Claude Cahun, c. 1914.
I have spent the last three days in bed with my collection of books and catalogues about French artist Claude Cahun (1894-1954). I have had a bad head cold, so I have taken this opportunity to study and contemplate her works and my relationship to them. I am mostly interested in the vast array of “self-portraits” she made over the course of her life, but I am also interested in her texts and writings. My art practice over the last several years in drawing, installation, performance, research, photography and writing has been an elaborate and exploratory embodiment – with several remarkable international women artists of the 20th century as my guides. Cahun has been on my radar for some time – she was an extraordinary artist – working during the 1920s and 30s as an outsider (as a woman and as a lesbian) in the Surrealist circles of Paris. She was a brilliant woman – an intellectual, a journalist and as writer she created and published complex texts. She also performed in avant – garde theatre productions in Paris throughout the 20s. She is known by visual artists for the mesmerizing photographs and “self”-portraits she created over a period of some 40 years. There is some discussion about how collaborative this practice was with her life-long partner Marcel Moore. This photographic practice was a “private” practice of sorts- the stunning photographic portraits were never shown in her lifetime as singular objects, but they were used in many photo-collages in various publications of her written work.
Claude Cahun, c. 1920.
Claude Cahun had a devoted and creative relationship with her lifelong partner -fellow artist Marcel Moore (1892-1972). Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore adopted their gender-neutral nom de plumes (their given names were Lucy Renee Mathilde Schwob and Suzanne Alberte Malherbe respectively) as young women in Paris. Marcel Moore was a talented graphic artist and designer and they collaborated on publications and on theatrical projects and most likely on many of the “self-portraits”. Since the 1990s, there has been a resurgence of interest in Cahun’s work (and her work in collaboration with Moore) – both the visual and textual. They have a cult following amongst art-historians and critics and artists working from post-modernist, feminist and queer theoretical perspectives. Cahun’s photographic portraits are sometimes discussed as the pre-cursers to the works of Cindy Sherman and Francesca Woodman and Nan Golden – which is a little strange since Cahun’s work was virtually unknown when these artists began working. Cahun’s photographic work and textual work (as well as Moore’s graphic works) and their collaborative works have been archived at the Jersey Heritage Trust on the island of Jersey since the mid 90’s. Cahun and Moore lived on the island from1938 until the end of their lives. Both CC and MM were of Jewish heritage and worked as anti-Nazi/ anti-fascist activists during the occupation of Jersey. Both were arrested and sentenced to death for their resistance work. Luckily the war ended before their death sentences were enacted. Cahun was always of frail health and her imprisonment exacerbated this. Cahun died on the island of Jersey in 1954 at the age of 60. Moore took her own life in 1972 at the age of 80; she was still living on Jersey.
Cahun is probably one of the more radical of the artists I have chosen to work with so far. I have been a little unsure and perhaps even afraid of what I might discover about myself as an artist and woman by embodying Claude and taking her on as one of “my” artists. Perhaps what is most daunting to me in relationship to Claude Cahun – is my own “performance” of feminine heterosexuality. Over the last several years I have been facing my own aging feminine identity in relationship to my partner of 38 years who “came out” as a transgender man to woman after 30 years of heterosexual marriage. This has oddly led to my own reidentification with the feminine in my work. What does this all mean? who the f— knows? But I think the reason C.C. both excites and daunts me is that she was seemingly fearless in facing questions of agency, of femininity, of gender, of identity, of power, of sexuality, of politics, of love and of art.
Following are some of Cahun’s remarkable “self-portraits” that I have culled through. I find these works to be very powerful – there is both beauty and truthiness in these images. Some are thoughtfully composed, some are very theatrical, some styled with costumes and props and some were actually part of theatrical productions Cahun was involved with in Paris. However from Cahun’s early years she projects a gaze that shows remarkable self-knowledge as well as self-exploration and an ambiguous tale of what feminine / lesbian / cross-dressing / androgynous subjectivity entails and exposes. I have arranged them chronologically.
Claude Cahun, c. 1920.
Claude Cahun, c. 1925.
Claude Cahun, c. 1927.
Claude Cahun, c. 1928.
Claude Cahun, c. 1928.
Claude Cahun, c. 1929.
Claude Cahun, c. 1930.
Claude Cahun, c. 1939.
Claude Cahun, c. 1947.
The working title for the project I am planning with Claude Cahun as my guide and inspiration is Heroines – this title comes from one of Cahun’s texts of the same name. Cahun wrote this text in the early 1920’s. She selected 15 female figures from biblical history, from classical mythology, from fairy tails as well as a few “modern women” typologies. Cahun was classically educated and read ancient Greek, she knew her heroines “straight” traditional stories. She rewrote these heroines’ stories according to her own ironic, modern and presciently feminist point of view. In this surrealist and anti/patriarchal text Cahun writes about – “Eve The Too Credulous,” “Delilah, Woman Among Women,” “The Sadistic Judith,” “Penelope the Irresolute,” “Helen the Rebel” and ten other female figures.
I intend to create my own codex of heroines in research and writing and to then initiate performances and incarnations of my heroines in photographic portraits. I hope to work in collaboration with photographer Luís Branco again on this new project. In these works I will strive to engage with the fluidity of feminine subjectivity, feminine identity, power, sexuality and gender through the restructuring and reviewing and representations of these heroines (I include Claude Cahun here as well) and uncover new, as well as historic, aspects of the terms of feminine and personal selfhood.
I plan on beginning the Heroines project this spring while I am an artist in residence at Obras Holland in May – lucky me!
Claude Cahun, c. 1927.
10 thoughts on “My Heroine Claude Cahun– posted in Boulder, CO. December 16, 2018”
Amazing. Truly breathtaking.
Yes Jen! And this is just a small selection of her photographic work!!! xo S
Hey great research she’s always been of great interest to me when I was making my ‘bodysnatcher’ photos in the 90s .good luck at Obras
Thank you Stella! I might make Florbela Espanca one of my “heroines” for this project. I have always wanted to look into her more as well. My best to you dear! xo S
ThXS for the showing US more IMAGERY of C.C. —-yoUr HEROINE of the 1920’s doing SELF PORTRAITS. diZ DuZ BCo. & beYOND >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>…………………..nXt, BCo in the SNOW w/SAM.
Yes I love her work, very courageous! thanks Dismas
Dear Sherry, the photos are raw, disarming, full of “truthiness” as you say! I enjoy the one of you at the kitchen table. As with all of us there’s a lot more under the surface that is not shared. In these (of you and of Claude) the emphasis seems to be on getting to a sub-surface layer. Good luck with residency!!!!
PS are you intending on shaving your head?!? 🤭 it’s a fantasy of mine whenever I’m on retreat 🤪
Thank you Wendy. Yes there is alot under the table right 🙂 And this project is new territory for me. I am thinking about shaving my head at the end of the project with Claude Cahun – but we will see if I am gutsy enough. And I think this project will take me several years to complete, there are 15 “heroines” in Claude Cahun’s essays. I will see you soon I hope, I hear the next practice group is at Stef and Leonards. I am home June 1st. Love, Sherry