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Looking like a Modernist

Mirror, mirror, on the wall, or so the story goes. For Snow White’s stepmother, the evil Queen, the terrible magic of the mirror is its unimpeachable veracity, its devotion to the truth. The mirror doesn’t lie about what it knows; and what the mirror knows, it knows precisely; and what the mirror knows precisely, it knows visually. Who is the fairest one of all? It sees what it knows and it knows what it sees.

In gazing into the mirror, the Queen seeks a knowledge that’s fixed, fixated, arresting the passage of time and the logic of monarchical succession. In the Brothers Grimm version, the Queen pledges to eat the heart of her stepdaughter in order to receive immortality—an act of cannibalism Walt Disney excised, for obvious reasons, in making the tale into the first feature-length animated film in 1937. Endless beauty is also endless power, and so the Queen’s desire is suspended between the absolute reification of monarchical rule and its effectual dissolution: if there are no more daughters, step or otherwise, then the family line is ended, the law of sexual reproduction refused, the status quo set in stone. In this sense, even if the Queen were to win the day, she would end up as still as Snow White in her coffin of glass. Contingency and chaos curtailed, as is the fairytale’s prerogative, hers would be a petrified world, a graveyard of pure image.

The trouble is that the Queen trusts the mirror. She’s seduced by its promise of perfect visual knowledge—its capacity to reflect the world just as it is. First published in 1812, “Little Snow White” offers a striking index for the decentring of the modern observer, whose formation Jonathan Crary dates between 1810 and 1840. The Queen doesn’t, indeed can’t, believe her own eyes, unable as she is to tell the difference between the heart of Snow White and the heart of the wild animal that the huntsman brings to her. Perception is detached from body; visual authority is vested in the mirror. In materializing the subjective, bodily limits of the Queen’s sight, the mirror is less like the camera obscura of the classical observer and more like the stereoscope of the modern one.

Perhaps the Queen’s demise reflects her stubborn faith in the mirror as a transparent, objective window on the world—for the mirror, as Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar argue in The Madwoman in the Attic, is a master symbol of masculine authority, and it can envisage women only as monsters or angels.[1] More than this, the Queen fails to see how the decentring of the visual is also the “denigration of vision,” in Martin Jay’s well-known phrase. As modern visual technologies make their purchase on the world, multiplying optical mistakes and puzzles, aberrations and illusions, “[t]here is a violent decentring of the place of mastery in which since the Renaissance the look had come to reign,” as Jean-Louis Comolli writes. “Decentred, in panic, thrown into confusion by all this new magic of the visible, the human eye finds itself affected with a series of limits and doubts.”[2]

The Queen’s turn to the mirror, then, opens a new chapter in the story of seeing. Of seeing as not seeing. Of seeing as not, in fact, knowing.

Another Mirror

Claude Cahun, Self-Portrait with Mirror, 1928. Courtesy of the Jersey Heritage Collections.
Fig. 1. Claude Cahun, Self-Portrait with Mirror, 1928. Courtesy of the Jersey Heritage Collections.

It was Claude Cahun who made me think of the Queen. I was trying to work through the directness and indirectness of Cahun’s gaze in her 1928 self-portrait by a mirror, her body encased in a checkered jacket, buttoned up, collar popped. The mirror seems sinister in this image, much as it will a decade later in Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, rendered as a purple-masked face in a pool of fire. In Cahun’s self-portrait, her throat is exposed to the reflective surface, the muscle connecting sternum to skull straining under tender skin and the mirror’s glare. It makes her seem vulnerable, at risk.

Even so, she’s indifferent to the mirror’s counsel, which she dismisses—as she draws near to it—by the smooth, slanted curve of her cheek, the whites of her averted eyes. The mirror is a mere prop in the portrait scenario, relevant only as an appendage to the camera, a mechanism for expanding its formal range of sight. It’s the camera that pulls Cahun’s attention, and it’s the camera’s testimony—particular yet partial, overt yet allusive—that she seeks. Because she looks at the camera, we feel her eyes on us, holding us. Yet, as in so many of Cahun’s self-portraits, her eyes are equivocal in their expression, daring us to look and daring us not to look. In a single gesture, we, like the mirror, are pulled close and pushed away.

If the Queen wants her reflection to secure her place in the social and political order of the world, Cahun wants hers to disrupt that order altogether. I see in her self-portrait coded signs of the instrumentalized uses to which photography was put in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—the work of eugenicists, criminologists, medical practitioners, and others to build, photograph by photograph, systems for social organization and control. Apart from the mirror itself, there’s the filing cabinet, black and bulky, and the framed photograph that rests on top of it. These objects stand in for the vast archives of photographic images that were assembled to quantify people as sociobiological types and to insert them into hierarchies of value. Who is the fairest one of all? The racial connotations of the Queen’s guiding question—as of the snowy whiteness of the stepdaughter she scorns—are already blatant. But in the second half of the nineteenth century, as the so-called “sciences of identity” began to scrutinize the body ever more ruthlessly, the Queen’s question is given in a regulatory, bureaucratic register.

