Note: KQED contributor Jeremiah Barber is spending the summer in Paris and will be reporting back on exhibitions of interest over the next few months. This is his first post from France.
This summer, Paris's Jeu de Paume brings to light the works of Claude Cahun, queer artist, anti-war activist, surrealist, and muse. Walking through the softly lit galleries lined with her intimate photographs feels exceptional, as though the mere existence of such a show is a challenge to the heavy hand of history.
A good number of Cahun's works were destroyed by the Nazis in the 1940s. Cahun (neé Lucy Schwob) and her partner and collaborator, Marcel Moore (neé Suzanne Malherbe), were arrested by the Gestapo and sentenced to death for spreading anti-war propaganda in 1944, during the occupation of France. Their sentences were commuted in the eleventh hour.
A published writer and woman of letters, Cahun's writing is displayed alongside her black and white exhibition prints. Cahun makes it clear that she faced an equally monolithic adversary in the uncompromising mores of society (a letter to Paul Levy: "upholding certain values, including freedom of expression‚ and with that not only maintaining but winning new moral freedoms, the rights of the human being repressed by centuries of ferocious superstitions.") Working in collaboration with Moore, Cahun frequently photographed herself, offering a broad investigation of gender, sexuality, and the representation of the female nude in art. With her hair cropped short or dyed with gold, she gives long stares into the camera lens, snapping the shutter in poses that stretch between feminine and masculine, brutish and coy.
For Cahun the photograph, like gender itself, is a construct, a façade above reality that leads us to subjugation and delineation. Rather than questioning the origins of these constructions, Cahun opts to expose them, and our reliance on their solubility. The thin reality of the photograph is further tested through Cahun's use of mirrors, masks, double exposures, and symmetrical landscapes that fold in on themselves.
"Autoportrait," Claude Cahun, 1929.
In the most dynamic of these, "Autoportrait" (1929) Cahun stands inches from a mirror, her gaze turned back towards, but not into, the camera with élan. She clutches the collar of her diamond-patterned jacket and with pursed lips is a starlet caught in her dressing-room mirror after a show. We can see the reflection of her face, but the preposterous angles distinguish the two, suggesting twins separated by a wall, or two Cahuns of different dimensions, meeting in this fleeting moment. The far Cahun is caddish and tough, her eyes rolled so far back that they are nearly blank white. The close Cahun is boldly drawn with shining hair, deep colored lips, and a pointed gaze. Most portraitists strive to capture a sitter's singular nature, while Cahun's reflection brings back two distinct persons, a duality that offers us a chance to reframe our notion of the genders we assign.
Cahun's gender studies are rightfully pushed to the forefront of the exhibition, and wall text throughout the show brings these works into context. Her surrealist works are given much less contextualizing information, and the third of the show devoted to these object-based compositions is in comparison static and uninviting.
"Autoportrait," Claude Cahun, 1939.
Fortunately the end of the show returns to Cahun's inner world, from the post-war period when she returned from prison to her house on the island of Jersey and began making photographs again. Dressed in white, flowing fabrics, Moore photographed Cahun dancing on the Nazi-built bombardments, or blindfolded and following the whimsy of her giant, plush cat, who leads her from a thin rope leash. It may be the most gentle gesture of all, that we might give up our barbarous dogs and, blindly wandering, see the world through the eyes of a feline.
Claude Cahun is on view through September 25, 2011 at the Jeu de Paume in Paris. For more information visit jeudepaume.org.
Images courtesy the Jeu de Paume.