Creative Forces

''Claude Cahun'' is all over the place. Good.

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I don’t imagine that artist and writer Claude Cahun ever sat down to lunch with the young Alberto Giacometti, who arrived in Paris about the same time as Cahun in the early 1920s. But there they were, developing their ideas about Surrealism, haunting the same galleries and bookstores, all within the complex artistic milieu of Montmartre and Montparnasse, where people spoke more of the revolutionary power of art than of its marketplace value.

   

A much older Giacometti came to mind as I wandered the recent show “Claude Cahun” at the Jeu de Paume in Paris.

In the 1960s, Giacometti painted a portrait of his friend James Lord. The two had met a decade earlier. Giacometti was a well-respected artist nearing the end of his life; Lord was an aspiring writer. For Lord, the process of creating the portrait over a series of 18 sittings distilled Giacometti’s ideas about the creative process. In A Giacometti Portrait, Lord recounted the experience of being the subject of art and the creative process of the artist. Lord related one particular exchange between them:

I said, “It’s difficult for me to imagine how things must appear to you.”

“That’s exactly what I’m trying to do,” he said, “to show how things appear to me.”

“But what,” I asked, “is the relation between your vision, the way things appear to you, and the technique that you have at your disposal to translate that vision into something which is visible to others?”

“That’s the whole drama,” he said. “I don’t have such a technique.”

This drama played out in the portrait as Giacometti painted and repainted, leaving some parts unfinished, while starting other parts over. The result was not so much a finished portrait but rather a creative exploration. He told Lord, “It is very, very important to avoid all preconceptions, to try to see only what exists.”

Sounds easy enough. But, for an artist like Giacometti, such a phrase is deceptively complicated. It suggests that we can rarely see beyond our preconceptions. Or, rather, that what we often see is hardly what exists. What mattered most was the constant process of seeing and re-seeing, where the product of art was less important than the process of its creation.

After months of work with Lord, Giacometti stood back and announced: “We could have gone further still, but we have gone far. It’s only the beginning of what it could be. But that’s something, anyway.”  

I had a similar feeling at “Claude Cahun,” the complex visual artist and writer’s first show in a major European museum. The exhibition presents a range of her work from the 1910s to her death in 1954 including Surrealist photographs, collages, photographic object poems, and gender-bending self-portraits that kept me questioning what I was seeing. Much of the art feels unfinished, as if you are immersed in a decades-long obsession with a process that never ended. This is the show’s power.

Cahun and her partner Marcel Moore arrived on the Left Bank of Paris from Nantes. Born Lucy Schwob in 1894, Cahun was raised in a wealthy publishing family and was encouraged to study philosophy, art, and literature from a young age. Her first unpublished manuscript was a semi-autobiographical story crafted through a collage of descriptive narratives, and marked the first time the young Schwob used the pseudonym Claude Cahun.

It was at school in Nantes that Cahun met Suzanne Malherbe, who studied art and design, and would eventually become her stepsister. Malherbe took a cue from Cahun and adopted her own pseudonym: Marcel Moore. The two remained life-long partners and constant artistic collaborators both in photography and illustrative books such as Vues et Visions (Views and Visions) — a collection of drawings, poetry, and meditations inspired by their interest in classical myths and philosophy framed within homoerotic imagery — and Aveux non avenues (Disavowed Confessions) — a Surrealist collection of meditations and photo-collages.

Cahun’s emergence as an important 20th-century artist, what the show describes as “something approaching cult status in today’s art world,” rests largely on her life-long obsessions with performative self-portraiture that played with gender and identity at a time when photography itself was searching for an identity as an art form. The show dedicates two galleries to “Metamorphoses of Identity and the Subversion of Gender” and clearly the emphasis throughout is on the mutability of gender and identity more generally. Of the nearly 150 objects in the show, it is the self-portraits that first confront you along with quotes from Cahun’s Surrealist writings that challenged gendered categories. One of the first makes clear the dominant theme of the show: “Shuffle the cards. Masculine? Feminine? It depends on the situation. Neuter is the only gender that always suites me. If it existed in our language no one would be able to see my thoughts vacillating.” Throughout the show, you move between such aphorisms and meditations, interspersed with the photographs. This turns the experience into its own collage that reflects well the fragmented, Surrealist intentions of Cahun’s work.

The portraits are striking in their varieties and dramatic impulses. They were largely created for private experience rather than public display, but within each is a deeper cultural critique resting on the subjective portrait. “A proposition for Lent:” Cahun wrote in Aveux non avenus, “Everyone who wears a mask the rest of the year should come out bare-faced, unrecognizable.” While she did perform in experimental theater in the 1930s, it is her play with masks, real and imagined, in her self-portraits that are so often captivating and confusing. At times amateuristic, often experimental, the self-portraits capture her acute abilities at merging the play of self-fashioning with the technologies of photography into curious and compelling fantasies of the self.

These portraits can be playful, as in a series from 1927 in which she dresses up as an androgynous boxer in training with rouged cheeks, spit-curls, and sporting a sweater that reads, in English, “I’m in Training. Don’t Kiss Me.” Training for what one wonders?

