Photomontage from the book Aveux non Avenus – MYSELF (For want of anything better) The siren is beguiled by her own voice. Claude Cahun (most likely in collaboration with Marcel Moore), c 1920 to 1930.
I just came back from two days in San Francisco and I went specifically to see the exhibit that highlights Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore’s work in a large group exhibit at the Contemporary Jewish Museum titled “Show me as I want to be seen.” I freely confess that I was only there to see Cahun and Moore’s work and that is what I looked at, read, and was mesmerized by. I am so happy I went. The exhibit closed Sunday.
Forgive me for only recently diving into the remarkable work of text, language, image and “self” examination – the book “Aveux non Avenus.” This book, first published in 1930 in an edition of 500, was only recently translated into English by Susan de Muth, and was first published in English by Tate Publishing in 2007, and is available in North America from MIT Press. I didn’t realize the importance of this text or the elaborate photomontages that are part of the book (some made in collaboration with Marcel Moore) until a few days ago. In the beginnings of my research into Cahun I was so seduced by the remarkable black and white self-portraits (most likely also made in collaboration with Marcel Moore) and of course the text Cahun published in 1925 titled “Heroines” – that I had overlooked this book.
“Aveux non Avenus” installed at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco
The title “Aveux non Avenus” is translated into English as “Disavowals,” it could also be translated as “Cancelled Confessions” or “Confession not Delivered” or “Confession not Admitted.” The museum had reproduced the photomontages from “Aveux non Avenus” quite beautifully. You can see in the image above that the montages in the book were quite small about 6 x 4inches 15 x 10 cm. The museum produced one very large, the one I show below.
Photomontage from the book “Aveux non Avenus,” Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore, c 1920 to 1930.
The rest were reproduced at about 11 x 18 inches or so and were posted directly on the wall. I really liked them at this scale. But I also see that the original book was a pure work of art. The scale, the printing, the photomontages and the text… Anyway, I get it now, this text and these montages are just more clues to unravel Cahun’s genius. And I vow to try to do this.
Photomontage from the book “Aveux non Avenus,” Claude Cahun (and most likely Marcel Moore), c 1920 to 1930.
Self-Portrait, Claude Cahun, silver gelatin print, 18 x 24 cm, c 1915.
The above image of Cahun at about 20 years old is still one of my favorites, the delicate silver gelatin print is only about 7 x 9 inches, and it is one of the larger prints. Notice how this image is used in the photomontage above as well. I had no idea how small these prints are from looking at the images in catalogues, etc. I will write more about these later. The one below is still one of my favorites as well, but I kind of love them all…
Self-Portrait, Claude Cahun, silver gelatin print, 23 x 15 cm, c 1928.
I have a lot of thoughts about Cahun’s gaze… Also about collaboration… I am for sure going to go and see Cahun’s archive on Jersey Island in the Channel Islands where she and Moore lived the last parts of their lives. I want to see more of the “real” stuff and I also want to experience the “place” that was so important to both of them. I am hooked, line and sinker….
The text from “Disavowels” that I quote below blows me away and furthers my obsession with Cahun – with her process of self-revelation and other-revelation, her process with photography itself, the process of representation, of “self” representation, the process of “intersubjectivity” where the many “selves” are unpacked, the flexibility and reflectivity of the self in the other and how a text or an image reveals the subject and the author or the photographer but also subverts all these “selves” at the same time… And I want to make a book myself…
“The invisible adventure.
The lens tracks the eyes, the mouth, the wrinkles skin deep…
The expression on the face is fierce, sometimes tragic. And then
calm – a knowing calm, worked on, flashy. A professional smile –
The hand-held mirror reappears, and the rouge and eye
shadow. A beat. Full stop. New paragraph.
I’ll start again.
To those who know nothing of the steps, obstacles and enor-
mous chasms I’ve leapt over – and I’ve revealed none of it – this
all must seem the most ludicrous merry-go-round.
Should I then burden myself with all the paraphernalia of
facts, stones, cords delicately cut, precipices… it doesn’t interest
me at all. Guess, recover. Vertigo is implied, ascension or the fall.
To please them, would you have to follow the unknown, step
by step, illuminating it up to the ankle ? Heels worn down , mud,
feet bleeding – these humble and truthful testaments – they
would surely touch somebody’s heart. Whereas…
No. I’ll trace the wake of vessels in the air, the pathway over
the waters, the pupil’s mirage.
No point in making myself comfortable. The abstraction, the
dream, are as limited for me as the concrete and the real. What
to do? Show a part of it only, in a narrow mirror, as if it were
the whole? Mix up a halo with spatters? Refusing to bump into
walls, bump into windows instead? In the black of night.
Until I see everything clearly, I want to hunt myself down,
struggle with myself. Who, feeling armed against her own self,
be that with the vainest of words, would not do her very best if
only to hit the void bang in the middle.
It’s false. It’s very little. But it trains the eye.
Only with the very tip would I wish to sew, sting, kill. The rest
of the body, what comes after, what a waste of time! Only ever
travel in the prow of myself.”
– Claude Cahun, Disavowals, p 1 – 2
THE HOUSE – stair series, Luís Branco and Sherry Wiggins, 2019.