Visual similarities and motivational differences: how does the photographic work of Cindy Sherman and Claude Cahun compare?

The sentimentality in immortalising a loved one’s image – or the vanity in immortalising one’s own – (until the birth of modern photography in 1829), arose from powerful motivations that were only available to the rich enough to commission a painting. Since then, the ability to capture a moment in time has recorded everything, from the significant to the banal. Retaining a close relationship with portraiture, photography has extended from an unambiguous record into an art form.

Fig. 1. (left), Claude Cahun, Untitled, (1922). Fig. 2. (right), Cindy Sherman, Untitled B, (1975).

Claude Cahun used the camera as a means in which to reflect and seek her identity: born in 1892 Lucy Schwob adopted her gender-ambiguous name in 1917. American artist Cindy Sherman was born in 1954 and used her photographs to challenge cultural stereotypes. Both artists created work shaped by ideas adherent to many similar aspects of the corresponding Modernism and Postmodernism movements of their times, yet a side-by-side comparison of Claude Cahun and Cindy Sherman’s work would lead an audience to believe that the latter artist was influenced by the former: both use the same medium to capture portraits of their own body, shaped into characters by costumes, wigs, makeup and poise.

Fig. 3. (left), Claude Cahun, Self Portrait, (1928). Fig. 4. (right), Cindy Sherman, Untitled, (1976).

This suggestion of influence has been rebuffed by Sherman, who has said she had not been aware of Claude Cahun while in the process of developing her early iconic work. This is highly likely, as Cahun, a French artist and active participant within the Avant Garde Theatre of the 1920’s, was not well remembered in Art History until the 1980’s after Sherman had begun to capture her characters. Cahun and Sherman were arguably dissociated in everything but their finished photographs, yet the similarities in their work provokes further exploration into how these greatly-differing approaches have led to the same visual destinations.

The worlds these two artists came from were undoubtedly implanted into the bodies they photographed. Experiences developed ideas and narrowed focuses towards a individual artistic realisation for each artist. For Cahun, her body was the message, a rejection of all conventions within her culture. She was not a woman nor a man; she herself was gender-fluid and this was expressed in her portraits with an enigmatic allure. In one photograph she is sitting dressed as a feminised male body builder, made up with lipstick and hearts painted on her cheeks. The phrase, “I am in training, do not kiss me” is written across her chest, a message which strikes out at the limited expectations of men and women in her time (training to become a woman or a man? Do not kiss me for I am not here, nor there?).

The worlds these two artists came from were undoubtedly implanted into the bodies they photographed. Experiences developed ideas and narrowed focuses towards a individual artistic realisation for each artist. For Cahun, her body was the message, a rejection of all conventions within her culture. She was not a woman nor a man; she herself was gender-fluid and this was expressed in her portraits with an enigmatic allure. In one photograph she is sitting dressed as a feminised male body builder, made up with lipstick and hearts painted on her cheeks. The phrase, “I am in training, do not kiss me” is written across her chest, a message which strikes out at the limited expectations of men and women in her time (training to become a woman or a man? Do not kiss me for I am not here, nor there?).

Fig. 5. Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore, Untitled (Don’t Kiss Me, I’m in Training), (1927).

Cahun may be implying her constant internal search to determine herself and her gender; her artwork continuously features herself as the key model, as male, female and androgynous, and lends itself to the idea that the portraits she produced stemmed from her desire for self-expression and exploration. This desire is fundamentally that of the Modernist artist. The world Cindy Sherman’s work derived from was less rigid in terms of social stratification according to gender; however, Sherman herself was faced with another confining force. “I remember distinctly the first couple of weeks in New York she wouldn’t leave the house. She was actually scared of New York I think. She’d get all dressed up, made up… I’d come home and she hadn’t gone out the house.” Robert Longo, (Cindy Sherman – Nobody’s Here But Me, 1994). During her time in New York in 1977 Sherman began taking photographs from her down town residence and studio which developed into her Untitled Film Stills series. Unlike Cahun, her photographs weren’t created out of self expression; instead they seemingly gave Sherman a sense of escapism into her art. The isolation she experienced was not celebrated as a combated adversary, “at least when one is alone, alone at last, only one enemy remains to be conquered,” (Cahun and Malherbe) but used as a tool to delve deeper into her work, which explored stereotypes of women in America perpetuated by film and media.

