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The Monster and the Mirror: A Reflection on Claude Cahun’s Self-Portraits


Many scholars have studied French Interwar photographer Claude Cahun’s use of mirrors in their self-portraits. However, scholarship of these photographs remains largely in discursive isolation. Indeed, scholars have yet to connect these artworks to the rest of Cahun’s oeuvre, as well as thoroughly flesh out how these artworks anticipate more contemporary discourse on the formation of gender and sexual orientation.

This thesis addresses Cahun’s engagement of the mirror and how it upends early twentieth-century notions of gender and sexuality. With the aid of the mirror, Cahun eschews essentialist notions of gender construction, which insists that gender is inherently tied to the biological body. Instead, they showcase in their self-portraits that gender is a marker of social difference and self-construction, grounded in performance. In and through their use of photography and the mirror, Cahun also demonstrates that non-binary attraction is not a product of narcissistic self-admiration: it is a form of desire rooted in the other. The aforementioned sentiments are expressed not only in Cahun’s works that showcase mirrors, but are also strongly demonstrated in their “monstrous” self-portraits. Here, we define the term “monstrous” to mean much more than hideous creatures of legend that contradict notions of typical beauty. To be “monstrous” is to harbor a message that conveys an inconvenient truth to society at large. Overall, this paper will give a novel perspective of Cahun’s artworks that elicit how unwanted messages from artists may construct freer, more equal societies for all.

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