Monday, 14 March 2016

Women You Should Know - Claude Cahun by Siofra McSherry

Women You Should Know:
Claude Cahun 
by Siofra McSherry

Claude Cahun (25 October 1894 – 8 December 1954) was a French artist, photographer, and writer. Born in Nantes as Lucy Schwob, she adopted a gender-neutral forename (Claude can be either male or female in French) and her uncle’s more recognisably Jewish surname. In an arrangement that echoed that of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, Cahun made many of her works in collaboration with her partner and companion, Suzanne Malherbe. Malherbe likewise took a pseudonym that obscured her gender, preferring to be known as Marcel Moore; she eventually also became Cahun’s step-sister after her widowed mother married Cahun’s father. The couple lived and worked together first in Paris then the island of Jersey, where they are buried together.

Described by Andre Breton as “one of the most curious spirits of our time”, Cahun is eternally difficult to characterise. As an artist she worked across multiple media, producing writing, photography, theatre, and performance works. She identified as a third gender that incorporated both masculine and feminine elements, and was actually described as a male artist in an early exhibition, probably due to a lack of information about her biography and self-definition. Today her best-known works are her highly-staged surrealist self-portraits and tableaux of the 20s, which play with the performance of gender and sexuality. The artist takes on characters such as Bluebeard’s wife or a fetishized weight-lifting boy, in an exploration of performative self-portraiture that prefigures the work of Cindy Sherman and Nan Goldin.

These works clearly explore experimental territory similar to the photographs of Man Ray and Lee Miller, who used photographic technology to reframe, dissect, and erotically defamiliarize the female body. Techniques such as the disembodied head-in-a-bell-jar trick appear in both Miller’s and Cahun’s work: in Cahun’s version, however, the sequence is used to highlight the theatrical expressiveness of the face. Showcasing her experience on the stage, these isolated heads are absurd Beckettian characters, rather than objects or collectibles. Viewed as a whole, her body of self-portraits forms an exegesis on the performance of self, which probes the nature of the dissected identity rather than the body. Cahun’s repeated use of mirrors, reflections, and masks pay tribute to the photographic medium while providing symbolic resonance for the themes of masquerade, questioning the source and privilege of the gaze within the performative space of the portrait. 

Marcel Moore and Claude Cahun settled on Jersey in 1937. During the German occupation of World War II they successfully disguised their identities as lesbians and Jews and staged an effective resistance programme, distributing pamphlets in German subverting Nazi propaganda and staging installations. They remained undiscovered for some time, since the Gestapo allegedly could not believe that two old ladies would be capable of such sustained action. Eventually detained and sentenced to death, the couple were released only when the war was over. Unhappily, much of their work was destroyed by the Nazis. Since the 1980s, however, critical interest in Cahun has sharply increased, with major retrospectives held in Paris, London, and Chicago in recent years, establishing her proper place in the history not only of surrealism but the performance of gender.

Siofra McSherry is a poet, researcher, and co-founder of the And Or new media curation project. She lives and works in Berlin.
Editor's Note:  You can find additional posts in the Women You Should Know series in the blog archives  from March 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2015.  If you are interested in being a guest blogger on the Zestyverse, let us know!

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