This latest retrospective of the work of Claude Cahun (1894-1954) should please her cult-like following because it is the first to exhibit her work on a grand scale in over 16 years. It is presented in eight thematic sections representing the diverse debates her work has been assigned to, from 'Metamorphoses of identity and the subversions of gender' to 'Poetry and politics'. Francois Leperlier, the co-curator with Juan Vincente Aliaga, also staged Cahun's last retrospective at the Musee d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris in 1995. Before Leperlier began research on Cahun in 1984, she was almost unheard of and her work, produced in conjunction with her lover and collaborative partner, 'Marcel Moore' (1892-1972), unseen.
Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore, born Lucy Schwob and Suzanne Malherbe respectively, met as teenagers in Nantes when they became step-sisters (Cahun's father married Moore's mother). They subsequently lived together in Paris where they mixed with the Surrealists Andre Breton and Robert Desnos. Cahun wrote poetry, staged short performances and contributed to Paris' first homosexual magazine, while Moore was a successful illustrator. The Surrealists endorsed sexual liberation and celebrated 'woman' but as the subject or muse of their work. Very few were considered equal authors. Cahun, with a strong female voice, cropped hair and at the forefront of gay rights was therefore, even among peers, an unusual character. Together, Cahun and More defied sexual, social and artistic conventions and are still considered something of an enigma.
In the midst of World War II the couple settled in a comparatively reclusive inherited country house in Jersey where their work became more eccentric and intimate. Cahun would dress up and use her androgynous figure to pose for Moore in a number of exaggerated guises. Her characters appeared like cardboard cutouts of a bad play, mimicking and questioning the stereotype. Always the subject of the work, Cahun used her own image to dismantle cliches of identity. Their home became her theatre and domestic props became symbolic. It is these photographs--which dominate the exhibition--that have attracted the most attention, and which resonate so well for every artist, academic, and student staging a personal protest.
Cahun's invention of a body-builder character (Pl 1) is a perfect example of her role-play performances. The edges of the backdrop are included in the shot, emphasizing the domestic interior and DW nature of the work. The inwardfacing forehead curls and painted-on nipples ridicule the character's inclination to take him-self too seriously, which is hinted at in the confrontational gaze and amusing byline on his vest ('I am in / training / dont kiss me' above a pair of lips). Cahun's chequer-board-jacket character (cat. no. 5, Neuflize Vie Collection) is perhaps her most iconic. Again she plays with gender, and makes a rather handsome man. Indeed, most of the portraits of Cahun as a woman seem, paradoxically, more like someone in drag. But the use of the mirror in this double self-portrait is most significant. Cahun often played with duplicity and she saw Moore, her viewer, and her characters as alternate selves. This came at a time when the Cartesian T was being questioned and the Surrealists were dabbling with the subconscious.
Cahun's portraits are not only thought provoking, they are aesthetically pleasing. The combination of meticulous composition, the subject's dominance, confusing sex and eccentric dress make them altogether compelling. Maybe it was because they were made in relative isolation, or because 'dressing-up' never goes out of fashion, that Cahun's prolific body of portraits appear timeless. For we must remember that every interpretation of Cahun and Moore's work has been attributed retrospectively When Lerpelier unearthed the archive in the '80s and brought it to the forefront of feminist and post-modern debate, it was of no surprise that 'Cahun' was immediately adopted as a pioneer of the movement. Her portraits were even likened to Cindy Sherman's B Movie film-stills.
The Self-portrait shown as cat. no. 16 (Jersey Heritage Collection) of about 1939 is an example of Cahun's later portraits, which are more romantic and feminine. Cahun has here abandoned her early dandy character and inhabits a more romanticized feminine figure, seductively found in the midst of nature (in the form of flowers in the garden). None the less, she continues to question the cliche. This woman could be any subject/object of desire, from Jane (in Tarzan) to biblical Eve. What is clear, however, is that Cahun continues to pose and perform while ever conscious of the regard of her lover, Moore.
Because the portraits were discovered posthumously we do not know Moore's level of involvement with, say, the directing, dress or make-up of Cahun's portraits. We can assume, however, because the collection was kept private by the couple, that it was only ever intended for personal use and possession. As Cahun's sole companion, Moore forms part of the gaze, its true and intended recipient. She is therefore an integral participant and collaborator of the portraits. Furthermore, Moore's shadow crops up through the years in the lower right corner of each photograph, much like a signature, emphasizing her presence as part of the masquerade and implying that she was also the photographer (Pl 2).
Why then does 'Moore' continue to remain largely uncredited within this body of work? Is it because she was the quieter, shy half of the couple, or because she was merely the woman behind the lens? In this retrospective she is only referred to as Cahun's collaborator in one section, 'The Two of us. Claude Cahun and Suzanne Malherbe (Marcel Moore)'. This comprises a selection of montages that Moore designed to illustrate Aveux non avenus, Cahun's most significant literary work (Paris, 1930): and even that image reflects upon her inextricable relationship with Moore (Pl 3).
The Jeu de Paume, which introduces its temporary exhibitions as fragments of a story that need never have a beginning or ending, is the perfect venue to stage 'Claude Cahun' and the work's complex historiography. The exhibition does well to set the artist within her proper context of the early 20th century without creating another linear history of women artists or comparing her to contemporaries at the time of her discovery. It also provides a comprehensive biography, which is almost as fascinating as her art but, played at the end as part of a video documentary, is a bonus and avoids the danger of acting as a preface or justification for the displayed work. 'Claude Cahun', the exhibition, lets the work speak for itself.
To see Claude Cahun's guises, metaphors and poetry at first hand makes them even more exciting and mysterious. It is wonderful to see a celebration of a such an artist in Paris, where she first made a name for herself, while the importance of her work is being increasingly understood. It is also an ironic tragedy that the same historians who criticize the canon for excluding women and 'the Other', using Cahun as an example of this, continue to re-write history without any reference to Cahun's significant other, Marcel Moore, who had enjoyed a successful career as a graphic artist by her early twenties, working in the avant-garde theatrical world and even exhibiting at the Salon d'Automne. I am therefore, despite having immensely enjoyed this major retrospective, obliged to see it as something of a failure. Its title is a problem, to begin with, and the show does not attribute many of the works to the person who may have been, strictly speaking, the co-author or collaborator, from whom even Cahun admitted she could not be separated: 'Portrait of one or the other, our two narcissisms drowning there, it was the impossible realized in a magic mirror' (Claude Cahun, Disavowals, trans S Muth, London 2007, p12).…