Women Artists, Surrealism and Androgyny: Cahun, Sage and Oppenheim

Posted by: Linda Lin

More and more exhibitions nowadays dedicate themselves solely to women artists. However, since this type of gendered curatorial practice separates women artists from their male counterparts, it will only perpetuate the notion that women artists need to be treated differently because they are women. The more effective way to exhibit women artists, I argue, is to study them in the context of their explorations of a common theme. In this particular post, I will examine women artists and Surrealism, using the cases of Claude Cahun, Kay Sage and Meret Oppenheim for their mutual depiction of the concept of androgyny, and pay special attention to how their uses of different media contribute to communicating ideas. These three artists were all affiliated with Surrealism to some extent during the first half of the twentieth century, employing certain Surrealist techniques such as exploring the irrational and the subconscious and juxtaposing seemingly unrelated elements. Yet, they all went beyond the boundaries of Surrealism to further pursue their own distinct artistic passions, asserting their identities as creative subjects instead of fantastical objects portrayed by male Surrealists. I argue that the concept of androgyny can be seen in Cahun’s photographic self-portraits, Sage’s paintings and Oppenheim’s objects, yet Cahun directly depicts herself as an androgyne, Sage creates landscapes free of gender associations with gender-indeterminate figures, and Oppenheim promotes the unification of both genders on a psychological and conceptual level. Each artist explores androgyny through the specificities of the medium she chooses, within and outside the artistic borders of Surrealism.

Surrealism is an avant-garde movement first announced by André Breton in his Manifesto of Surrealism as “psychic automatism in its pure state. . . in the absence of any control exercised by reason. . . exempt from. . . moral concern. . . based on the belief in. . . the omnipotence of dream. . .”(1) The aim of the Surrealists was to release the creative potential within the unconscious, uniting the world of dreams with that of reality.(2) Under this ideology, women were situated in a relatively awkward position during the movement. Although the number of active female participants was large and women were well-received as muses within the Surrealist circle, they were less acknowledged as autonomously artistic subjects, living at the margins of male dominance.(3) These ambivalent gender dynamics between male and female correspond to the idea of androgyny of this paper. In an era when gender was firmly binarized as either female or male, such an unconventional and unequivocal description of gender seems to echo the principles promoted by Surrealism, namely illogic and abnormality. Further, androgyny fits to the Surrealist belief that the sexual union would resolve the polarities between men and women into a creative whole.(4)

Claude Cahun applies Surrealist concepts to produce staged photographic self-portraits that depict herself as an androgyne who defies gender norms and asserts subjectivity of her own image, thus challenging the ideal, objectified representation of women by male Surrealists. In The Self-Portraits of Claude Cahun, Liena Vayzman characterizes Cahun as “an alien within Surrealism,”(5) pointing out that she applies Surrealist tenets yet challenges them at the same time, being at the margin and at the heart of the movement. Identifying herself as a Surrealist in essence,(6) Cahun had interacted with Surrealists on social, artistic and intellectual levels, participating in exhibitions, publications and gatherings.(7) She uses Surrealist methods, such as juxtaposition and experimentation with irrationality, to undermine conventional gendered systems while proposing new ones that would open up space for cultural others, women and homosexuals in particular.(8) Cahun’s existence as a lesbian undermines the heterosexual nature of Surrealism and her creative energy is a direct threat of Surrealists’ belief of female artistic impotency. She utilizes modes of denial, confrontation, irony and reinvention to reconfigure the stereotypical portrayal of women in her Surrealist self-portraits.

