Posts Tagged ‘androgynous self-portraits

24
May
17

Exhibition: ‘Gillian Wearing and Claude Cahun: Behind the mask, another mask’ at the National Portrait Gallery, London

Exhibition dates: 9th March – 29th May 2017

 

This is the last posting for a while as my hand operation is tomorrow… so let’s make the most of the occasion!

 

“…the life of spirit is not the life that shrinks from death and keeps itself untouched by devastation, but rather the life that endures it and maintains itself in it. It wins its truth only when, in utter dismemberment, it finds itself. It is this power, not as something positive, which closes its eyes to the negative as when we say of something that it is nothing or is false, and then having done with it, turn away and pass on to something else; on the contrary, spirit is this power only by looking the negative in the face, and tarrying with it. This tarrying with the negative is the magical power that converts it into being.”

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George Wilhelm Frederich Hegel 1807 ‘Phenomenology of Spirit’, Preface (trans. A. V. Miller 1977), Oxford: Oxford University Press, 10

 

 

This is an interesting pairing for an exhibition but the connection between the artists is unconvincing. This is because Wearing and Cahun are talking to different aspects of the self.

Wearing’s self-portraits, her mask-querades, her shielded multiple personalities, talk to a “postmodern meditation on the slipperiness of the self” in which there is little evidence of the existence of any “real” person. Wearing wears her identities in a series of dress-ups, performances where only the eyes of the original protagonist are visible. These identities evidence Jung’s shadow aspect, “an unconscious aspect of the personality which the conscious ego does not identify in itself.” Rather than an assimilation of the shadow aspect into the self followed by an ascent (enantiodromia), Wearing’s images seem to be mired in a state of melancholia, a “confrontation with the shadow which produces at first a dead balance, a stand-still that hampers moral decisions and makes convictions ineffective…tenebrositas, chaos, melancholia.” This is not a confrontation that leads anywhere interesting, by looking the negative in the face and tarrying with it. These split personalities rise little above caricature, an imitation of a person in which certain striking characteristics are over emphasised, such as in Wearing’s portraits of her as Andy Warhol or Robert Mapplethorpe. To me, the photograph of Wearing as Mapplethorpe is a travesty of the pain that artist was feeling as he neared the end of his life, dying from HIV/AIDS.

Cahun’s self-portraits contain all the depth of feeling and emotion that Wearing’s can never contain. Here, identity and gender is played out through performance and masquerade in a constructive way, a deep, probing interrogation of the self in front of the camera. While Cahun engages with Surrealist ideas – wearing masks and costumes and changing her appearance, often challenging traditional notions of gender representation – she does so in a direct and powerful way. As Cumming observes, “She is not trying to become someone else, not trying to escape [as Wearing is]. Cahun is always and emphatically herself. Dressed as a man, she never appears masculine, nor like a woman in drag. Dressed as a woman, she never looks feminine. She is what we refer to as non-binary* these days, though Cahun called it something else: “Neuter is the only gender that always suits me.””

*Those with nonbinary genders can feel that they: Have an androgynous (both masculine and feminine) gender identity, such as androgyne. Have an identity between male and female, such as intergender. Have a neutral or unrecognized gender identity, such as agender, neutrois, or most xenogenders.*

Cahun had a gift for the indelible image but more than that, she possesses the propensity for humility and openness in these portraits, as though she is opening her soul for interrogation, even as she explores what it is to be Cahun, what it is to be human. This is a human being in full control of the balance between the ego and the self, of dream-state and reality. The photographs, little shown in Cahun’s lifetime, are her process of coming to terms with the external world, on the one hand, and with one’s own unique psychological characteristics on the other. They are her adaption** to the world.

**“The constant flow of life again and again demands fresh adaptation. Adaptation is never achieved once and for all.” (Carl Jung. “The Transcendent Function,” CW 8, par. 143.)**

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Claude Cahun is person I would have really liked to have met. Affiliated with the French Surrealist movement, living with her partner the artist and stage designer Marcel Moore, the two women left Paris for the Isles of Scilly and were then imprisoned in Nazi-occupied Jersey during the Second World War as a result of their roles in the French Resistance.

