|Back to the Canon
|Back to the Canon:
The Photographic Portraits of Claude Cahun
A 1923 photograph portrays Claude Cahun sitting by herself on a bed in her Parisian home, surrounded by framed pictures and posters. Her back is turned to the images covering the walls all around, and she looks from the corner of the room into a space invisible to us. The camera is held by her companion, Marcel Moore, an absent-present figure in most of the works and a partner in Cahun’s art and life.
Cahun (1894-1954), whose works from the first half of the 20th century have been “forgotten” and excluded from the canon for decades, is now – in a post-modern and feminist context – considered one of the more interesting, important artists of the previous century. Her pioneering, engaging experimentations in the fields of photography, writing, and performance gave rise to a dramatic sphere in which she manifested transformation, identity exchange, and confrontation of the normative. Cahun’s portraits presented in the current exhibition make viewers reconsider their former knowledge and perceptions. She offers a new iconography of gender which appears more relevant than ever. The rediscovery of her daring, surprising photographs towards the late 1980s stirred up interest among art scholars the world over. The year 1992 saw the publication of Cahun’s biography by historian François Leperlier, shedding light on her art and life.1 Following that study, her works were featured at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris (1995), and subsequently in various art centers around the world. This is the debut of Cahun’s photographic portraits in Israel. Most of the works were printed from Cahun’s original negatives, in her chosen formats.
Few art scholars have distinguished between Cahun’s life and her art, and the two have generally been described and presented as one.2 Such a strategy requires extra care, for an artist’s biographical circumstances are not always necessarily tied with his/her artistic practice. When aesthetic qualities associated with the work link to form a coherent and distinctive direction, they come to be considered as the artist’s personal style. The question of biography may become relevant if one can clearly identify the artist’s private history in his/her art. Contemporary artistic interpretation tends to promote a “broad” reading, which enables the textual and the contextual to coexist dialectically. A distinctive example of “crossing the line” between a historical-biographical discourse and an artistic-historical discourse – or, in other words, between the artist as a “real” figure and the artist as an “imaginary” persona – is that of Renaissance painter Artemisia Gentileschi, whose paintings were attributed, by many scholars, to her being a rape victim.3 Interpretations of Cahun’s works do not only suggest that historical and biographical information, clearly indicating her personal intentions, is manifested in her work, but also refer to the cumulative impression conveyed by her photographs – a sense that what is presented is indeed a private façade, voluntary, a self-portrait of sorts, a reflection of a personal fantasy. Cahun’s personal story also attests to the cultural fabric and spirit of her time, as well as to the Surrealist circle to which she belonged, whose members often employed biographical elements as “materials” in their art.
Cahun was born as Lucy Renée Mathilde Schwob to a well-to-do, educated Jewish family in Nantes, France. Her father was the owner of a local newspaper, and Cahun was exposed to the bourgeois intellectual elite from an early age. In 1909 she first met Suzanne Malherbe (1892-1972), a.k.a. Marcel Moore, an encounter which was the basis for a friendship, couplehood, and fertile artistic partnership which lasted for some forty years.