Photography’s relationship with reality is drawn from the fact that a moment in time is being captured and preserved; though manipulation maybe present a truth behind the image remains: “I just feel like it could be a paintbrush except it takes to long to make the pictures I want to make,” Cindy Sherman, (Cindy Sherman – Nobody’s Here But Me, 1994). Sherman may have used photography as a convenient method; however, her Untitled Film Stills were perfectly suited for the medium as the lines between reality and illusion are blurred. Posed pictures distributed in film and advertising are impossible for an audience to discern exactly how much truth is being witnessed: it is the reason why the Untitled Film Stills series take on such an uncanny nature. In Untitled Film Still #14 a woman is stood facing away from a mirror, in its reflection a coat hanging on a chair and a cocktail glass on the table. The woman looks as if she has been interrupted. It is as if witnessing a moment between events, filled with apprehension.

Fig. 6. Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Still #14, (1978).

It is no wonder Sherman has a love of horror films, as a sense of foreboding is ever present in these works. As she plays the starring role in her photographs, Sherman takes on the multiple stereotypes Hollywood has given to women and uses them to access the conditioned mind of the American audience: we know what will happen next because we have watched it happen before. Cahun’s work has a similar haunting aura apparent in her altered portraits; In Que me veux-tu? (What do you want from me?) (1928) two Cahuns with shaved heads fade into one another, gazing at the opposing spectral self. In another portrait sharing the same name and produced a year earlier she is dressed in a black robe and staring straight down the lens, her arms cradling an orb which reflects the room back into camera, embedding another layer of reality into the image. It is understandable she was drawn towards Surrealism, though she rejected the label ‘Surrealist’, just as she had also done with ‘female’, ‘lesbian’, ‘Jew’ and ‘artist’. Her proximity to the avant garde theatre during 1932 attracted the attention of Andre Breton, a poet, artist and founder of the Surrealist movement who described Cahun as “one of the most curious spirits of our time,” (Breton). Despite his homophobia, Breton attended the salons hosted by Cahun and, her partner and stepsister, Marcel Moore at their home in Paris. The Cahun became involved in the politics and ideology of the Surrealist group during this time though never submitted herself as a member. However elusive, she revelled in the exploration of her identity and could not dedicate any piece of it to a collective. Her identity was fundamental to her portraits, Cahun was present as each character within her art and celebrated her inconsistencies: “Individualism? Narcissism? Of course… the only intentional constancy I am capable of.” (Cahun). In similar fashion: she was both tongue-in-cheek and deadly serious. Her internal struggle was intertwined with celebration of the uncertain. Sherman, on the other hand, did not see herself within the portraits she produced. The personas she created were attributed entirely to an amalgamation of stereotypes and tropes: “I feel anonymous in my work. When I look at these pictures, I never see myself; they aren’t self portraits. Sometimes I disappear.” (Sherman). The language Sherman and Cahun use to describe their characters is not dissimilar as both artists refer to “masks” and “trying on” personas. “I really don’t think that they are about me. It’s maybe about me or maybe about not wanting to be me and wanting to be all these other characters. Or at least try them in.” (Sherman). Who they are and who thy become in each photograph are as different as their motivations, yet their expression of these thoughts are poignantly attuned.

