Oh there is so much to unpack here. A petite figure sits at the center of a faded gelatin silver print, brightly lit and wreathed in Baroque darkness. Their legs are daintily crossed, hair parted into symmetrical curls, their expertly painted lips tucked into a brooding pout and on each cheek is a dark heart. The figure wears a nude bodysuit under the loose shorts, tall boots, and leather wrist bracers of a circus strong man. They hold a pantomime barbell, inscribed Totor et Popol on one side ,and Castor and Pollux on the other. Their chest is flat, with painted-on nipples and the phrase “I am in training, don't kiss me” hand-written between them. And of course the glittering, stormy eye contact.
It’s a remarkably nuanced creation, balancing masculine and female tropes into an image that vibrates with contradiction.
The figure is, of course, the surrealist artist Claude Cahun—or rather one splinter of their infinitely divided and refracted self. Cahun was a prolific photographer, wielding the hazy black and white medium to capture surreal still lifes and construct unsettling dadist colleges, but their most well-known artworks are a series of self-portraits from created from 1927 through 1929 in collaboration with their partner Marcel Moore. Cahun appears as a sailor, a grim Valkyrie in jeweled headpiece and foil wings, and as a dapper ken-doll in a checkered jacket.
At first blush these portraits appear to be ‘characters’ or performances, but I suspect they meant something more to Cahun and Moore, who both openly rejected their birth names (Lucy Schwob and Suzanne Malherbe) and adopted carefully-constructed non-binary names and resolutely ambiguous gender presentations.
Perhaps the inscriptions on the weightlifter’s barbell hint at a more nuanced conclusion. The words Totor and Popol, painted above a crudely rendered house, seem to refer to two early characters created by the Belgian cartoonist Hergé, each a kind of prototype of Hergé’s most famous protagonist, Tintin (though Popol’s first serial publication seems to have been in 1934, seven years after this photo was taken?). Castor and Pollux are a much older reference, to the twin half-brothers of Greek myth whose names grace the two brightest stars in the Gemini constellation. It may be that Cahun and Moore saw their own relationship in these duos, as eternally linked stars or parallel protagonists, or perhaps they refer to Cahun’s own multiplicity of identities, illustrating the statement from their enigmatic memoir Disavowals, “My soul is fragmentary.”
It’s fun to treat “I am in training, don't kiss me” as a cryptogram, a set of symbols to interpret, but I find that spending time with this photograph changes it. The more you look at Cahun’s weightlifter, the more the symbols fall away leaving the viewer arrested by Cahun’s piercing gaze, reckoning with the human behind the costume.
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Reed Enger, "I am in training, don't kiss me," in Obelisk Art History, Published March 23, 2018; last modified October 05, 2022, http://arthistoryproject.com/artists/claude-cahun/i-am-in-training-dont-kiss-me/.