Cahun uses mask and mirror as props to assist the construction of her androgynous look and emphasizes the theatricality of gender as performance. In Self-Portrait with Silk, Cahun, in radically shaved short hair, poses fully nude in front of a hanging silk quilt, covering her breasts with her elbows and positioning her thighs in a way that hides most of her private part. Negating these biological traits of her femaleness, she wears a masquerade mask that completely hides her eyes, preventing the possibility of returning the viewer’s gaze. However, the blocking off of her sight seems to allow herself surrender to the viewer’s inspection and fantasy. Such a sensual play of hide-and-seek across her body and face fuses this seemingly erotic image with an intellectual concept that challenges the Surrealist stereotype of women as submissive, blind and powerless.(9) Although unable to see, Cahun controls how she would like herself to be presented through the format of a self-portrait, denying the right of others to dictate how she should look like and behave. As an active image-maker, Cahun portrays herself as a passive object of visual consumption but creates an inability of successful sexual fantasy due to the presence of the mask and her androgynous look, which mock the sexual desire of an assumed heterosexual male audience towards an image of a perfect woman. The silk quilt here seems to function as a backdrop, a double entry of the artificiality of this purposefully staged image, in addition to the performativity of Cahun herself. Her construction of paradox between concealment and revelation is unexpected and ironic, creating an air of the theatricality.

Cahun in Self-Portrait with Mirror challenges the male Surrealists’ assumption of woman as a symbolic representation of idealized femininity in a more unapologetic and straightforward way. Wearing a chessboard coat in a masculine fashion, with the collar turned up in a V shape and tightly held by her hands, she turns her head to directly encounter the viewer’s gaze. Without body curves or exposure of desirable flesh, she refuses to represent herself as conventionally attractive, passive or aesthetically appealing. Her tough look lacks visible womanly characteristics, presenting a sharp contrast with the ideal of feminine beauty. Her body language, including her fist and enclosed lips, shows her firm resistance to female objectification. The mirror hanging closely next to her not only duplicates her bodily presence but also symbolizes a doubling effect of her dominance and power. Such a forthright visual confrontation is fierce and even threatening, asserting that she owns the right to show herself this way and thus to be this way.(10) Problematizing the notion of gender, she disrupts the relationship between sex assignment at birth and gender expression, embodying a masculine appearance under a biologically female body. As she wrote in Disavowals, “Masculine? Feminine? It depends on the situation. Neuter is the only gender that always suits me.”(11) Through gender transgression and self-reinvention, Cahun destabilizes the fixed subject position of femininity.(12) Blurring the lines between the actual self and the portrayed self, she explores the many possibilities of gender identity through photography, thus resisting a singular determination or a binary definition. Cahun’s self-portraits are her visual manifesto that declares her artistic individuality, criticizes and pushes beyond the representation of gender and sexuality towards a fluid and undetermined direction, renouncing the male Surrealist way of confining women within the dependent roles of partners, muses and lovers.(13)

Using photography as her main medium, Cahun experiments with her audience’s understanding of photography as a documentation of reality. The intimate scale, personal tone and tactility of the photograph make it an ideal medium to embody her interests in transforming the real, lived and three-dimensional experience into a framed, frozen and flat image.(14) It suites to Cahun’s themes of self-exploration and self-invention of gender in that the process of making self-portraits is a way to experience the process of self-creation. Photographs also manifest imagination and visuality in material forms, combining fact with fiction and reality with representation.(15) The nature of the self-portrait thus helps Cahun assert her androgynous individuality, dissociating herself from the Surrealist group identity. By reclaiming her androgynous image, Cahun subverts the misogynistic and heterosexist system of representations perpetuated by Surrealism.

Unlike the photographic self-portraits of Claude Cahun whose constructive process and visual effects directly and intentionally embody the concept of androgyny, the paintings of Kay Sage suggest androgyny in a subtle and subconscious way, through her depiction of ungendered landscapes and gender-indeterminate, cloaked sentinels. Although associated with the Surrealist group in Paris, Sage had a tangential relationship with the group’s male artists, mainly because the movement was out of a male construct from its inception and female was supposed to only act as the ideal Surrealist muse. However, just because of the group’s definition of artist did not necessarily include female, Sage managed to define her own sources of creative inspiration.(16) Throughout her artistic journey with Surrealism, Sage showed a surreal imagination in her works, whose spatial dislocation and supernatural imagery echo the illogical structure of the dream promoted by Surrealism. Upon seeing Sage’s works at the 1938 exhibition of the Salon des Surindépendants, Breton felt that because of their strength, they must have been done by a man.(17) Breton, along with other male Surrealists, associates the cold and the mechanical with male’s creativity and the ethereal with female’s.(18) Here, he is assigning binary gender roles to pictorial elements and artistic styles. However, Sage breaks this Surrealist tendency of gendered thinking by painting her quasi-sentinel figures as androgynous and disassociating her landscapes from visible gender implications, thus announcing her own distinct ungendered style.

