Claude Cahun. Combat de pierres, 1931. Gelatin silver print; 21 x 15.5 cm. Private collection. © Béatrice Hatala.
Claude Cahun. Le Père, 1932. Gelatin silver print; 23.6 x 17.7 cm. LAC.
Claude Cahun. Autoportrait, 1927. Gelatin silver print; 10.4 x 7.6 cm. Soizic Audouard Collection.
Claude Cahun. Autoportrait, 1929. Gelatin silver print; 11.5 x 8.5 cm. Jersey Heritage Collection. © Jersey Heritage.
Claude Cahun. Autoportrait, 1926. Gelatin silver print; 11.1 x 8.6 cm. IVAM, Institut Valencià d’Art Modern, Generalitat.
Art Institute of Chicago
111 South Michigan Avenue
Entre Nous: The Art of Claude Cahun
February 25-June 3, 2012
Born Lucy Renee Schwob in Nantes, France, to a family of French Jewish 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 a towering precursor to 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 and Malherbe (under the pseudonym Marcel Moore) together produced photographs, assemblages, and publications from the mid-1920s on. The photograph Entre Nous (Between Us), featuring a pair of masks embedded in sand, gives the title to this show and speaks to the couple’s long-term collaboration.
The first exhibition in the United States devoted to 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.
Cahun (October 25, 1894-December 8, 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.
Born Lucy Renee Mathilde Schwob in Nantes, she was the niece of writer Marcel Schwob and the great-niece of Orientalist David Léon Cahun. Her mother's mental problems meant that she was brought up by her paternal grandmother, Mathilde Cahun.
She began making photographic self-portraits as early as 1912, when she was 18 years old, and she continued taking images of herself through the 1930s.
Around 1919, she settled on the pseudonym Claude Cahun, intentionally selecting a sexually ambiguous name, after having previously used the names Claude Courlis (after the curlew) and Daniel Douglas (after Lord Alfred Douglas). During the early 20s, she settled in Paris with her life-long partner and stepsister Suzanne Malherbe. For the rest of their lives together, Cahun and Malherbe (who adopted the pseudonym Marcel Moore) collaborated on various written works, sculptures, photomontages and collages. She published articles and novels, notably in the periodical Mercure de France, and befriended Henri Michaux, Pierre Morhange and Robert Desnos.
Around 1922 she and Malherbe began holding artists' salons at their home. Among the regulars who would attend were artists Henri Michaux and André Breton and literary entrepreneurs Sylvia Beach and Adrienne Monnier.
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.
Her published writings include Heroines, (1925) a series of monologues based upon female fairy tale characters and intertwining them with witty comparisons to the contemporary image of women; Aveux non avenus, (Carrefour, 1930) a book of essays and recorded dreams illustrated with photomontages; and several essays in magazines and journals.
In 1932 she joined the Association des Écrivains et Artistes Révolutionnaires, where she met André Breton and René Crevel. Following this, she started associating with the surrealist group, and later participated in a number of surrealist exhibitions, including the London International Surrealist Exhibition (New Burlington Gallery) and Exposition surréaliste d'Objets (Charles Ratton Gallery, Paris), both in 1936. In 1934, she published a short polemic essay, Les Paris sont Ouverts, and in 1935 took part in the founding of the left-wing group Contre Attaque, alongside André Breton and Georges Bataille.
In 1937 Cahun and Malherbe settled in Jersey. Following the fall of France and the German occupation of Jersey and the other Channel Islands, they became active as resistance workers and propagandists. 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 Nazi's 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, fliers were inconspicuously crumpled up and thrown into cars and windows. In many ways, Cahun and Malherbe's 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 they were arrested and sentenced to death, but the sentences were never carried out. However, Cahun's health never recovered from her treatment in jail, and she died in 1954. She is buried in St Brelade's Church with her partner Suzanne Malherbe.
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 and Nan Goldin.
Cahun's collected writings were published in 2002 as Claude Cahun – Écrits (ISBN 2-85893-616-1), edited by François Leperlier.
Claude Cahun. Autoportrait, 1929. Gelatin silver print; 24 x 19 cm. Musée des Beaux-Arts de Nantes. © RMN/Gérard Blot.
Claude Cahun. Aveux non avenus, planche III,, 1929-1930. Gelatin silver print photomontage; 15 x 10 cm. Private collection.
Claude Cahun. Autoportrait, 1928. Gelatin silver print; 13.9 x 9 cm. Jersey Heritage Collection. © Jersey Heritage.