“Fervently against war, the two worked extensively in producing anti-German fliers. Many were snippets from English-to-German translations of BBC reports on the Nazis’ crimes and insolence, which were pasted together to create rhythmic poems and harsh criticism. The couple then dressed up and attended many German military events in Jersey, strategically placing them in soldier’s pockets, on their chairs, etc. Also, they inconspicuously crumpled up and threw their fliers into cars and windows. In many ways, Cahun and Malherbe’s [Marcel Moore] resistance efforts were not only political but artistic actions, using their creative talents to manipulate and undermine the authority which they despised. In many ways, Cahun’s life’s work was focused on undermining a certain authority, however her specific resistance fighting targeted a physically dangerous threat. In 1944 she was arrested and sentenced to death, but the sentence was never carried out. However, Cahun’s health never recovered from her treatment in jail, and she died in 1954.” (Wikipedia)

Undermining a certain authority … while ennobling her own identity and being. Love and respect.

Marcus

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Many thankx to the National Portrait Gallery, London for allowing me to publish the photographs in the posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image. For more information please see the blog entry Claude Cahun: Freedom Fighter.

 

This exhibition brings together for the first time the work of French artist Claude Cahun and British contemporary artist Gillian Wearing. Although they were born almost seventy years apart and came from different backgrounds, remarkable parallels can be drawn between the two artists. Both of them share a fascination with the self-portrait and use the self-image, through the medium of photography, to explore themes around identity and gender, which is often played out through masquerade and performance.

 

 

“Under this mask, another mask. I will never finish removing all these faces.”

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Claude Cahun, 1930

 

 

Claude Cahun. 'Autoportrait' 1929

 

Claude Cahun
Self-portrait (reflected image in mirror with chequered jacket)
1927
Silver gelatin print

 

 Claude Cahun. 'Autoportrait' 1928

 

Claude Cahun
Autoportrait
1928
Gelatin silver print
13.9 x 9 cm
Jersey Heritage Collection
© Jersey Heritage

 

 

“Once seen, never forgotten: Cahun had a gift for the indelible image. Even when the signals are jammed, and the meaning deliberately baffled, her vision always holds strong. This is partly convenienced by the artist’s exceptional looks. Her long, thin face, with its shaved eyebrows, large eyes and linear nose, takes paint like a canvas. She converts herself into a harpy, a lunatic or a doll with equal ease. In one self-portrait, she even holds her own bare face like a mask…

Peering into these monochrome images, so delicate and small, the viewer might inevitably wonder which is the real Cahun: the woman in the aviator goggles, the pensive Buddhist, the young man in a white silk scarf? But this is not the right question. She is not trying to become someone else, not trying to escape. Cahun is always and emphatically herself.

Dressed as a man, she never appears masculine, nor like a woman in drag. Dressed as a woman, she never looks feminine. She is what we refer to as non-binary these days, though Cahun called it something else: “Neuter is the only gender that always suits me.” …

There is little evidence that she ever displayed these photographs, which were forgotten for decades after her death. It seems that her partner was generally behind the lens, but we know almost nothing about how they were made. Of her lifelong project, Cahun wrote: “Under this mask, another mask. I will never finish removing all these faces.”

Commentators have taken this to mean that she thought of herself as a series of multiple personalities, and the double exposures, shadows and reflections in her work all seem to undermine the idea of a singular self. Yet Cahun is formidably and unmistakably Cahun, her force of personality registering every time in that utterly penetrating look. Far from some postmodern meditation on the slipperiness of the self, her images are completely direct. They acknowledge the sufferings of a double life and are deepened by them every time; and yet they rejoice in that life too.”