Sage presents an uncanny presence of a guardian – neither dead nor alive, neither man nor woman – in I Saw Three Cities to comment on classical feminine beauty and demonstrate the idea of gender ambiguity. Presiding over a haunting, abandoned landscape, the guardian is wrapped with fluid drapery, whose sinuous curves remind those of the ancient Greek statue The Winged Victory of Samothrace. However, Sage’s depiction lacks signifiers of vivacity or the female body. There is no visible connotation that suggests its gender identity. One is unable to get a sense of flesh under the cloth; the purified geometric form seems to have an elusive identity of its own.(19) This androgynous nature of the sentinel figure reflects the Surrealists’ fascination with robots and mechanized humanity,(20) whose equivocation is intriguingly unsettling and mystical. Even though the drapery looks realistic and animated, its core, as the red long stick suggests, remains motionless and rigid. The combination of the verticality and dominance of the sentinel figure and the sharp perspective extended to infinity is dramatic, while Sage’s technical control in the execution of form, light and shadow conveys a strong emotion of emptiness and abandonment, stripped of any human habitation. The contrast of soft cloth with angular constructions and the juxtaposition of various abstract forms further show Sage’s absorption of the Surrealist idea of irrationality, which usually appears in dreams. She embraced symbolic figuration as the key to the language of the unconscious, creating descriptive yet ambiguous forms of Surrealism set in an unreal location.(21)

Sage’s depiction of landscape does not involve or depend on an awareness of gender, but relies more on an awareness of her internal feelings, psychic experiences and childhood memories associated with landscape. By un-gendering and personalizing the landscape in Tomorrow is Never, she rejects male Surrealists’ gender association with artistic style. Here, the painting is rendered in somber tones of gray and green, combining several motifs that altogether yield a disquieting and despairing feeling. The desolate and unidentifiable setting is populated by skeletal forms that suggest architectural scaffolding, rigging and latticework structures. The multiplication of these intricate forms symbolizes endlessness, both in space and in time. One can feel the intense loneliness through this bleak imagery, yet the source is unknown, leaving an unresolved mystery.

According to Jillian Cowley (22) in Visitors’ Creative Responses to Protected Landscapes, people can “communicate with the landscape through senses” and “identify and develop an intimacy with the landscape.”(23) Like many Surrealists, Sage utilized landscape as a metaphor for her psychological states of being, but she allowed landscape to reflect her experience and identity as an individual, rather than a woman. It is said that the scaffolding imagery is related to a psychic event happened to her around 1930, when she had a vivid illusion of scaffolding on a building across her house on fire.(24) She might have applied the Surrealist technique of recalling and translating memories and dream-like encounters to the execution of this painting, transforming unreal imagery into pictorial (sur)reality. Besides, Sage also personally identifies with the scaffolding form. A self-contradictory structure that is fragile yet unyielding, protective yet vulnerable, scaffolding is a metaphor for Sage’s ambivalent character as well as for the troubling experiences she had had.(25) Painting as a medium might have helped Sage convey the starkness of landscape and express her suppressed tumultuous emotions and solitude through her choice of muted and cold colors. She also used light and shadow boldly to depict the oppositional forces fighting inside her mind, creating a sharp contrast that parallels her ambivalent psyche. Painting imaginary landscapes without any specific interests in gendered connotations, Sage successfully paved her own creative path that stands out from mainstream Surrealist style.