Beginning her literature and philosophy studies at the Sorbonne in 1914, that same year she published a semi-autobiographical text articulating her private struggle between the rational and the emotional, between her passions and needs, and against prevalent sexual conventions. She signed the text for the first time with a pen name which would three years later evolve into the pseudonym “Claude Cahun” – an unconventional combination of her Jewish grandmother’s matriarchal surname and a gender-ambiguous first name. The pseudonym represented Cahun’s struggle against the fixedness of sexual, gender, class, and ethnic definitions, a perception which would also be manifested in her writings and later photographs. In a 1928 photograph, for example, Cahun created her own version of the Surrealist practice of morbid distortion of beauty (see bottom image of this page). Her body appears white due to the exposure, and the profile emphasizes the shape of the nose, thus alluding to anti-Semitic “studies” in physiognomy. A pseudonym is a means to create an anti-identity, but in Cahun’s case it both reveals (her Jewish origin) and conceals (her gender identity). In an early photograph from 1914, Cahun is depicted lying down, her head on a pillow. Her scattered hair, the sheet partitioning her face from her body, and her direct gaze – all these lend her the appearance of the monstrous Gorgon Medusa whose gaze had the power to transfix men and turn them to stone. Two years later Cahun cut her hair, and depicted herself with a short haircut as a boyish figure wearing a manly undershirt, adorned by a crown of thorns. The Christian allusion is clear. Her right arm is raised behind her head, as a variation of an exposed, inviting feminine pose, yet – unexpectedly – reveals unshaven underarm hair. A visual link is created between the leaf pattern on the sheet used as backdrop, and the armpit hair and crown on her head. This posture often appears in the history of female depictions in art. In one of the Madonna variations by painter Edvard Munch, Madonna’s naked body is presented tilted backwards, a red aura around her head, her long dark hair retracing the bold brush strokes, winding towards her armpit. Other outstanding examples are Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907) and Henri Matisse’s 1923 Odalisque with Raised Arms.
Cahun and Moore moved in together in 1917, the year in which Cahun’s father married Moore’s mother. The status of “stepsisters” provided cover for their cohabitation. In 1919 they began their artistic collaboration; Moore, a graphic artist by training, illustrated Cahun’s writings and operated the camera for her. That same year, Cahun cut her hair short, as a radical version of the woman’s short haircut fashionable at the time, marking yet another layer in the struggle for equality of the sexes. Cahun is presented as free of the conventional perceptions of women, not in the desire to resemble a man, but in order to renounce any categorical feature altogether. Identity games emerge in the work of various Surrealist artists. One of the best known examples is Marcel Duchamp’s female alter-ego, Rrose Sélavy, conceived in 1921, when the artist wanted to change his gender identity. According to Duchamp, her name was coined from a combination of the ugliest and most banal first name, and a surname that sounds like the French expression C’est la vie. The entire name in French forms a homophone for “Eros, that’s life.”
In 1922 the couple moved to Paris. From the mid-1920s to the mid-1930s Cahun created a body of work spanning photographs in which she was depicted as a chameleon, assuming stratified appearances and identities. With the help of Moore and a simple Type 3 Folding Pocket Kodak camera, Cahun reexamined clichés and stereotypes, furnishing them with alternatives in the form of a visual text; rewriting the iconographic set of meanings, and presenting the inability to fix identity to a single representation, she fused autobiographical facts and imaginary, mythological and biblical narratives, weaving layer upon layer to form an intelligent, seductive proposition. The transformation of her figure pulls the rug from under the prevalent assumption that photography offers a “reliable” or “realistic” depiction. In Cahun’s hands, the photograph becomes the scene of drama instead of a frame “taken” from reality; the posed nature of the prints reinforces the viewer’s self-awareness. In a 1928 photographs she is presented during a theatrical performance: several masks are attached to her dark cloak, a recurring motif in her oeuvre. The mask stands for the rebellion against the prevalent concept of a single identity, and Cahun indeed has countless masks in store.
The image with which Cahun chose to present her Surrealist book of 1930, Aveux non avenus (“Disavowed Confessions”),4 is a self-portrait portraying her with a black-and-white checked suit. The book ties autobiographical elements to her works, further enhancing their psycho-biographical reading. Cahun, a captivating woman with an acute sense of style, appears with a manly suit with stiff collar, looking away from the mirror, from her reflection, into the lens. Best identified with Cahun, this photograph generates a contrast between her reflection in the mirror and the direct gaze “captured” by the camera, thus bringing together three gazes: those of the camera (the photographer), the photographed subject, and the one returned from the mirror. Moreover, the photograph refers to a long artistic tradition portraying women making up their faces before a mirror in their dressing rooms. Rather than a female figure sensually observing herself for the gaze of a male spectator, however, Cahun offers an androgynous figure devoid of distinct gender, which does not commit to a dictated social identity.
