“The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.”—Nietzsche
In “Video: The Aesthetics of Narcissism,” an essay that first appeared in print in 1976, Rosalind Krauss’s central theme is that the medium of video art is essentially narcissistic because of the fixation on the self that dominates it. Krauss uses two major examples to make her case: Vito Acconci’s Centers and Lynda Benglis’s Now. In Acconci’s Centers, he points directly at his own image on a video monitor, while always trying to keep his finger at the center of the screen. He is not only pointing directly at himself, but also at the viewer. Benglis’s Now juxtaposes live performance with pre-recorded images, while she repeatedly utters phrases. Both examples explore the artist’s autobiography, bolstering Krauss’s argument for the self-obsession of the medium.
Strangely, video art had been around for a while when this piece was published, and other art movements, like body art and performance art, were just as focused on the self. Although Krauss was writing only about the medium of video, it seems that other movements were dealing with the same issue. Still, the claim can be made that video art exists on its own terms, in a different place because of the sense of time. In the postmodernist era and virtual age, the notion of individuals being heard and looked at has only become more common as technology advances. With this also comes increased value for those artists who have placed themselves in front of the camera, not only in video but in all media.
The Freudian theory of narcissism is related not to a discovery of oneself but the fear of death. Krauss is more closely related to Jacques Lacan’s theory of the mirror stage. Lacan suggests that in the mirror stage, people come to terms with the realization that they are a construction or object of their own. Looking at self-portraiture from artists throughout history, we see that approaches have varied, depending on whether the artist makes the decision to portray an idealized version of themselves or focus on a societal concept. In either case, self-portraiture has become a way for artists to deal with their struggles in society or with themselves. For example, the paintings of Frida Kahlo focus on the events of her life, which was plagued by accidents and illness. (Interestingly, the Japanese male artist Yasumasa Morimura dresses up like Kahlo in his self-portraits, making an effort to identify with Kahlo herself.) The post-Impressionist painter Vincent Van Gogh decided to portray himself at his most vulnerable moments. It would be interesting to know the responses the self-portraits of Albrecht Dürer received during his lifetime, in part because he lived in a society that saw art as striving for the perfection of the divine.
Women artists in particular use the self-portrait often in search of female identity. The photographs of Cindy Sherman aimed in the beginning to show ways in which the self is a product. Claude Cahun, a Surrealist artist, focuses on the roles that society has formulated for all women. Cahun does this primarily through self-portraits, which are photographs and photo-collages that focus on subverting societal concepts of feminity. Her work, which began to appeared in 1920s France, featured her doing a great deal of role-playing in her still images. Her head was frequently shaved, and when she did have hair, it was short and often dyed. Her punk-like image puts her in the category of someone who was ahead of her time, from a purely stylistic standpoint; however, her utopian beliefs (international workers’ solidarity, ‘aggressive pacifism’) put her in a category of her own.
Zero Books recently published Gavin James Bower’s Claude Cahun: The Soldier With No Name, which allows the reader to gain an overview of the life and work of Cahun in a slim trade paperback. The page count is petite, but the text is deep and deals with the various matters that manifest in the work of Cahun. Bower doesn’t limit himself to the visual aspect of her oeuvre, but also deals with her literary work. Within the dense concepts of narcissism, autobiography, Marxist politics and Oedipus complex are attempts to make all these ideas relevant to contemporary life. Bower doesn’t do this too often, but occasionally, distractions arise, when out of nowhere, comparisons to sexting or a reference to her hair as punkish appear. Reasons for his “addiction” to Cahun are explained in the foreword, in which he declares her “the most singularly fascinating creative spirit of the twentieth century.” Bower’s passion goes further when he declares himself a “Cahunian.” Nothing wrong with knowing your subject and object that deeply.
Contemporary culture has a fascination with women artists, especially those about whom not much is known; two examples that come to mind are photographers Francesca Woodman and Vivian Maier. But Claude Cahun was a person who did not limit herself to just one medium. In Bower’s words, she was “a writer of poetry and prose, self-centered curator of tableaux, a skilled sketch artist, photographer and muse, a poseur, actress and performer, composer of objects d’ art, a propagandist and a saboteur.” Questions come to mind whether this was just the way it was in her lifetime, or specific to the Surrealist movement. Bower tackles all these questions briefly in the book. For the most part, though, other Surrealist women are left out from the book; Bower compares Cahun to the men of the movement, in particular to André Breton. References to the similar contributions other women Surrealists of the time made are limited to quick nods here and there. For instance, when it came to politics, other women were immersed in political parties and fought strongly for their agendas. Remedios Varo was forced into exile from Paris during the Nazi occupation of France, after she was banished from Franco’s Spain. Claude Cahun was extremely forceful about her political views, just like Varo, and yet there’s no mention of Varo anywhere in this book.
Many of the women of Surrealism were close to the men: some were lovers, muses, or wives to the men, while Cahun isolated herself. Even so, a deeper comparison is vital to determine the gender identity issues that are deeply discussed in the book. Cahun’s androgyny must be a major focus of any look at her work. Bower, in focusing on one gender or the other, is already setting it up to be more about binary divisions. Current views of cultural criticism frown upon the comparison of female artists only to other female artists, but in the case of Cahun her androgyny is what makes her marginal. The dual comparison is necessary. In a Yale University dissertation, The Self-portraits of Claude Cahun: Transgression, Self-Representation, and Avant-garde Photography 1917-1947, Liena Vayzman proclaims that “Normal and abnormal, female/male, heterosexual/homosexual, and other dual configurations depend on each other, and on the line drawn between them, for definition. Cahun’s radical androgyny envisions a world beyond bipartitie definitions of gender…” Androgyny doesn’t make you a superwoman; it makes you a unique individual. Bower himself states, “What makes Cahun interesting, above all the other women of the Left Bank, is that she was assertive as woman and man.”
This is the reason why it is probably so difficult to create an image of Cahun. Although various versions of herself exist in her images, it is impossible to know how exactly she viewed herself. Bower asserts, though, that “Cahun’s use of the mirror in both her visual and literary work was an investigation into her own narcissism.” In the broader sense, all artists are narcissistic, since the search for meaning within oneself never ends. Still, the self also deals with concepts offered by or found in the work of others, and how those concepts relate to the individual artist. In relation to our present day condition and the phenomenon of the virtual age, it seems that the idea of the self is the thing of ultimate value, because the self is not limited and the artist can focus on the history she or he wants to express. This is what this book is about in the larger sense—it is about the “autobiography” of Claude Cahun, filtered through the history of Gavin James Bower, and vice versa. Both these perspectives are worthy of a reader’s reflection and analysis.