Similar to Sage’s genderless figures and landscapes, the Surrealist objects of Meret Oppenheim are not associated with one particular gender either. She actually embraced the spirit of androgyny, stating, “The whole being is both masculine and feminine.”(26) This belief in the unification of gender poles can be seen in her sculptural works that merge oppositional materials, forms and content. In My Nurse, Oppenheim tied together a pair of found white pumps with strings and presents them on a silver platter. The resulting shape draws a visual parallel to a roasted turkey ready to be served. Because of the feminine association of heels, this imagery further suggests a bound woman under control, mocking the common consumption of the female body. The white paper frills on the heels seem to mimic the cap of a maid, symbolizing domesticity and submission. The strings indicate the presence of a man who is performing a sexual act or in a sexual fantasy. The curved silhouette of the “feminine” heels and the straight, “masculine” strings present a pair of oppositional forms and reflect gender duality, while the fragile paper frills and hard metal platter show opposing materiality. Different from Sage’s paintings whose pictorial strategies serve to express intense emotions, Oppenheim’s objects exist three dimensionally, whose immediacy helps to convey her message conceptually. The seeming non-sensical juxtaposition of heels and platter demonstrate the irrationality within Surrealist tenets, yet it is through merging the opposites that Oppenheim is able to criticize female objectification in a humorous way, similar to the satirical visual language Cahun uses in her Self-Portrait with Silk (Fig. 2).  

According to Jungian psychology, which Oppenheim was fascinated, the unification of opposites, including the integration of male and female, is the prerequisite for a holistic personality, which leads to self-realization and individuation.(27) My Nurse demonstrates Oppenheim’s aesthetic matrix based on Jungian theory, in which a unified rather than dichotomized image of gender is represented through the combination of both male (string) and female (heels) signifiers, echoing her own words, “In a man, a feminine part helps in the creation of this expression. In a woman, there is a corresponding masculine component . . . Man is a genius who needs a muse. Woman is a muse who needs a genius. It’s a kind of androgyny.”(28) In this respect she shares the Surrealist belief that the creative impulse is more important than craftsmanship.However, as in My Nurse where reality is depicted in a surreal form, Oppenheim did not illustrate dreams in her works like her male counterparts, saying that she was not tempted to copy life (visible reality) nor the dream (the internal reality).She also could not stand Surrealists’ discriminating attitude towards women and the “inherent feeling of inferiority”(29) finally led her to break with the group. She believed that art has no gender characteristics and the androgynous spirit is the solution to the societal differentiation and discrimination based on gender.Through Surrealist objects, Oppenheim presented spiritual value and intellectual concepts regardless of gender.

In conclusion, even though Claude Cahun, Kay Sage and Meret Oppenheim were all associated with the Surrealist circle at some point during their artistic careers, they moved freely in and out of Surrealist boundaries, applying certain techniques yet rejecting the movement’s restrictive societal expectations of women and passionately embracing their own creative energy. Parallel to this effort in breaking the gender norms, the theme of androgyny appears in their works. Cahun and Oppenheim actively and consciously captured the spirit of androgyny through photographic self-portraits and objects, respectively, while Sage hinted at the notion of androgyny subtly in her landscape paintings. These three artists chose different mediums according to their specific characteristics in order to suit their individual goals. The play of fiction and reality is embodied in Cahun’s photographs, the immediacy of tangible materials is manifest in Oppenheim’s objects and the intense emotions emanated through the pictorial contrast between colors, light and dark in Sage’s paintings. In my comparative analyses of these three artists in their mutual exploration of androgyny, I am not assuming a female quality or imposing a binarized gendered approach, which will inevitably produce biases. Instead, I look at their works through a human perspective. Rather than being simplified into two extremities, gender as a concept should be considered holistically and complicated depending on particular experience and situation. Thus is the essence of androgyny.

