Claude Cahun at Jeu de Paume, Paris. Review by Siofra McSherry
The French Surrealist Claude Cahun was born Lucy Schwob in 1894, adopting the gender neutral pseudonym in 1917. Cahun, she revealed, was the surname of an obscure Jewish branch of her extended family. She worked alongside the central figures of Surrealism in Paris, meeting Andre Breton and his circle in 1932. Along with her partner, Suzanne Malherbe, she engaged in Resistance activities in occupied Jersey and was arrested and sentenced to death by the Gestapo in 1944. Although she was released in May 1945, much of her work and that of Malherbe was lost or destroyed. Since the 1980s, however, her work has been the subject of intense critical attention. This exhibition marks the largest retrospective of her work seen in France in sixteen years, bringing together her most widely disseminated and discussed images with works never before exhibited, in an effort to reveal the diversity and complexity of her art.
The main focus of the exhibition is Cahun’s series of self portraits, for which she is perhaps best known. Viewed together, these form a crystalline set of impressions of a body that is never left unguarded for a moment. In each photograph she adopts a structured, gendered persona that flaunts the accessories of attraction. Her subject is adornment, in many cases, whether she is dressed as a fortune teller, with a turban, eyes made up with deep kohl, a round glass brooch at her throat, or as a stereotyped young homosexual male, with a heart on the cheek and painted bo-peep lips, and a body suit disguising her breasts with a cartoonishly masculine torso and nipples.
Accessories are foregrounded, with the result that the body itself is rarely on show, despite the concentration of the camera on the figure and face of the artist. The photographs do not reveal the artist, her personal or sexual body, at all. Even images such as the untitled pieces from the 1940s that show her nude position her body in a sculptural relation to the landscape and rock formations of Jersey, placing the emphasis on its formal rather than erotic qualities. Here Cahun, a female Surrealist who explored similar trompe l’oeil photographic techniques to fellow Parisian Man Ray, departs from received notion of the Surrealist treatment of the female body: disassembled, nude, and both extremely feminine and highly sexualized. Cahun, on the contrary, describes herself as feeling most comfortable occupying a neutral gender, adopting masculine and feminine characteristics in accordance with what is appropriate to the role she wishes to play.
The exhibition includes an English documentary on the artist, with extracts from films she made of her photographic shoots. Cahun, with a shaved head, appears in one such extract in an oversized woollen sailor’s jumper, which her partner Malherbe steps into frame to pull down over her shoulders, to reveal a black off-the shoulder evening dress. The artist’s body language shifts accordingly from square-shouldered masculinity, with a direct gaze at the camera, to a feminine coquettishness, sinking one shoulder back and glancing demurely to the side. Through humour and the displacement of gender signs from the body onto props and performance, she stages a radical attack on the clichés of self-representation. This exhibition serves not only to reinforce the importance of her legacy in the work of contemporary artists such as Cindy Sherman or Nan Goldin, but to radically complicate the received heritage of Surrealism, and its queered love affair with the female body.