But more often they present more serious tones. In one portrait, she represents herself in a golden robe, sitting Buddha-like, exotic and eroticized.

The following year, Cahun shaved her hair, and — composed in a stark, simple manner — she is dressed in a man’s suit and stares directly into the camera. As her hair grew back, she bleached it blond. In one of the more famous images, Cahun stares at the camera while positioned alongside a mirror; she holds on to the upturned color of a checkered coat, her face distinctively indefinable. With the reflection of her face to her left, the image creates a doubling for the viewer that is both striking and ripe for any number of interpretations that speak to how Cahun was experimenting with gender performance well before the mutability of sexual and gender categories became the stuff of pop culture icons. In this sense, Cahun’s photographs can surprise us not only in their subject matter, but also in how they make our contemporary ideas look old.  And while Duchamp most famously dressed up as a woman for the American photographer Man Ray in 1920, Cahun’s obsessive performances in front the camera go much deeper than a play with illusion or self-image. The obsessive nature of the self-portraits evoked for me not so much a love for performance as a constant searching for a truthfulness in both personal and cultural ways.

As some critics have noted, to call these images self-portraits isn’t exactly correct, for always there is Marcel Moore. Trained as a set designer, Moore was undoubtedly there doing the staging and, most likely, the camera work, too. In one section, “Entre Nous,” the show recognizes such collaborative efforts, particularly with the photomontages that Moore created for the book Aveux non avenus, each of which are on display. These collages are precisely crafted gems that play with fragmented images of body parts and disembodied eyes (central imagery in Surrealism). They do what provocative collages do best: reframe the familiar in a new context of meaning.

The photograph entitled “Entre Nous” presents what appears to be a portrait of Cahun and Moore made, like the collages themselves, from found objects: sticks and seashells, cat-eye masks, and feathers arranged together in the sand. It looks unfinished, and the lighting isn’t exactly right. But somehow it captivates us. We begin to put this photograph together with others, and start seeing an imagination at work here that is not easily defined. Surrealism. Realism. Fantasy. Photography. Collage. The terms start to lose all anchoring.

While Cahun’s play with gender is clearly a central theme in her photography and her writings, her radical reimaginings of gender were part of a larger revolutionary impulse. The political dimensions of her work get a bit lost in this show, in which the art too often eclipses the life and times of the artist. By the early 1930s, Cahun and Moore were deeply involved in political groups such as the Association of Revolutionary Artist and Writers. In 1934, she published Les Paris sont ouverts, a political tract that influenced André Breton (despite his hostilities towards homosexuality), and both were involved in the revolutionary politics of the Surrealists and Communists. Cahun and Moore were in many respects as much shaped by the artistic and political revolutions of the 1920s and ’30s as they were by the gender and sexual politics of the time.

Before the Germans rode into Paris, the two left Paris for St. Brelades on the Channel Island of Jersey, disillusioned with the failures of Surrealism’s revolutionary vision. They continued taking photographs, continued to explore the symbolic meanings of objects, constructing and photographing theatrical tableaux that held political and lyrical qualities. “Poupée” (1936) was a small doll made from a communist newspaper but wearing a Nazi uniform.

Increasingly, the photographs were outdoor arrangements of man-made and natural objects. As in the self-portraits, these photographs have an unfinished quality, a sense that these were all moments in a creative exploration. And this is the point.

When the Nazis invaded Jersey, Moore and Cahun refused to flee, as so many others did. They instead started a two-woman propaganda machine against the occupation. Ultimately their secret campaign was discovered and the two were tried and sentence to death. The Allies arrived before that happened, much to the frustration of both artists, who wished to be executed to confirm that their efforts had real effect. In one of the more compelling photographs taken after the allies arrived, Cahun stares at the camera, dressed in a heavy coat. She bites down on a toy airplane with a swastika on the wing, a look of satisfaction on her face. Here again, Cahun merged political resistance, artistic form, and self-performance.

After the war, the two remained in Jersey in relative seclusion. The later photographs reveal a continuing and private concern with creating and photographing symbolic realities beyond what we can see and touch. “Realities disguised as symbols are, to me, new realities that are immeasurably preferable,” Cahun wrote in the late 1940s. She continued her interest in the poetry of objects, the power of metaphoric realities through the camera’s lens. These photos evoke contemplation as much as they confuse, making any one interpretation risky and futile.

What we end up with in this retrospective is a collection of tableaux photographs and quotes, photomontages and self-portraits, which together form a kind of archive of a creative process — fragments without a whole. And this is the pleasure and frustration of Cahun’s work. Like Cahun’s own life-long fascination with the symbolic meanings of objects, juxtaposed and configured in imaginative ways, it is difficult to take just one work on its own. The photographs and writings work together in a constant process of reference and contradiction. In a letter to her sister in 1948, Cahun wrote, “Whether I express myself objectively or subjectively, it is always this exceptional veracity that I am seeking, through the banality of the human condition.” In this I heard the origins of Giacometti’s comments to Lord.  “Claude Cahun” reminds us that such seeking is the whole point of creative work. • 14 July 2011

James Polchin teaches writing at NYU and is the founder and editor of the site Writing in Public.

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