Laura Cumming. “Gillian Wearing and Claude Cahun: Behind the Mask, Another Mask – review,” on The Observer website

 

 

Claude Cahun in collaboration with Marcel Moore. 'Aveux non avenus frontispiece' 1929-30

 

Claude Cahun in collaboration with Marcel Moore
Aveux non avenus frontispiece
1929-30
Photomontage
Silver gelatin print
Jersey Heritage Collections
© Jersey Heritage

 

 

“Cahun appears in enigmatic guises, playing out different personas using masks and mirrors, and featuring androgynous shaven or close-cropped hair – as can be seen in the multiple views of her in the lower left-hand side of this collage. The image also includes symbols made up by the women to represent themselves – the eye for Moore, the artist, and the mouth for Cahun, the writer and actor. Whereas the majority of Surrealists were men, in whose images women appear as eroticised objects, Cahun’s androgynous self-portraits explore female identity as constructed, multifaceted, and ultimately as having a nihilistic absence at the core.”

Ron Radford (ed), Collection highlights: National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2008

 

Claude Cahun. 'Self-portrait (as a dandy, head and shoulders)' 1921-22

 

Claude Cahun
Self-portrait (as a dandy, head and shoulders)
1921-22
Silver gelatin print
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Thomas Walther Collection
Digital image, The Museum of Modern Art, New York / Scala, Florence

 

Claude Cahun. 'Studies for a keepsake' c. 1925

 

Claude Cahun
Studies for a keepsake
c. 1925
Silver gelatin prints
Musée d’Art moderne de la Ville de Paris
© Musée d’Art moderne / Roger-Viollet

 

Claude Cahun. 'Study for a keepsake' c. 1925

 

Claude Cahun
Study for a keepsake
c. 1925
Silver gelatin print
Musée d’Art moderne de la Ville de Paris
© Musée d’Art moderne / Roger-Viollet

 

Claude Cahun. 'I am in training don't kiss me' c. 1927

 

Claude Cahun
I am in training don’t kiss me
c. 1927
Silver gelatin print
117mm x 89mm (whole)
Jersey Heritage Collections
© Jersey Heritage

 

Totor (progenitor of Tintin) and Popol are two comic characters by the Belgian cartoonist Hergé. Castor and Pollux are the twin stars; Pollux and Helen were the children of Zeus and Leda, while Castor and Clytemnestra were the children of Leda and Tyndareus.

 

Claude Cahun. 'Self-portrait (kneeling, naked, with mask)' c. 1928

 

Claude Cahun
Self-portrait (kneeling, naked, with mask)
c. 1928
Silver gelatin print
116mm x  83mm
Jersey Heritage Collections
© Jersey Heritage

 

Claude Cahun. 'Self-portrait (full length masked figure in cloak with masks)' 1928

 

Claude Cahun
Self-portrait (full length masked figure in cloak with masks)
1928
Silver gelatin print
109mm x 82mm
Jersey Heritage Collections
© Jersey Heritage

 

Claude Cahun. 'Self-portrait' 1929

 

Claude Cahun
Self-portrait
1929
Silver gelatin print

 

Claude Cahun. 'Je tends les bras (I extend my arms)' c. 1932

 

Claude Cahun
Je tends les bras (I extend my arms)
c. 1932
Silver gelatin print
Jersey Heritage Collections
© Jersey Heritage

 

Claude Cahun. 'Self-portrait (in cupboard)' c. 1932

 

Claude Cahun
Self-portrait (in cupboard)
c. 1932
Silver gelatin print
Jersey Heritage Collections
© Jersey Heritage

 

 

Gillian Wearing and Claude Cahun: Behind the mask, another mask (9 March – 29 May 2017) draws together over 100 works by French artist Claude Cahun (1894-1954) and British contemporary artist Gillian Wearing (b.1963). While they were born 70 years apart, they share similar themes of gender, identity, masquerade and performance.

Cahun, along with her contemporaries André Breton and Man Ray, was affiliated with the French Surrealist movement although her work was rarely exhibited during her lifetime. Together with her partner, the artist and stage designer Marcel Moore, the two women left Paris and were then imprisoned in Nazi-occupied Jersey during the Second World War as a result of their roles in the French Resistance. In her photographs she is depicted wearing masks and costumes and engaging with Surrealist ideas. She also changes her appearance by shaving her hair and wearing wigs, often challenging traditional notions of gender representation.

