'Claude Cahun': Jeu De Paume, Paris, 24 May-24 September, Then la Virreina Centre De la Imatge, Barcelona, and the Art Institute of Chicago

By McCartney, Nicola | British Art Journal, Summer 2011 | Go to article overview

'Claude Cahun': Jeu De Paume, Paris, 24 May-24 September, Then la Virreina Centre De la Imatge, Barcelona, and the Art Institute of Chicago


McCartney, Nicola, British Art Journal


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.

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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. …

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