But photography was Cahun’s privileged medium because of its capacity to scatter and diffuse the visual truths it was imagined to guarantee. In her hands, the camera opened up rather than locked down the self, making it less accountable, not more, under the regime of the visual. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we can’t make out the contents of the framed image on the cabinet behind Cahun—that tinselly, tangled mess of light. It sits at the edge of our sight, as at the edge of the image proper. It joins with Cahun’s gaze in confronting us with the limits of our eyes.

Aveux non avenus: avowals disavowed, confessions made and immediately retracted. This is the title of the book of photomontages and text Cahun published in 1930 with Éditions du Carrefour, the same house that published Max Ernst’s Surrealist manifesto La femme 100 têtes. Cahun is for saying and not saying, for unmasking and masking—an infinite equivocation that finds its basis in what she called “the void bang down the middle” of the self. “Shuffle the cards. Masculine? Feminine? It depends on the situation. Neuter is the only gender that always suits me.”[3] In Aveux non avenus, the imagery of games, both cards and chess, plays off masculine and feminine, self and other—and the real and the unreal. For Cahun, the world, like the self, is changeable and enigmatic, seen in and through shadows.

Another Queen

The sight of Cahun suited in checks, endlessly shuffling her deck of cards, sends me to the chess board in At Land, the experimental short film Maya Deren made in 1944. Washing up onto the shore, the woman at land is the woman at sea, tossed to and fro in a world as disorienting as any Georges Méliès film. She seeks a single chess piece, the white queen (another white queen), and makes her moves through a series of different locations—from the beach to a smoky dining room to a winding dirt road to a disused house, and then, eventually, back to the beach. These exterior and interior locations are stitched together by the woman’s movements, through matches on action. In successive shots early in the film, we see her body fragmented: her feet climbing up some driftwood by the beach, her fingers grasping at the edge of a banquet table, her face emerging over the white tablecloth as if above a parapet.

The woman is drawn to the chess game being played by two men at the far end of the table, and so she crawls on her belly along the table’s length, seemingly invisible to the chattering guests she passes. The space shifts uncannily between the dining room and a forest floor; she fights her way through table settings and vegetation. Finally, she reaches the board. The two men get up and leave. She moves her eyes around, left to right, right to left, and the chess pieces glide across the board, as if propelled by her active gaze.

Maya Deren, At Land, 1944.
Fig 2. Maya Deren, At Land, 1944.

A sleight of hand—no, a sleight of the eyes. I think of this moment often, for how elegantly it proclaims Deren’s control over the image, over her image, even as her body is given as the very syntax of the film. In different ways, both Cahun and Deren insisted on the slippery subjectivity and sociopolitical constitution of visual knowledge; they played games so they could break the rules those games signified. As Deren wrote in an essay in 1946, the “ritualistic form” of films like At Land was primed for “depersonalizing” the individual, yet this was a deconstruction meant not to destroy but instead to “[enlarge] him beyond the personal dimension and [free] him from the specializations and confines of personality.”[4] In the words of Maria Pramaggiore, Deren creates “an aesthetic of self-elaboration rather than of taxonomy” in which “all social, representational, and physical categories are reevaluated.”[5]

In the closing moments of At Land, the woman intervenes in another game of chess—this time, between two women on the beach. Just as the queen is about to be conquered, the woman snatches the piece from the board and dashes off along the dunes. Her personae proliferate: she is cheered on by various iterations of herself, representatives from earlier parts of her journey. Long discarded, then, is the mirror of masculine power, the mirror that locks people in place, that decides between the fairest and the darkest, the beautiful and the damned. The woman runs off with the queen, disappearing into the sunset.

Is this what it means to look like a modernist, to look in a modernist way? I offer these associative reflections by way of introducing this new regular forum on modernism’s visual cultures. Combining critical and creative approaches, and grounded in the analysis of particular objects, forms, and technologies, the pieces included in the Visualities blog will explore the visual relations and ocular regimes of modernity. In what new ways might we discuss the visual as a special category—aesthetic, epistemological, political—in modernism? How do different modes and practices of vision interact within the contested terrain of modernity? How can specific visual artifacts reframe our assumptions about modernism, its temporal and geographical planes, and its expanded media ecology? In broaching these and other questions, Visualities will attend not only to how the moderns looked and what their looking meant—but also how their ways of looking continue to shape our view of the world.



[1] See Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1984), 36–44.

[2] Jean-Louis Comolli, “Machines of the Visible,” in Techniques of the Cinema, ed. Teresa de Lauretis and Stephen Heath (New York: St. Martin’s, 1980), 121–42, 123.

[3] Claude Cahun, Disavowals, or, Cancelled Confessions, trans. Susan de Muth, ed.  Jennifer Mundy (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007), 151.

[4] Maya Deren, “An Anagram of Ideas on Art, Form, and Film,” in Maya Deren and the American Avant-Garde, ed. Bill Nichols (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001), 267–22, 20.

[5] Maria Pramaggiore, “Seeing Double(s): Reading Deren Bisexually,” in Maya Deren and the American Avant-Garde, 237–60, 243.