back to London, I kept getting the postcard out of my bag and looking at it. I felt as if I had found the postcard by luck. What if I hadn’t have gone into the shop?
In the photograph Self-Portrait (as weight trainer), Cahun is dressed in a leotard, boxer shorts and tights with a scarf around her neck. She is very obviously juxtaposing femininity and masculinity: her face is made up with painted-on eyelashes, dark lipstick and hearts on her cheeks, stick-on black nipples (which are comically much higher up the chest than her actual nipples would be); her hair is slicked-down with kiss curls on her forehead, a scarf tied elegantly around her neck. This is contrasted with the weights that sit across her lap, the boxer shorts, her seemingly flat chest.
In analysis of the photograph, people have said she has a coy, almost seductive look on her face, as though inviting attention and the viewer’s gaze, both of which are rebuffed with the words “I am in training don’t kiss me” written across her chest. She is playing with the viewer, teasing them, at once presenting as available, and at the same time stating that she’s not. Louise Downie, Curator of Art at Jersey Heritage Trust, observes that her legs are crossed protectively but a heart on her tights invites you in, along with her hand insinuating itself between her legs (‘Sans Nom: Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore’ in Heritage Magazine). This plays into the whole juxtaposition of the image, sending mixed messages to the viewer about her gender, her identity, what she wants. But as Rosalind Krauss says, Cahun’s refusal to be defined by any one thing is constantly being presented through argument and counter argument, assertion and denial (Bachelors, published by The MIT Press, 2000).
However, to me, Cahun doesn’t look overtly seductive in this picture, and she doesn’t seem as though she is trying to be. She looks straight at you, but I don’t feel invited. If anything, I feel as though she is looking at me appraisingly, as though she is asking her own questions about me at the same time that I am asking questions about her. In his article for The Guardian, Adrian Searle said Cahun seems to be saying “Do you dare look at me?” (‘A Ghost in Kiss Curls: How Gillian Wearing and Claude Cahun share a Mask’, The Guardian, 2017). I get the same feeling, as though I shouldn’t take for granted the fact that I have this postcard in my hand and am looking at her.
The idea of her simultaneously inviting and repelling attention makes me think of the way people are treated in society today, most obviously women, but other groups of people as well; the notion that your outward appearance in some way makes a statement about you which may or may not be true. I am thinking specifically about the various stories of women being prayed on by men because of the way they are dressed, for example, as though they are inviting the male gaze consciously and provocatively. But of course, we all should know, dressing in a certain way does not constitute consent. In this way, the words “I am in training don’t kiss me”, to me is a similar message in that, yes, Cahun has put eyeshadow and lipstick on and painted hearts on her face, but that is not an invitation for you to try and kiss her, or indeed approach her at all.
About Rochelle Roberts
Rochelle Roberts is a writer based in London. Her poetry has been published or is forthcoming with Visual Verse, Severine, Eye Flash Poetry, Merak magazine, Streetcake magazine and blood orange. In 2019 her poem, ‘On Being an Angel’, inspired by Francesca Woodman’s photography, was shortlisted for Streetcake magazine’s Experimental Writing Prize. By day, Rochelle works as Assistant Editor for the art publisher Lund Humphries. You can read her work on her website or follow her on Twitter @rochellerart and Instagram @rocheller.