Claude Cahun: Beneath This Mask, East Gallery, NUA, Norwich

Exhibition Visit, 9th  January 2016

Cahun NUA (1 of 1)

‘Beneath This Mask’ is a collection of 42 black and white images made by Claude Cahun between 1918 and the mid 1947. The images were displayed in symmetrical groups in the new Gallery East that is part of the Norwich University of the Arts. This collection is part of a travelling exhibition from the Hayward South Bank Centre. I was not familiar with the work of this artist prior to the exhibition but found it a very rewarding and thought provoking exhibition principally because:

  • Cahun’s work looked to me to be avery much ahead of its time
  • Cahun’s surrealist experiments with gender identity are as relevant now as when these images were made, nearly a century ago in some cases.
  • Cahun’s use of strong composition, self parterre and theatrical poses made m thinks in a different way about the photograph as information and the themes explored in the final section of Expressing Your Vision

Claude Cahun was the taken name of Lucy Renee Mathilde Schwob a French citizen born in Nantes in 1894. She was the niece of Marcel Schwob the avant-garde writer. Cahun contributed to the surrealist and avant-garde movements through her photography and writing, although her recognition only came posthumously.

Cahun 1

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The work which is very biographical, contains many self portraits, some of which are very theatrical in nature. In some of the images she photographs her life long companion Suzanne Alberte Malherbe. Like Cahun Malbherbe took on a gender neutral pseudonym, Marcel Moore. Together they moved from France to Jersey in the mid 1930’s to pursue their artistic endeavours.
Of particular interest to me as I researched Cahun was an exhibition of her work staged by David Bowie in 2007. Given Bowie’s recent death, ironically the day after I saw this exhibition, it is interesting to view Bowies work through the lens that Cahun was creating half a century before Bowie experimented with gender reversal and an androgynous presentation of self.

Claude_Cahun

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As mentioned there is a clear exploration of gender and many of the images present an an intentional androgynous view of the subject. In the 1920’s Cahun was experimenting with gender at a number of levels and was also involved in theatre and writing as well as photography. The link to theatre is interesting, in that her work explores different persona’s, a feature of theatrical work in general.

I have to say I found many of the images strangely contemporary in terms of the portrayal of their subjects, indeed it was hard tho think that many of the images were 70 or 80 years old. I was not surprised to read in the exhibition notes the links made to the work of Cindy Sherman.

In the organisation of the work there was a real sense of exploration and the self portraits move from being theatrical to being much more explicitly surreal. I was left with a sense of an artists pushing boundaries in a time when making this sort of work will almost certainly have been treated with challenges

Claude-Web-1

Copyright Jersey Archive

Cahun was a resistance activist during the Nazi occupation of the Channel Islands and was eventually arrested and imprisoned. Sentenced to death by the German administration on the islands she was saved from this fate with the liberation of Jersey in 1945. In reality though the death sentence was only postponed, her health was severely damaged by her time in prison and Cahun died at the age of 60 in 1954.

images cahun

Copyright Jersey Archive

In summary I think Cahun was a ground breaking artist , ahead of her time who has only recently been brought to modern audiences. There is much to learn about surrealism from her work and she offers an alternative approach to that of other artists of her time and those who came later in exploring the power of images to investigate and challenge gender and self.
References

Claude Cahun: Beneath This Mask: Exhibition Notes, Hayward Touring Exhibition 2015

David Bowie on Cahun: found at http://www.davidbowie.com/news/tonights-high-line-david-bowie-recommends-21926 (accessed 12/1/2016)

Claude Cahun: The Soldier with no Name: found at:http://www.fluxmagazine.com/claude-cahun/ (accessed 12/1/2016)

 

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