Sunday, May 06, 2012
Surrealism: questions of self and sexuality
On a Friday in April past I visited the Art Institute of Chicago. While browsing through the corridors trying to escape some of the construction and its concomitant plaster dust I happened upon this exhibit ("Entre Nous: The Art of Claude Cahun", on view at the museum from February 25th through June 3rd), an unexpected treat and tremendously exciting learning experience -- expanding my knowledge of the world of Surrealist art. Entre Nous introduced me to the life and art of Claude Cahun:
Born Lucy Renee Mathilde Schwob to a family of French intellectuals and writers in Nantes, Claude Cahun (who adopted the pseudonym at age 22) is best known for the staged self-portraiture, photo montages, and prose texts she made principally between 1920 and 1940.
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, photo montages 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.
Rediscovered in the late 1980s, her work has not only expanded our understanding of the Surrealist era but also serves as an important touchstone to later 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.
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 photo montages; 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.
The overall impression I took away was one of a unique fascination with the bizarre, the morbid, Eros and elegance.
Don't Kiss Me: The Art of Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore by Louise Downie. Aperture, London. 2006