This photograph is part of a body of works by singular and major figures, known and unknown, constituted to introduce students to the artists who were at the foundation of the art of the twentieth century. Taking a historical perspective, this collection positions gender issues, identified by the gender studies of the 1990s, as already present in artistic photographic practices, particularly very early ones, which were transgressive and ambiguous.
Commissioned by Jean Cocteau, Man Ray produced some ten photographs of the trapeze artist Barbette (Vander Clyde, 1898–1973), who “stirred the hearts of many aesthetes and poets” in the 1930s. This androgynous artist was seen at the Cirque Medrano, the Empire, the Opéra Music-Hall, Olympia, and the Moulin Rouge. Barbette performed acrobatic and trapeze acts as a woman until the end when their transvestism was revealed. Fascinated by this performer, Cocteau filmed them in The Blood of a Poet (1930), and devoted an essay to them, “Le numéro Barbette,” published in a 1926 issue of the Nouvelle revue française, illustrated with the photographs from Man Ray.