From the vast art historical imagery addressing the theme of reflection, I shall mention only two prominent examples: the first is Edouard Manet’s 1882 painting, Un Bar aux Folies-Bergère depicting the figure of a pensive barmaid from the front, and behind her, in the mirror – a male customer, observing her. An optically “logical” painting angle would have exposed the customer’s back, but the proficient painter chose to “hide” him, and not separate the viewer from the barmaid’s direct gaze. The second example, executed approximately one hundred years later, is Jeff Wall’s 1979 photograph created in homage to Manet’s painting. Wall reveals to us the set of gazes through the reflection: the woman looks into the lens through the mirror, the photographer looks at the woman, and the camera looks at the spectator/mirror, “returning” his gaze. Similar to the act of photography and the “observers” exposed in this photograph, the well-equipped studio space is presented, thus eliminating any possibility of an illusion.
As part of her series of works “I Was There” (2001-05), Israeli artist Michal Heiman “entered” Cahun’s work and planted her own figure “instead” of Cahun’s reflection. The camera held in her hand is ostensibly turned towards the viewer, but in fact it is the product of another reflection. Through the mirror Heiman crosses to “the other side,” uniting spectator, photographer, and photographed subject.
The theme of reflection invokes the myth of Narcissus and Echo – the beautiful youth from Greek mythology who could not pull himself away from his reflection, and the nymph who fell in love with him, repeating his words like an echo. Cahun both reaffirms and refutes the customary interpretations of this myth, “rearranging” the story: she enables viewers to examine the chase after one’s self both through the reflection and through the other, represented by Echo, who also appears in the figure of the camera operator – Moore. Moore too was depicted in a similar pose to that of Cahun in the checked suit, probably in preparation for the latter’s photograph. Unlike Echo, whose passive figure could not leave Narcissus and died with him, the reflection here is an active one, and the customary gender division is undermined (Echo as a female figure and Narcissus as male). The reflection of the self in the other is regarded here as positive and vital to the artistic process. Narcissus, according to Cahun, was unable to see beyond eye sight, and therefore fell in love with an image, but not with that which lay beyond it.
In another photograph from the same year, Cahun duplicated her floating image: her body is underwater, her eyes are shut, and she is facing a stone which, unlike the water, does not return a reflection. The depiction of mirrors, reflections, and masks served Cahun as a vehicle to introduce an alternative for artistic models of describing women. Countess de Castiglione appears masked in an 1863 photograph where she looks at the lens with one eye through the oval frame of a picture. The mask motif recurs in Cahun’s work in a photograph depicting her naked on a blanket spread symmetrically all around her. The photograph is bathed in strong sunlight, and Cahun’s young body appears to shine like the blanket’s silk. Her hair is cut short and her eyes are covered with a black mask, “denying” the viewer’s gaze. The result is a rhythmic symmetrical composition: the wriggly pattern on the blanket echoes the soft contours of the mask and those of her shoulders, arms and legs – a sophisticated blend of intellectual stimulus and aesthetic pleasure. A closer look at the polished wooden floor in the lower frontal plane of the photograph reveals the silhouette of the photographer – Moore. The photographer’s shadow reminds the viewer of another observer involved in the photographic act, forming an unofficial signature of sorts, akin to an act of reflection and a double exposure, like Wall who presents the camera to us. Moore’s silhouette in the works functions as an indexical sign of the other, who is nevertheless a full partner in the work.