Gillian Wearing studied at Goldsmiths University, winning the Turner Prize in 1997. She has exhibited extensively in the United Kingdom and internationally, including solo exhibitions at the Whitechapel Gallery and Serpentine Gallery, whilst overseas, recent retrospectives include IVAM Valencia and K20 Dusseldorf. Wearing’s photographic self-portraits incorporate painstaking recreations of her as others in an intriguing and sometimes unsettling range of guises such as where she becomes her immediate family members using prosthetic masks.

Despite their different backgrounds, obvious and remarkable parallels can be drawn between the artists whose fascination with identity and gender is played out through performance and masquerade. Wearing has referenced Cahun overtly in the past: Me as Cahun holding a mask of my face is a reconstruction of Cahun’s self-portrait Don’t kiss me I’m in training of 1927, and forms the starting point of this exhibition, the title of which (Behind the mask, another mask) adapts a quotation from Claude Cahun’s Surrealist writings.

Dr Nicholas Cullinan, Director, National Portrait Gallery, London, says: ‘This inspired, timely and poignant exhibition pairs the works of Gillian Wearing and Claude Cahun. These pioneering artists, although separated by several decades, address similarly compelling themes around gender, identity, masquerade, performance and the idea of the self, issues that are ever more relevant to the present day.’

Sarah Howgate, Curator, Gillian Wearing and Claude Cahun: Behind the mask, another mask, says: ‘It seems particularly fitting that at the National Portrait Gallery on International Women’s Day we are bringing together for the first time Claude Cahun’s intriguing and complex explorations of identity with the equally challenging and provocative self-images of Gillian Wearing.’

Gillian Wearing and Claude Cahun: Behind the mask, another mask is curated by Sarah Howgate, Senior Curator of Contemporary Portraits at the National Portrait Gallery, London.

 

Claude Cahun. 'Self-portrait as a young girl' 1914

 

Claude Cahun
Self-portrait as a young girl
1914
Silver gelatin print
Jersey Heritage Collections
© Jersey Heritage

 

Claude Cahun. 'Self-portrait as a young girl' 1914

 

Claude Cahun
Self-portrait as a young girl
1914
Silver gelatin print
Jersey Heritage Collections
© Jersey Heritage

 

Claude Cahun. 'Self-portrait (shaved head, material draped across body)' 1920

 

Claude Cahun
Self-portrait (shaved head, material draped across body)
1920
Silver gelatin print
115mm x 89mm

 

Claude Cahun. 'Autoportrait' 1927

 

Claude Cahun
Autoportrait
1927
Silver gelatin print

 

Claude Cahun. 'Self-Portrait' 1927

 

Claude Cahun
Self-Portrait
1927
Silver gelatin print

 

Claude Cahun. 'Que me veux tu?' 1929

 

Claude Cahun
Que me veux tu? (What do you want from me?)
1929
Gelatin silver print
18 x 23 cm (7 1/16 x 9 1/16 ins)
Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris

 

Claude Cahun. 'Self-portrait' 1929

 

Claude Cahun
Self-portrait
1929
Gelatin silver print

 

Claude Cahun. 'Autoportrait' 1939

 

Claude Cahun
Autoportrait
1939
Gelatin silver print
10 x 8 cm
Jersey Heritage Collection
© Jersey Heritage

 

Claude Cahun. 'Self-portrait (with Nazi badge between her teeth)' 1945

 

Claude Cahun
Self-portrait (with Nazi badge between her teeth)
1945
Photograph – Courtesy of the artist

 

 

Ten things you need to know about this extraordinary artist

1. Her real name was Lucy Schwob.
She was born 25 October 1894 in Nantes, daughter of newspaper owner Maurice Schwob and Victorine Marie Courbebaisse; her uncle was the Symbolist writer Marcel Schwob. Subjected to anti-Semitic acts following the Dreyfus Affair, she was removed to a boarding school in Surrey, where she studied for two years.

2. Cahun’s lover was also her stepsister.
In 1909, she met her lifelong partner and collaborator Suzanne Malherbe while studying in Nantes, in what she described as a ‘thunderbolt encounter’. Eight years later, Cahun’s father married Suzanne’s widowed mother.

