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"Self-Portrait" by Claude Cahun, courtesy of Photography Visionaire

The radical Surrealist who challenged gender norms with make-up

Looking back at the extraordinary self-portraits of Surrealist Claude Cahun and her unusual relationship with make-up, we unpick what she can teach us about beauty today

It might seem like our obsession with beauty has never been greater, but looking to the past tells a different story. Making Up The Past is a column looking at great women from history and how they used cosmetics to shape their identities, from ancient queens to modern artists.

For most of human history, cosmetics have been a rarefied luxury. Even if the social mores that shape our understanding of beauty have constantly shifted, make-up has always served as a means of acquiring and expressing power: walk into any museum around the world and you will see women represented as goddesses and saints, empresses and queens. What, then, of the quieter voices? The outsiders and pioneers whose radical understanding of beauty was so ahead of their time that they have, ironically, been forgotten?

In the early 1980s, French essayist François Leperlier was researching for a book on the history of the Surrealist movement when he noticed a name continuing to crop up in marginalia: Claude Cahun. Even if the name Claude is gender non-specific, it says much of the masculinist spirit of Surrealism that Lerperlier assumed she was male; yet somehow, even after discovering she was born a woman, Cahun proved herself to be neither. Every time Leperlier felt he had pinned down this elusive figure, he began to realise that – to paraphrase her creative predecessor Arthur Rimbaud – for Cahun, the self is always something other.

Born into an intellectual Jewish family in Nantes as Lucy Schwob, Claude Cahun was experimenting with gender from her teenage years, using the limited toolkit of a dressing-up box, a make-up drawer and a camera. Her self-portraits date back to the age of 18 when she moved to Paris to study at La Sorbonne and encountered the Surrealist revolution that was sweeping through the Left Bank. With his chance discovery, Leperlier had, in fact, found a goldmine that revealed a new side to the heady creative decadence of 1930s Paris: a gender revolutionary in their midst, described by André Breton himself as “one of the most curious spirits of our time”.

Even by today’s standards, the images are striking explorations of the diktats of female beauty and the mutable nature of queer identity. In one of her most famous self-portraits, Cahun has painted two hearts on her cheeks and slicked her fringe into two neat curls. But she is more than just a pierette – or, perhaps, a pierrot – with the words ‘I AM IN TRAINING DON’T KISS ME’ scrawled across her chest. What is she in training for? To become a man, or to reify her womanhood, or both? Gazing directly down the lens of the camera she creates her own miniature theatre, using make-up to slyly satirise the narrow understanding of gender held by her peers. “Shuffle the cards,” she wrote in her autobiography, Disavowals. “Masculine? Feminine? It depends on the situation."

Cahun’s obscurity wasn’t just a result of her progressive philosophy of gender, but also her extraordinary life story. She fell in love with her stepsister, Suzanne Malherbe, after their father and mother married; despite attempts to keep them apart, they fled the city in 1937 for the island of Jersey. Malherbe soon recast herself in Cahun’s androgynous mould by adopting the name Marcel Moore, and they would later launch a resistance movement during the island’s Nazi occupation, convincing German officers an underground network of hundreds was operating across the island when it was really just two bohemian artists. While they were eventually discovered by the Nazis in 1944 and sentenced, they managed to escape death thanks to the abrupt end of the war. One of Cahun’s most subversive images is a self-portrait with a Nazi badge between her teeth, shot immediately after her release — yet following this traumatic episode, the two women became increasingly reclusive.

"It is only after many attempts that we can firm up the moulds of our masks,” says Cahun in her autobiography. It’s a sentiment that extends not just to her broad body of work, but the many different characters she crafted. The rediscovery of Cahun’s body of work came at a time when women Surrealists were being revisited by scholars of art history like Whitney Chadwick and Penelope Rosemont. Despite being kept at arm’s length by the male leaders of the movement, their female counterparts were producing work that was just as subversive and intoxicating: but where Cahun’s female peers used the paintbrush and the chisel to express their vision, she adopted the traditionally feminine tool of the make-up brush as a direct challenge to the male-dominated world of art.

Using cosmetics to, quite literally, craft a series of masks, Cahun’s chameleonic presence echoes the fraught paradigms of womanhood that feminist writers would pick apart many decades later. In a famous series of photographs, Cahun captures herself with a shaved head, a male suit and pale make-up that washes out her features to appear as an ungendered blank canvas. Project onto that whatever you want, she seems to say. In others, she ties braids around her head to form a crown, wearing a dress with a corseted front and laying on dark eyeshadow, rosy cheeks and lipstick to be almost comically thick – a creepily adult interpretation on the exaggerated femininity we are introduced to from childhood with heavily made-up dolls.  

 "What we can take from Cahun isn’t just her radical take on gender or her political courage, but a reminder of the simple pleasure of putting on make-up in the first place"

We expect the decisions somebody makes when putting their appearance together to explain to us who they are. We want to parse those choices like psychics mastering the art of cold reading. Cahun’s magic is her unknowability: with her carousel of masks and make-up, she somehow becomes a stranger. Will we ever truly know the real Claude Cahun? Maybe we should just be thankful we know her at all: in 1972, upon Malherbe’s death, the bulk of their archive was sold for just £21 at auction.

Today, defining ourselves through beauty has become inextricably tied up with social media or performance. It’s easy to forget the power of make-up to shape our inner lives and open up new perspectives on ourselves, without the need for any audience. What, after all, is more emotionally seismic than the first time an adolescent girl, boy or future drag queen is left home alone to try on their sister’s heels or their mother’s mascara, hastily wiped off before they get home from work? When they look in the mirror for the first time, perhaps they see a stranger too – even if it’s a stranger that will soon become an integral part of who they are.

It’s these secret encounters with beauty that can be the most powerful. What we can take from Cahun isn’t just her radical take on gender or her political courage, but a reminder of the simple pleasure of putting on make-up in the first place. “Behind the mask is another mask,” Cahun continues in Disavowals. The application of paint on the body can reveal an entirely new side of yourself, whether anyone sees you or not. Any true outsider can relate to that.