Cahun has often been dubbed a precursor of American photographer Cindy Sherman, and a pioneer of feminism. Like Cahun, Sherman photographs herself as part of staged situations intended to examine the psychoanalytical mechanism of femininity as a collection of masks. In a photograph from 1989, Sherman appears against the backdrop of an inexpensive fabric, wearing a tattered dress which exposes fake breasts and a nipple-like medallion. Shermans’ black mask reinforces the sense of female mimicry and artificiality. Cahun and Sherman deconstruct the imagery to which they allude. Instead of representing a specific figure, however, Cahun performs an inverse process – annulling the self to the point that sometimes it is impossible to be certain that the same subject is indeed involved. As in theater, an enigmatic sphere is created where the spectator is offered a wide variety of alternative sights in various fields. Unlike Sherman, whose oeuvre as a whole is not autobiographical, Cahun’s portraits explore her personal array of identities. Thus, while Sherman’s biography remains “outside the picture” of her “costume ball,” Cahun’s biographical facts may account for her art. Sherman uses a cable shutter release to perform the act of photography, whereas Cahun is aided by her life and art partner, Moore – a fact which further stratifies the concept of self-portrait in the context of Cahun’s work.
Believing that cultural “heroines” such as Cinderella, Eve, Judith, Salome, and Mary have been misread, Cahun set out to expose the feminist tenets built into their stories, via a change of perspective.5 Many feminist scholars regard the artistic canon with skepticism, maintaining that it is based on formalist aesthetic categories originating in a male patriarchal system (Why so few women artists in the canon?).6 Thus, a feminist aesthetics does not set out to determine general, binding categories for the evaluation of art works, but rather allows for different forms of interpretation and diverse perspectives. If we accept the feminist proposal of polyphony, we may say that Cahun was ahead of her time in that she created an array of images uncommitted to a single familiar voice or to a definition of “otherness,” letting the viewer determine what s/he sees.
Cahun’s works, however, should also be examined in relation to the context in which they were taken, and not only in a post-modern feminist context. The artist explores common representations of sex, gender, class, and ethnicity in the political context of the time and of Surrealism: Cahun and Moore were active in the anti-fascist leftist circles which opposed Stalinism and French Imperialism; in 1932 they joined the Surrealist circle of their friend, André Breton.
The Surrealist photographers employed diverse techniques to interfere with photography’s mimetic character: unnatural lighting, collage, double exposure, photograms, etc. It was a practice that dealt with signs more than being an array of signs in itself – a challenge faced by Cahun. This approach is also manifested in photographs featuring various enigmatic objects made of available materials. Still-lives appear in the photographs due to Cahun’s quest for a “basic truth” and her desire to “address” it, as she notes in her writings.7
Cahun presents herself in an innovative, “radical” manner in comparison to other artists. She encoded the manner in which women were viewed through bodily gestures, items of clothing, gazes, and accessories. Cahun belonged to a small group of women who created visual art and were active in the Surrealist circle, yet were ignored and excluded from the canon by art scholars and historians, unlike their male counterparts.
Due to the couple’s disappointment with the growing split in their leftist circle, their losing hope of creating a “new world,” and the deterioration in Cahun’s health, Cahun and Moor decided to leave Paris. In 1937 they moved to the Channel Island of Jersey, located between England and France, where they summered in their youth. They scarcely mixed with the locals, and reverted to using their original names, Lucy and Suzanne, save in letters to their Surrealist friends. Portraits in those years were taken in the vicinity of their home and in their private garden.