3. The couple adopted gender-neutral names.
Schwob first used the name Claude Cahun in the semi-biographical text ‘Les Jeux uraniens’, Cahun being a surname from her father’s side. Malherbe changed her name to Marcel Moore and the pair moved to Paris in 1914, where they began their artistic collaborations and Cahun studied literature and philosophy at the Sorbonne.

4. Cahun was one of the few female Surrealists.
In 1932 she was introduced to André Breton, who called her ‘one of the most curious spirits of our time’. Four years later, Cahun participated in the Surrealist exhibition at the Galerie Charles Ratton, Paris, and visited the International Surrealist Exhibition at the New Burlington Galleries, London. Whereas in the works of male Surrealists women often appear as eroticised objects, Cahun’s self-portraits explore female identity as constructed and multifaceted.

5. She was first and foremost a writer.
Now best known for her striking self-portraits, Cahun saw herself primarily as a writer. In 1930 she published Aveux non avenus (translated into English as Disavowals or Cancelled Confessions), an ‘anti-memoir’ including ten photomontages created in collaboration with Moore.

6. In 1937 the couple swapped Paris for Jersey.
Cahun and Moore moved to La Rocquaise, a house in St Brelade’s Bay, Jersey, where they led a secluded life. The couple reverted to their given names, Lucy Schwob and Suzanne Malherbe, and were known by the islanders as ‘les mesdames’.

7. They were actively involved in the resistance against Nazi Occupation.
When the Germans invaded Jersey in 1940 they decided to stay and produced counter-propaganda tracts. In July 1944 they were found out, arrested, stood trial, and were, briefly, sentenced to death (though these sentences were commuted). The couple were imprisoned in separate cells for almost a year before Liberation in May 1945.

8. In 1951 Cahun received the Medal of French Gratitude for her acts of resistance during the Second World War. Suffering increasingly from ill health, she died in 1954 at the age of sixty. Moore died eighteen years later, in 1972.

9. She remained forgotten for half a century
Following her move to Jersey, Cahun slipped from critical attention. After the death of Marcel Moore, much of Cahun’s work was put up for auction and acquired by collector John Wakeham, who then sold it to the Jersey Heritage Trust in 1995. The publication in 1992 of the definitive biography by Francois Leperlier, Claude Cahun: l’ecart et la metamorphose, and subsequent exhibition, Claude Cahun: Photographe, at the Musee d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris in 1995 encouraged a growing interest in the artist’s work. It was during this time that Gillian Wearing discovered Claude Cahun.

10. She was an artist ahead of her time
Wearing speaks of a ‘camaraderie’ between her and Cahun but she is not the only contemporary artist to have been influenced by her work. Cahun has a dedicated following among artists and art historians working from postmodern, feminist and queer theoretical perspectives; the American art critic Hal Foster described Cahun as ‘a Cindy Sherman avant la lettre’.

 

Gillian Wearing. 'Self-portrait as my brother Richard Wearing' 2003

 

Gillian Wearing
Self-portrait as my brother Richard Wearing
2003
Heather Podesta Collection
© Gillian Wearing, courtesy Maureen Paley, London; Regen Projects, Los Angeles; Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York

 

Gillian Wearing. 'Me as Mapplethorpe' 2009

 

Gillian Wearing
Me as Mapplethorpe
2009
© Gillian Wearing, courtesy Maureen Paley, London, Regen Projects, Los Angeles and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York

 

Gillian Wearing. 'Me as Warhol in Drag with Scar' 2010

 

Gillian Wearing
Me as Warhol in Drag with Scar
2010
© Gillian Wearing, courtesy Maureen Paley, London, Regen Projects, Los Angeles and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York

 

Gillian Wearing. 'Me as Diane Arbus' 2008-2010

 

Gillian Wearing
Me as Diane Arbus
2008-2010
© Gillian Wearing, courtesy Maureen Paley, London, Regen Projects, Los Angeles and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York

 

Gillian Wearing. 'Me as Cahun holding a mask of my face' 2012

 

