Institut Valencia d'Art Modern, Generalitat
Self-portrait, c. 1926
It was not a good time or place to be either Jewish, lesbian or a subversive artist. And yet Claude Cahun was all three of those things and much more during her highly eventful life in France and the Channel Islands between 1894 and 1954. Born Lucy Schwob in Nantes, she reinvented herself in 1917 with a man’s name and a persona more suited to her vision of herself.
For the uninitiated—and there are many, since the writing and photography of Cahun were practically unknown before the Eighties—the exhibition is laid out in a sly and provocative manner. The stark white galleries of the Palau de la Virreina are installed so that the visitor is first introduced to the self-portraits of the artist. There are so many, in fact—of Cahun in outrageous costumes, of Cahun with her head shaved, of Cahun in self-portraits that were shot mysteriously from across a room or in a bird’s-eye view—that one would think she is the most self-absorbed artist this side of Frida Kahlo. Not exactly a beauty queen, Cahun uses her odd looks, her hawk-like nose and her jutting jaw, to their best advantage when photographing herself. She portrays herself in such androgenous guises that when she wears wigs and frilly dresses, she actually looks like a drag queen. There is little wall text in the first galleries to provide much information about who this person might be, or what motivates her, so the viewer is allowed the opportunity to formulate his or her own opinion.
Then come the still lives and the staged tableaux in the section called ‘The Poetics of the Object’. Her sensitivity to form, design and texture are clear, and her use of overlapping and double-exposure images inventive. Finally, one is confronted with a full-fledged Surrealist collage and the savvy viewer says, “Aha! That’s who she is…of course!”. In fact, Cahun’s inner circle included André Breton and other Surrealist artists and writers from the Thirties onwards.
The story of Cahun and her life-partner Marcel Moore (née Suzanne Malherbe) unfolds through Cahun’s work (and some of Moore’s) in the remaining galleries, complemented by correspondence and the ephemera of their lives. And a sad story it is, as these strong women (dubbed ‘sisters’ by their neighbours on the island of Jersey) live their unconventional lives openly, antagonise the Nazi occupiers of France and wind up eventually behind bars. The experience of this tragic time is blamed for the early death of Cahun, at age 60. A 45-minute film with a double entendre title, Lizzie Thynne’s Playing a Part (2005) rounds out the picture of this star-crossed couple.
Palau de la Virreina. Until February 5th, 2012