Two years after their move to Jersey, the island was invaded by the Germans. Cahun and Moore decided to stay in their home and not be evacuated to neighboring England. For the next four years, Lucy and Suzanne, in their fifties, would conduct a secret anti-Nazi campaign, which manifested itself in writing a German-language newspaper citing news from the BBC. Via a radio which they managed to sneak in after theirs was confiscated by the Nazis, they illegally listened to news from Great Britain. Their goal was to awaken the German soldiers and create resistance from within in the belief that not all German soldiers were Nazis. Their illustrated paper was clandestinely disseminated in local café’s and bars where the soldiers used to hang out. It was signed “Der Soldat ohne Namen” (“The soldier with no name”) – once again playing on gender, class, and national boundaries.8
Cahun and Moore believed that they had to operate directly against the occupation, and distributed propaganda which was creatively and passionately formulated, attesting to their affinity with the Surrealist circle. Even though they were not enrolled as German speakers, and did not disclose the Jewish origin of the Schwob family as required by law, the two were surprised that they never aroused the Germans’ suspicions until in July 1944, during dinner, the two were arrested by five German soldiers. A search of their house revealed the radio and typewriter which they used. The arrest did not take Cahun and Moore by surprise, and they took an overdose of sleeping pills in order to end their lives. Their rushing to the local hospital ironically prevented their detention in a concentration camp. Knowing there was no point in hiding their activity, they honestly answered the interrogators’ questions. During the nine months which they spent in jail as political prisoners they covered up their being a couple so as not to provide information that might have been used against them. The Germans refused to believe they operated on their own, and were convinced that there was an extensive network behind them. A trial was conducted in November 1944, during which the judge compared them to partisans, and accused them of political crimes and propaganda which undermined the morale of the German army. Their sentence, which was never carried out, was death. Despite the pressure put on them by the local authorities to appeal the sentence, fearing that its realization would undermine the locals’ sense of stability, the two refused, regarding death as the last phase in their resistance. In February they learned that the island’s military commander decided to pardon them, and that they would share a cell until the Island’s liberation six weeks later. During their separation and in ignorance of the other’s fate, each attempted suicide. They communicated via secret messages on scraps of toilet paper. Several days before their release, all the incarcerated German soldiers were moved to a temporary facility. One of the soldiers forwarded Lucy Schwob a farewell souvenir – the eagle that decorated his uniform. Cahun appeared with it held in her teeth in a photograph taken after the liberation.
In several enigmatic photographs from 1947 Cahun stands on the wall of their private garden in Jersey. Appearing like an angel or a ghost. The gulf opens up in the background, and an impervious concrete wall is seen in the front. Her pale-colored, nearly transparent dress flutters in the wind, a scarf around her neck. In her right hand she holds a stick, and her left hand is stretched sideways. In the photograph, which she chose to enlarge, she looks at the lens, at her partner; her face is cropped at the top of the photograph.
Exhausted by her imprisonment and two suicide attempts, Lucy Schwob passed away in 1954 at the age of 60. On her tombstone Suzanne Malherbe engraved the epitaph: “And I Saw New Heavens and a New Earth”. Malherbe left their apartment and moved to a flat of her own. Due to poor health, she killed herself in 1972 and was buried next to Cahun. Her later landscape photographs, without her partner, lack artistic pretensions.
Cahun’s gaze into the space of their shared apartment in Paris, beyond the lens, surrounded by images, is left as a reminder of her unique mode of observation, as well as of Moore’s echoing gaze, a silent evidence of the “absent-precursor,” for one cannot really return to the canon.
1. François Leperlier, Claude Cahun: L’ecrat et la Métamorphose (Paris: Jean-Michel Place, 1992).
2. See Claude Cahun Photographe, exh. cat. (Paris: Musée d’Art
Moderne de la Ville de Paris / Jean Michel Place, 1995).
3. Anita Silvers, “Has Her(oine’s) Time Now Come?,” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 48, no. 4 (Fall 1990): pp. 365-380.
4. Claude Cahun, Aveux non avenus (Paris: Editions du Carrefour, 1930); Jersey Heritage Trust.
5. Claude Cahun, “Héroines,” Mercure de France, 639, 1 Feb. 1925, pp. 622-643.
6. Carolyn Korsmeyer, “Philosophy, Aesthetics, and Feminist Scholarship,” in Aesthtics in Feminist Perspective, eds. Hilde Hien and Carolyn Korsmeyer (Bloomington, IN: Indiana UP, 1993), pp. vii-xii.
7. Claude Cahun, exh, cat. (Valencia: Institut Valencià d’Art Modern, 2001-02), pp. 218-21.
8. Claire Follain, “Lucy Schwob and Suzanne Malherbe: Résistantes,” in Don’t Kiss Me: The Art of Claude Cahun & Marcel Moore, ed. Louise Downie (London: Aperture, 2006).