Gillian Wearing
Me as Cahun holding a mask of my face
2012
© Gillian Wearing, courtesy Maureen Paley, London; Regen Projects, Los Angeles; Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York

 

Gillian Wearing. 'Self-portrait of me now in a mask' 2011

 

Gillian Wearing
Self-portrait of me now in a mask
2011
Collection of Mario Testino
© Gillian Wearing, courtesy Maureen Paley, London; Regen Projects, Los Angeles; Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York

 

Gillian Wearing. 'Me as mask' 2013

 

Gillian Wearing
Me as mask
2013
Private collection, courtesy Cecilia Dan Fine Art
© Gillian Wearing, courtesy Maureen Paley, London; Regen Projects, Los Angeles; Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York

 

Gillian Wearing. 'At Claude Cahun's grave' 2015

 

Gillian Wearing
At Claude Cahun’s grave
2015
© Gillian Wearing, courtesy Maureen Paley, London

 

 

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St Martin’s Place
London, WC2H 0HE

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29
May
12

Exhibition: ‘Entre Nous: The Art of Claude Cahun’ at the Art Institute of Chicago

Exhibition dates:  25th February – 3rd June 2012

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“In many ways, Cahun’s life was marked by a sense of role reversal, and her public identity became a commentary upon not only her own, but the public’s notions of sexuality, gender, beauty, and logic. Her adoption of a sexually ambiguous name, and her androgynous self-portraits display a revolutionary way of thinking and creating, experimenting with her audience’s understanding of photography as a documentation of reality. Her poetry challenged gender roles and attacked the increasingly modern world’s social and economic boundaries. Also Cahun’s participation in the Parisian Surrealist movement diversified the group’s artwork and ushered in new representations. Where most Surrealist artists were men, and their primary images were of women as isolated symbols of eroticism, Cahun epitomized the chameleonic and multiple possibilities of the female identity. Her photographs, writings, and general life as an artistic and political revolutionary continue to influence countless artists, namely Cindy Sherman, Nan Goldin and Del LaGrace Volcano.”

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Text from Wikipedia

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Cahun was a resistance fighter during the Second World War, was arrested, sentenced to death and survived. She lived with her longtime female partner and collaborator on Jersey from 1937 until 1954, the year of her death. Entre Nous means “Between Us,” such an appropriate title for the their collaboration, love and partnership. What a talent, what a woman and gay to boot!

Many thankx to the Art Institute of Chicago for allowing me to publish the photographs in the posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image.

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Claude Cahun
Autoportrait
1929
Gelatin silver print
24 x 19 cm
Musée des Beaux-Arts de Nantes. (C) RMN/Gérard Blot

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Claude Cahun
Autoportrait
1929
Gelatin silver print
11.5 x 8.5 cm
Jersey Heritage Collection
© Jersey Heritage

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Claude Cahun
Autoportrait
1928
Gelatin silver print
13.9 x 9 cm
Jersey Heritage Collection
© Jersey Heritage

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Claude Cahun
Autoportrait
1927
Gelatin silver print
10.4 x 7.6 cm
Soizic Audouard Collection

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“Claude Cahun (1894-1954) has something approaching cult status in today’s art world. However, her work was almost unknown until the early 1980s, when it was championed by the research of François Leperlier, after which exhibitions at the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Nantes (1994) and the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris (1995) brought it to public attention. Her life and work (both literary and artistic) bespeak an extraordinary libertarian personality who defied sexual, social and ethical conventions in what was an age of avant-garde and moral upheaval. Among her many photographs, it is undoubtedly her self-portraits that have aroused the greatest interest in recent years. Throughout her life, Cahun used her own image to dismantle the clichés surrounding ideas of identity. She reinvented herself through photography, posing for the lens with a keen sense of performance and role-play, dressed as a woman or a man, as a maverick hero, with her hair long or very short, or even with a shaved head. This approach was extended in innovative ways in her photographs of objects and use of photomontages, which asserted the primacy of the imagination and of metamorphosis.