  1. André Breton, Manifestoes of Surrealism, trans. Richard Seaver and Helen R. Lane (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1969).
  2. “Tapping the Subconscious: Automatism and Dreams,”MoMA, accessed Nov 13, 2015,
  3. Christian Walda, “The Utopia of the Androgyne – Meret Oppenheim’s Aesthetic Metaphysics,” in Meret Oppenheim: Gedankenspiege – Mirrors of the Mind, ed. Thomas Levy (Bielefeld: Kerber, 2014), 48.
  4. Whitney Chadwick, “Leonora Carrington: Evolution of a Feminist Consciousness,” Woman’s Art Journa7, Spring/Summer 1986, 38.
  5. Liena Vayzman, The Self-Portraits of Claude Cahun: Transgression, Self-Representation, and Avant-Garde Photography, 1917-1947 (New Haven: Yale University, 2002).
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Jennifer L. Shaw, Reading Claude Cahun’s Disavowals (Farnham: Ashgate Publishing, 2014), 28.
  9. Gen Doy, Claude Cahun: A Sensual Politics of Photography (London: I. B. Tauris, 2008), 38.
  10. Liena Vayzman, The Self-Portraits of Claude Cahun: Transgression, Self-Representation, and Avant-Garde Photography, 1917-1947 (New Haven: Yale University, 2002), accessed October 29, 2015,
  11. Claude Cahun, Disavowals, trans. Susan de de Muth (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2008), 151.
  12. Liena Vayzman, The Self-Portraits of Claude Cahun: Transgression, Self-Representation, and Avant-Garde Photography, 1917-1947 (New Haven: Yale University, 2002), accessed October 29, 2015,
  13. Ibid.
  14. Judith D. Suther, “On the Verge, 1936-1939,” in A House of Her Own: Kay Sage, Solitary Surrealist (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997), 78.
  15. Stephen Robeson Miller, “In the Interim: The Constructivist Surrealism of Kay Sage,” in Surrealism and Women, ed. Mary Ann Caws, Rudolf Kuenzli, and Gwen Raaberg (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991), 123.
  16. Judith D. Suther, “On the Verge, 1936-1939” in A House of Her Own: Kay Sage, Solitary Surrealist (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997), 68.
  17. Stephen Robeson Miller, “In the Interim: The Constructivist Surrealism of Kay Sage,” in Surrealism and Women, ed. Mary Ann Caws, Rudolf Kuenzli, and Gwen Raaberg (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991), 123.
  18. “I Saw Three Cities,” Princeton University Art Museum, accessed Nov 13, 2015,
  19. Stephen Robeson Miller, “In the Interim: The Constructivist Surrealism of Kay Sage,” in Surrealism and Women, ed. Mary Ann Caws, Rudolf Kuenzli, and Gwen Raaberg (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991), 133.
  20. Jillian P. Cowley is the lead of Cultural Landscapes Program at National Park Service.
  21. Jillian P. Cowley, “Visitors’ Creative Responses to Protected Landscapes,” in Rethinking Protected Areas in a Changing World: Proceedings of the 2011 George Wright Society Conference on Parks, Protected Areas, and Cultural Sites (Hancock: George Wright Society, 2012), 420.
  22. Ibid., 139.
  23. Christian Walda, “The Utopia of the Androgyne – Meret Oppenheim’s Aesthetic Metaphysics,” in Meret Oppenheim: Gedankenspiege – Mirrors of the Mind, ed. Thomas Levy (Bielefeld: Kerber, 2014), 47.
  24. Ibid., 52.
  25. Ibid., 47.
  26. Ibid., 53.
  27. Robert J. Belton, “Androgyny: Interview with Meret Oppenheim,” in Surrealism and Women, ed. Mary Ann Caws, Rudolf E. Kuenzli and Gwen Raaberg (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991), 69.
  28. Alain Jouffroy, “Conversation between Meret Oppenheim and Alain Jouffroy,” in Meret Oppenheim: Gedankenspiege – Mirrors of the Mind, ed. Thomas Levy (Bielefeld: Kerber, 2014), 9.
  29. Christian Walda, “The Utopia of the Androgyne – Meret Oppenheim’s Aesthetic Metaphysics,” in Meret Oppenheim: Gedankenspiege – Mirrors of the Mind, ed. Thomas Levy (Bielefeld: Kerber, 2014), 48.

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