Saturday, 8 March 2014
Claude Cahun - autoportraits
I Extend My Arms, 1931 or 1932
Claude Cahun (25 October 1894 – 8 December 1954) was a French artist, photographer and writer. Her work was both political and personal, and often played with the concepts of gender and sexuality.
Cahun's work encompassed writing, photography, and theater. She is most remembered for her highly-staged self-portraits and tableaux that incorporated the visual aesthetics of Surrealism.
Self Portrait, circa 1925
Cahun steals the show. But this extraordinary figure would be a star anywhere. There is more to her than dressing-up, although from 1917 to her death she made herself the playful subject of hundreds - perhaps thousands - of photographs and photomontages, many now lost. Raiding the prop-box was only the visible aspect of her self-invention. Her gaze pulled itself away from the narcissist's mirror, turning to face those on the other side of the camera.
With lacquered hair and kiss-curls, and wearing a Clara Bow pout and love-hearts on her cheeks, she appears in a 1927 photograph sporting a shirt on which she has written 'I am in training. Do Not Kiss Me'. Her shirt has sewn-on nipples, and she is cradling a set of dumb-bells. Elsewhere, she looks like one of Hans Bellmer's mannequins, and in another shot she bears an unnerving resemblance to Pierre Molinier, another Surrealist photographer and cross-dresser, whose career is also being revived.
Cahun's photographs record an extraordinary life, and are the record of an enormously prescient artist whose chief concern was transforming and transcending her self. She created herself, and singled herself out.
Untitled (Self-Portrait), 1930 - 1939
A writer born into literary royalty, with a pseudonym to hide the fact; a forebear of Cindy Sherman, with only one self-portrait published in her lifetime; a lesbian in love with her step-sister; a Jewish, Marxist Surrealist – Claude Cahun is probably the most complicated artist you and I have never heard of.
Cahun effectively vanished from history. Her membership of the Surrealists and her political activities in Paris, her written texts encompassing, among other things, an attack on Louis Aragon, a French translation of Havelock Ellis's Woman in Society, a parody of Oscar Wilde's Salomé (the original of which her uncle had edited), and a vast array of self-portraiture – all of it was forgotten. It wasn't until well after Malherbe's death in 1972 that French writer François Leperlier was prompted to dig deeper. His subsequent biographical works are the only ones available, though Cahun's oeuvre has since become an intermittent battleground, with feminists and leftist art historians squabbling over her proper place in their respective narratives.
For Cahun was a writer, first and foremost – and no amount of artistic squirming could change that. As W Somerset Maugham explained, "We do not write because we want to; we write because we have to." Indeed, Cahun was encouraged to write by all who knew her – most especially Breton. "It is essential," he wrote to her, "that you write and publish – you must keep telling yourself this."
It was, however, her dilettantism – a refusal to fit in, to be pinned down as "writer", "woman", "lesbian", and master her craft – that rendered Cahun a blind spot in the history of the last century. As she herself wrote: "Individualism? Narcissism? Of course. It is my strongest tendency, the only intentional constancy I am capable of. Besides, I am lying; I scatter myself too much for that.
Gavin James Bower
Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore - Untitled: Cahun and mirror image, 1928
Born in Nantes in 1894, Cahun was the niece of fin de siècle literary heavyweight Marcel Schwob and was later hailed by Surrealism’s ‘Pope’ André Breton as ‘one of the most inquiring minds of our time’. She also survived two World Wars – and, alongside her step-sister and lover Suzanne Malherbe, was a resistance fighter on their adopted home of Jersey in the Second. A writer of poetry and prose, self-centred curator of tableaux, a skilled sketch artist, photographer and muse, a poseur, actress and performer, composer of objets d’art, a propagandist and saboteur…she was nevertheless all but forgotten by the time of her death in 1954. Following Malherbe’s suicide in 1972, Cahun’s work was sold in a Jersey auction but has only in the last two decades enjoyed something of a renaissance – thanks in no small part to French historian and biographer François Leperlier.
Through every medium she employed, Cahun was willfully narcissistic in her quest for self-identity. As the centre of her own work, she refused to submit either to narratives or preconceived relationships of subject to object, while she returned the scrutiny of her audience – and her own investigations – with uncompromising effrontery. She sought to reflect rather than deflect, and never shied away from what was for her an unanswerable question: Who Am I? Rather than attempting to solve the mystery of Claude Cahun, therefore – by positing her, explaining her, and so somehow understanding her – I tried my best to ditch agendas, abandon narratives, and follow her lead.
Cahun was far from prolific. Of the work that survived her tumultuous lifetime and the passing of years since her death, the question of authorship (not to mention target audience) is by no means in all cases clear. She was the most unreliable of narrators, disingenuous, dissembling and deliberate in subsuming her identity while, on the surface at least, attempting to reveal it. But none of this matters, because to be a Cahunian is akin to addiction: to art for art’s sake; to the most unknowable of all things; to a life lived without compromise, with courage and conviction. When Marcel Duchamp said ‘my art is that of living’, he was talking about individuals like Cahun – for her life was a remarkable one, and a masterpiece unparalleled by anything she would ever produce on paper or through the lens of a camera. To us Cahunians, Claude Cahun is art.
Gavin James Bower