By the 1980’s a substantial shift in cultural consciousness had begun to take place. Globalisation and mass media became ever-present. People were growing increasingly connected, despite distance and a path was paved for advertisements to appeal on universal level. Sherman grew up alongside this expansion. Her work became a commentary on the media’s use of recycled female characters and though she distanced herself from feminist art, possibly in an attempt to avoid being pigeon-holed, her images are still exemplary criticism of the male gaze and sexual objectification of women in pop culture. She sourced her influences from art and fashion photography, film and advertisements (pornography and medical illustrations were also relevant to her later work). The method by which she structured her photographs reveals her affinity with horror and B movies; she was able to determine how an audience would decipher an image, though left a narrative up to the individual viewer. There increased movement towards embracing audience participation to derive meaning from a work during this time as focus shift from Modernism to Postmodernism. For Cahun, her confession of narcissism (though she retracted and readmitted this statement several times, naturally) would suggest a taciturn reception if a viewer was to interpret her art as anything other than herself. Her source material was not dissimilar to Sherman’s, however, as, “Cahun’s early work references theatre bills, circus posters, circulars, and postcards.” (Chadwick and Ades). Despite the differences in the scale of the media deployment both artist’s sources reflect the attitudes and style of the their respective time periods.

Cahun’s quest for the truth of her identity reflected the Modernist idea of a tangible reality. Her drive to achieve absolute understanding of her self despite the rigid pre-existing social structures was motivated by a love for creation and growth and as a result she produced thought-provoking work at the dawn of academic discussions on gender. Her works and attitudes were, “a forerunner of the gender theories of Simone de Beauvoir and Judith Butler,” (Elkin). Sherman, conversely, worked to deconstruct female stereotypes. Her work was self-referential to the tropes she had experienced growing up in a globalist society, and used the Postmodernist idea (within her photography) that truth is relative and can be skewed. Her intertextual Untitled Film Stills series keenly observed Hollywood tropes, repackaged them into an accessible commentary, appealing to a wide audience due to their attunement to popular culture while simultaneously criticising it. Cahun’s work is not without a critical eye for the confinements of gender binaries, although it does not pursue this path extensively, rather choosing to express her internal thoughts and feelings through her work. Her relationship with identity, Surrealism, dreams and madness referenced the culture she was apart of, yet seemingly as a side effect, not as a focus. Saturation of imagery as globalisation took hold played a large part in the artistic departure from the self to the self referential. An increased accessibility to other ways of seeing encouraged a shift in focus in art between the 1960’s-90’s, propelling it away from Modernism. Claude Cahun and Cindy Sherman’s photography shared striking visual similarities, though the intended purpose of their work is as vastly different as it is equally intriguing.

  • Bibliography
  • Tate, (2015). Cindy Sherman, Artist biography. [online] Available at: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/cindy-sherman-1938 [Accessed 26 Nov. 2015].
  • Encyclopedia Britannica, (2014). Claude Cahun, French writer, photographer, Surrealist, and performance artist. [online] Available at: http://www.britannica.com/biography/Claude-Cahun [Accessed 26 Nov. 2015].
  • Riviere, J. (1929). Womanliness as Masquerade. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 10(303-13).
  • Cindy Sherman – Nobody’s Here But Me. (1994). New York: BBC Arena.
  • Stevens, M. (2015). How I Made It: Cindy Sherman on Her ‘Untitled Film Stills’. [online] NYMag.com. Available at: http://www.nymag.com/anniversary/40th/culture/45773/ [Accessed 27 Dec. 2015].
  • Chadwick, W. and Ades, D. (1998). Mirror images – Women, Surrealism, and self-representation. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
  • Doy, G. (2007). Claude Cahun – a sensual politics of photography. London: I.B. Tauris.
  • Polizzotti, M. (1995). Revolution of the mind. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.
  • Cahun, C. and Malherbe, S. (2007). Disavowals. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
  • Elkin, L. (2015). Reading Claude Cahun. [online] Quarterly Conversation. Available at: http://www.quarterlyconversation.com/claude-cahun-disavowals [Accessed 28 Dec. 2015].

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