By exploring the many different analyses made of Cahun’s work since the 1990s, and ranging across its different themes: from the subversive self-portraits that question identity, to her surrealist compositions, erotic metaphors and political forays, this exhibition confirms the modernity of a figure who, as a pioneer of self-representation and the poetry of objects, has been an important influence for many contemporary artists.

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Metamorphoses of identity and the subversion of gender (I)

This set of photographs, going from 1913 to the end of the 1920s, includes some of Cahun’s major works, in which she staged her own persona, emphasising disguise and masks, and working through variations on gender: feminine, masculine, androgyne, undifferentiated. Sexual ambiguity is consciously cultivated and calls into question established norms and conventions. In 1928, she even represented herself with her head shaved, wearing a singlet, in profile, or with her hands against her face, or wearing a loose man’s jacket. Some of the mise-en-scènes from this period seem to anticipate contemporary performance.

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Poetics of the object

The “assemblages of objects,” which make their appearance in around 1925, inventively explore what at the time was still a rather new form. This work came to wider attention in the Surrealist exhibition at the Charles Ratton gallery, in May 1936, and then with the commissioning of 22 photographic plates to illustrate a book of poems by Lise Deharme, Le Coeur de Pic (1937), prefaced by Paul Eluard. These photographs capture ephemeral set-ups, often in a natural setting (garden, beach). Each “sketch” is a composition of heterogeneous elements, both found and made, such as knickknacks in spun glass, sewing items, twigs, bones, insects, feathers, gloves, pieces of fabric, shoes, tools, etc. This “theatre of objects” has both a visual and symbolic significance, which Cahun explained in her text Prenez garde aux objets domestiques (1936).

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Metamorphoses of identity and the subversion of gender (continued)

The 1930s saw Cahun continuing to explore images of the self. However, questions of sexual difference and its social and cultural construction were now less to the fore as she went deeper into the potential of situations and disguises and experimented with duplication in a way that extended the work of the photomontages from the late 1920s.

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Metaphors of desire

Eschewing the direct and sometimes reifying display of the female body found in many paintings and photographs, Cahun opted for a more subtle kind of “veiled eroticism” using distance and irony. Here we find some very evocative examples of her calculating games with desire. Whether through the contained display of the body, allegory (the bacchante or faun, surrounded by sensuous vegetation), or anthropomorphic objects (the hermaphroditic “père”), she aimed to capture the essence of desire, to bring out its essential grounding in fantasy.

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The two of us. Claude Cahun and Suzanne Malherbe (Marcel Moore)

The photograph Entre nous (1926) clearly establishes the spirit of this section, which evokes various aspects of Claude Cahun’s intimate relationship and artistic collaboration with her partner, Suzanne Malherbe. In fact, a number of the photographs here were taken by Suzanne following Claude’s suggestions. A double portrait from 1921 shows a surprising parallel which could be read as a metaphor of their relationship, a deep closeness and understanding between two strong personalities. The linchpin of this section is constituted by the four photomontages used to illustrate Aveux non avenus (1930), Cahun’s most significant literary work, gathering together all the artist’s main themes and obsessive metaphors. The plates were executed by Moore in collaboration with Claude Cahun.

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Elective encounters

This series of portraits, which reflect the importance of friendship in the development of Cahun’s work, gives an idea of the figures who were important to her and influenced her, or to whom she felt close, among them Henri Michaux, Robert Desnos, André Breton, Jacqueline Lamba and Suzanne Malherbe. There are also two photographs from performances at Pierre Albert-Birot’s theatre Le Plateau (1929). They attest Cahun’s keen interest in theatre and acting.

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Poetry and politics

In the 1930s Cahun’s positions grew increasingly radical in response to the rise of totalitarianism. She joined the Surrealists and associated with a number of groups on the left and far left. This radicalisation is reflected in her aesthetic. In line with the ideas put forward in her pamphlet Les Paris sont ouverts (1934), she exploited the subversive qualities of “indirect action” in the sphere of symbolic expression, making a number of objects in which poetry and politics are intimately intertwined. This process culminated when she used these pieces for two big series of photographs dominated by a mood of irony, revolt and provocation: “La Poupée” (The Doll), a figure fashioned out of newspaper, and “Le Théâtre” (The Theatre), a wooden mannequin surrounded by various elements and placed under a glass dome.

