Although in many ways André Breton was dogmatic and imposed his rules on Surrealism with fervour, the movement was, perhaps surprisingly, unchauvinistic including among its adherents many female artists – Leonor Fini, Kay Sage, Meret Oppenheimer, Leonora Carrington and Dorothea Tanning to name but a few. They were certainly not just WAGs1 or muses but worked and exhibited on a par with their male colleagues.
Photography was an important part of Surrealism with Man Ray using it alongside his paintings and objects and Lee Miller’s photos documenting the movement. Claude Cahun dedicated her creative life to photography, often in the form of self-portraits.
Certainly not as well-known as the other female Surrealists, Cahun’s credentials were impressive, having shown in the landmark 1936 International Surrealist Exhibition at the New Burlington Galleries in London. Nevertheless, nowadays, though not totally forgotten, her name rarely comes up in books, surveys or exhibitions on Surrealism.
Born Lucy Renée Mathilde Schwob in Nantes on 25th October 1894, she adopted the pseudonym Claude Cahun in 1914. Seeking to be gender neutral she wrote, “Masculine? Feminine? It depends on the situation. Neuter is the only gender that always suits me.” This search for her place in the world was an integral part of her work. Her life-long partner and collaborator was Marcel Moore (born Suzanne Alberte Malherbe).
Claude never quite saw eye to eye with the doctrinaire André Breton over Surrealism (only his most ardent followers ever did) but despite this, and Breton’s rampant homophobia, she and Moore were friends with him and especially with his then wife, Jacqueline Lamba. Perhaps Breton’s tolerance of the odd couple was due to the preponderance of fêted and influential lesbians in Paris at the time – think Gertrude Stein.
The Kunsthal exhibition is beautifully mounted, the photos shown not actual size under glass, as is usual, but large on what looks like canvas. They are in fact UV prints on aluminium sheets known a dibond and the effect is stunning, considerably enhancing the pictures. One has to acknowledge that many of them are glorified snapshots of relatively poor technical quality. But that adds to their charm. These are intimate, personal images, not fancy studio set-ups.
There are a lot of portraits, many of Ms Cahun herself, and there are nice, historically interesting group photos like the one taken in 1936 in London with André Breton and Claude Cahun alongside Roland Penrose, David Gascoyne and ELT Mesens, three prominent Surrealists working in the UK. There are lots of compositions and tableaux with Cahun in exotic, often erotic costumes.
The photographs provide an important insight into one of the most significant art movements of the 20th century and, more interestingly, into the life of an artist who, despite her illustrious affiliations, ploughed a lonely furrow in search of her own identity. It must be said that in none of the pictures does she look happy.
Despite a 1994 exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London and being championed by David Bowie, Claude Cahun is now generally unknown. This major show at Rotterdam’s Kunsthal will no doubt rekindle interest and she and her life-long partner will not be forgotten in Paris where the Allée Claude Cahun-Marcel Moore in the 6th arrondisement of the French capital bears their name. Cahun died in her adopted home of Jersey in 1954 having never fully recovered from her time in prison under sentence of death during the German occupation.
This exhibition is interesting and important on many levels – artistically, historically and socially and would rank high on my “must see” list of current exhibitions. Michael Hasted 26th May 2022
1 Wives and girlfriend
Claude Cahun Under the Skin continues at Kunsthal Rotterdam until 28th August.