How women surrealists (de)constructed gender and by doing so defied the fetishization of female beauty.
“Neuter is the only gender that always suits me”, wrote Claude Cahun in Disavowals (1930), standing apart from the vast majority of surrealist artists and writers – not just the men who spearheaded the French literary movement, but also the many women from Europe, North America, Mexico and beyond who contributed texts, films, photographs and artworks.
For all their apparent transgression, the French Surrealist men held deeply conservative attitudes to gender and sexuality, revealed in their 12 congresses on sex held in Paris from 1928 to 1932, with very few women and even fewer queer or gender-variant people present. André Breton’s novel “Nadja” (1928) famously concluded that “Beauty will be CONVULSIVE or it will not be at all”, but for Cahun and others, the process of constructing their own conceptions of gender was far more inviting than giving in to the male Surrealists’ fetishisation of madness.
Sexologists were grappling with transgender behaviour
Cahun was the only artist within the Surrealists’ orbit to publicly express a gender that we would now call “non-binary”, at a time when sexologists were grappling with transsexuality. This did not escape the Surrealists’ attention – French bisexual author René Crevel’s novel “Are You Crazy?” (1929) referenced Magnus Hirschfeld’s Institute for Sexual Science in Berlin, which worked on the first sex reassignment surgeries.
But the idea of being beyond male and female was never widely adopted as a Surrealist position, despite its obvious opposition to inter-war social norms. (Marcel Duchamp’s female alter ego, Rrose Sélavy, photographed by Man Ray, never went far beyond a joke.) Instead, to see just how Cahun and her contemporaries engaged with “androgyny” to redefine ideas of femaleness, we have to look at their works.
The male stereotypes on which Cahun drew were not especially masculine
Cahun’s self-portraits, mostly made with her partner and stepsister Marcel Moore (who, like Cahun, was assigned female at birth but used a male name), often blurred gender lines. The male stereotypes on which Cahun drew were not especially masculine: rather, they alluded to the dandyish, homosexual persona of the late 19th century, as in the famous image of Cahun holding dumbbells, with her hair in an Oscar Wilde-style parting and ‘I am in training, don’t kiss me’ written across her chest. Or, as in her self-portrait as a devil in “The Mystery of Adam” (1929), with Cahun in beads, a silk shirt, with painted eyes and lips.
They recall an effeminate version of maleness that contemporary Europeans saw in Arabic countries – a cultural trope ruthlessly dissected in Edward Said’s “Orientalism” (1978). The photocollages that Cahun and Moore made for Disavowals used multiple images of Cahun’s head, separated from her body, giving the impression of a figure that could switch gender at will.
The association of the female was placed between dream and nightmare
Swiss Surrealist artist and photographer Meret Oppenheim talked about exploring “androgyny of the mind”, arguing that any significant work “invariably reflects the entire human being, which is both male and female”. Like Cahun, she occasionally posed for self-portraits in male attire, notably in a photograph taken by Ed Schmid in June 1936; unlike Cahun, Oppenheim also painted. In “Daphne and Apoll” (1943), she put webbed toes at the bottom and tree branches on top of a female torso, taking the association of the female – or feminine – with the natural to an absurd conclusion, placing it between dream and nightmare.
Her friend Leonor Fini, from Argentina and Italy, produced paintings of fully dressed women dominating men, often nude or clothed only in a sheet. In “Chtonian Deity Watching Over the Sleep of a Young Man” (1946), she drew on Greek mythology, featuring a black, sphinx-like goddess whose care for a naked, vulnerable man displayed a benevolence also visible in works such as “Stryges Amaouri” (1947).
Latin American artists took these ideas further, combining women’s bodies with those of animals for emotional effect. Remedios Varo’s playful “Creation of the Birds” (1957) depicted a human-owl artist making mobile birds at her desk; Frida Kahlo’s “The Little Deer” (1946) put her own head on a deer being killed by numerous arrows. In this, Kahlo suggested that the ‘convulsive’ nature so admired by the male Surrealists was actually a product of the multiple-pronged attacks that women faced in a misogynistic society, and that redefining the terms on which women existed in that society was not just an artistic project but a political necessity.