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  • Writer's pictureJo Sutherst

Sustainable Prospects – Considering Others – Claude Cahun

“Under this mask, another mask. I will never finish removing all these faces.”

– Claude Cahun (Doy, 2007: 47)

In a time when homosexuality was a crime, Cahun sometimes felt obliged to wear a mask of femininity. She put on a pretense for her family, entertaining the company of the young man, even though as a transgender Jewish lesbian, she had declared herself not the marrying kind.

Claude Cahun (1894 – 1954) was a French artist, photographer, and writer. Using herself as a subject, Cahun explored issues surrounding her own gender and sexuality producing work that challenged and confronted the politics of the time. She believed that engaging with political theories could lead to social change.

In many of her images, Cahun wore a mask. By wearing the masks, Cahun does not return our gaze, keeping her eyes hidden from us. By not revealing her eyes, she emphasizes the tension between looking and appearance (a common theme of Cahun’s work). And yet this work draws us in, inviting us to engage but not penetrate beyond the outward appearance.


Figure 1: Cahun. Autorretrato. ca. 1927

In her short essay ‘Carnaval en Chambre’, 1926, Cahun considers the use of masks when interpreting issues surrounding identity and the self. She wrote about ‘the attraction of masks for those who do not want to live with their intentions clearly legible on their faces” (Doy, 2007: 41). The hiding of our true selves behind our masks could be considered as us hiding our true intentions from others. Although there is a sinister feel to this statement, I do not believe that Cahun intended it this way. The comments reflect how she felt she had to live her life to protect herself and her lover.

Doy notes that Cahun adds to the discussion when she suggests that “the game of masking soon leads to a situation where you cannot cause hurt, or perhaps cannot even live properly, as you are absent, detached from existence”. (Doy, 2007: 41).

Self Portrait c. 1928

Figure 2: Cahun. Self-portrait (kneeling, naked, with mask). c. 1928

Self Portrait c.1927

Figure 3: Claude Cahun. I am in training don’t kiss me. c. 1927

Cahun’s work was incredibly brave and ahead of her time. We are only just beginning to understand some of the issues that she explored in terms of gender fluidity etc. Most of the work did not come to public attention until after her death. The work inspires me to challenge what I think I know and to explore deeply behind my mask and the masks of others. A truly inspiring individual, her images will remain ingrained in my mind for a long time to come.

Self Portrait (in robes and Masks) 1928

Figure 4: Cahun. Self-portrait (full-length masked figure in cloak with masks). 1928


Figure 5: Cahun. Autoportrait. 1927


Doy, G. (2007). Claude Cahun: A Sensual Politics of Photography. London: I. B. Tauris & Company, Limited.


Figure 1: [online] Available at: [Accessed 10 Nov. 2017].

Figures 2, 3, 4 and 5: (2017). Surrealists | Art Blart. [online] Available at: [Accessed 10 Nov. 2017].

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