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Beyond the visible. The last self-portraits

Close study of Cahun’s photographs reveals the presence of allusions to non-visible phenomena, pointing the way to other realities – and perhaps, too, beyond death. Her attraction to symbolism, her interest in Eastern doctrines and her closeness to Surrealism only confirmed the primacy of fantasy and metamorphosis evidenced in the intellectual and aesthetic approaches she took throughout her life. The series Le Chemin des chats (The Way of Cats, around 1949 and 1953), suggests a mediation on and questioning of reality and appearance. Cahun was a true cat lover: for her, this animal was the great intercessor, the medium of an intuitive contact between the visible and the invisible, leading to sensorial worlds that are both unfamiliar and yet very near.”

Juan Vicente Aliaga and François Leperlier, curators of the exhibition

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Claude Cahun
Autoportrait
1939
Gelatin silver print
10 x 8 cm
Jersey Heritage Collection
© Jersey Heritage

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Claude Cahun
Autoportrait
1926
Gelatin silver print
11.1 x 8.6 cm
IVAM, Institut Valencià d’Art Modern, Generalitat

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“Born Lucy Schwob to a family of French intellectuals and writers, Claude Cahun (who adopted the pseudonym at age 22) is best known for the staged self-portraiture, photomontages, and prose texts she made principally between 1920 and 1940. Rediscovered in the late 1980s, her work has not only expanded our understanding of the Surrealist era but also serves as an important touchstone to later feminist explorations of gender and identity politics. In her self-portraits, which she began creating around 1913, Cahun dismantled and questioned preexisting notions of self and sexuality. Posing in costumes and elaborate make-up, Cahun appears masked as various personae: man or woman, hero or doll, both powerful and vulnerable. Almost a century after their making, these innovative photographs and assemblages remain remarkably relevant in their treatment of gender, performance, and identity.

From her university years until her death, Cahun was accompanied by her partner and artistic collaborator, Suzanne Malherbe, a childhood friend and stepsister. They surrounded themselves with members of the Surrealist movement and created work that embraced leftist politics. Cahun, with assistance from Malherbe (under the pseudonym Marcel Moore), produced photographs, assemblages, and publications from the 1920s on. The photograph Entre Nous (Between Us), featuring a pair of masks embedded in sand, gives the title to this show and is emblematic of their multifaceted relationship.

The first retrospective exhibition in the United States of Cahun’s work, Entre Nous: The Art of Claude Cahun brings together over 80 photographs and published material by Cahun and Moore, including several photomontages from their 1930 collaborative publication Aveux non avenus (Disavowals), and the only surviving object by Cahun, which is in the Art Institute’s permanent collection.

Organizer: This exhibition was organized by the Jeu de Paume, Paris, and coproduced with La Virreina Centre de la Imatge, Barcelona.”

Press release from the Art Institute of Chicago website

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Claude Cahun
Combat de pierres
1931
Gelatin silver print
21 x 15.5 cm
Private collection
© Béatrice Hatala

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Claude Cahun
Le Père
1932
Gelatin silver print
23.6 x 17.7 cm
LAC

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Claude Cahun
Aveux non avenus, planche III
1929 – 1930
Gelatin silver print photomontage
15 x 10 cm
Private collection

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The Art Institute of Chicago
111 South Michigan Avenue
Chicago, Illinois 60603-6404
T: (312) 443-3600

Opening hours:
Monday – Wednesday, 10.30 – 5.00
Thursday, 10.30 – 8.00
Friday, 10.30 – 8.00
Saturday – Sunday, 10.00 – 5.00
The museum is closed Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s days.

The Art Institute of Chicago website

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Dr Marcus Bunyan

Dr Marcus Bunyan is an Australian artist and writer. His work explores the boundaries of identity and place. He writes the Art Blart blog which reviews exhibitions in Melbourne, Australia and posts exhibitions from around the world. He has a Dr of Philosophy from RMIT University, Melbourne and is currently studying a Master of Art Curatorship at The University of Melbourne.

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