Claude Cahun: Travelling in the Prow of Herself

Following her death, at her own hand at the age of 80, the contents of Suzanne Malherbe’s house were auctioned in lots at Langlois’s Don Street and Peter Street auction rooms in Jersey, Channel Islands. The successful bidder was John Wakeham, a local collector with an interest in Surrealism who was drawn to the material because it included books and papers relating to the period. Through inheritance, the contents of Malherbe’s house also included the possessions of a woman named Lucy Schwob. The British novelist, critic and art historian John Berger was also present at the auction and bidding on these same lots, the collected holdings of two eccentric single ladies, step-sisters from France who had moved to Jersey in 1938 and remained there until their deaths: Lucy Schwob’s in 1954 and Suzanne Malherbe’s in 1972.

In 1913 Malherbe began publishing illustrated articles, primarily on fashion, using the name Marcel Moore. In 1914 Lucy Schwob wrote her first major text, a semi-biographical series, “Les Jeux uraniens.” She signed the work Claude Cahun. The individual and collaborative works of these two remarkable women–artists, lifelong companions, lovers, sisters–were shown for the first time in 1993 at the Jersey Museum in an exhibition titled “Surrealist Sisters–an extraordinary story of art and politics,” curated by Lucy Marder, then curator of art. It was John Wakeham, Louise Downie writes in the introduction to Don’t Kiss Me: The Art of Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore (aperture, 2006), the collector who had purchased the lots at auction in the early ’70s who brought the work to the attention of the Jersey Heritage Trust in the early ’90s. Louise Downie notes that the rediscovery of Cahun’s work in the late 1980s and the publication of her biography by François Leperlier in 1992 sparked a series of major exhibitions internationally, which continue to the present. Feminist studies, renewed interest in performative art, an engagement with mutable definitions of gender, the myriad ways in which photographs are made and read have prepared a fertile and ready ground for the reception of Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore. More discovery than rediscovery, from the 1980s to the present their work was avant-garde then, is current and relevant now.

While exhibitions continue to be mounted, most recently “Claude Cahun” at Jeu de Paume in Paris, 2011 (which travels to Barcelona and Chicago through 2012), an installation comprehensive and rich in works and documents, for me it is her book titled Aveux non avenus, published in 1930 by Éditions du Carrefour and in English by Tate in 2007 as Claude Cahun: Disavowals, that carries the essence of her intentions. Consistent even after her death with the open endedness of her work, the book was alternately titled Cancelled Confessions. Disavowals or Cancelled Confessions, places Cahun’s writing very much in the avant-garde exactly where she wished to be–advancing. “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.” Elusive, finely honed, a physical reduction to a slender steel or silver point, everything extraneous, including the problematic gendered body pared away. Relevant, then, and tragic were Cahun’s early struggles with anorexia.

Mirror, mirror on the wall…begins the quest for self-affirmation and an appeal as well to another authority for resonant confirmation and knowledge. In this fable it’s both a window into a space outside the seeker and a reflective surface offering assurance by way of doubling. Here I am, here I am, twice over. Claude Cahun used the mirror, too, as a source of reflection in the contemplative, interrogatory mode and in her photographs and texts. She looked and slipped into Narcissus’s pool, but it wasn’t her solitary image she was seeking. While she writes in Disavowals, “Individualism? Narcissism? Certainly. My best characteristic, the one and only intentional fidelity I am capable of.” She also wrote, “Sweet, nevertheless…the moment when our two heads lean over a photograph (ah! How our hair entangles inextricably) Portrait of one or the other, our two narcissisms drowning there, it was the impossible realized in a magic mirror,” and in the unpublished work “Les Jeux uraniens,” “You come up behind me, you lean over my shoulder, suddenly the cloud of your breath condenses on the tarnished glass, and when the round cloud has evaporated, your image has replaced mine.”

It’s my sense in reading and looking, that for Cahun, gazing into the pool or mirror and seeing only a solitary, monocular representation of herself–the kind a flat, hard surface can give back, or calling out and receiving a mimicking aural mirror of her words from Echo–wasn’t what she was ultimately seeking. It was something more fully figured and not so psychically uni-dimensional. Behind the glass, beyond it, or through it, in the wafer-thin space where the image briefly rests, or on which it is imprinted, resides the anomalous, unattainable destination-in-transit. She wrote, “But what makes Narcissus despair is not that he cannot drink himself, nor the solid, infrangible mirror-bound space, the coldness that separates the window from the image. Between him and himself something else exists to be smashed.”

If nothing is fixed, determined or sure, not your whole-making sense of being properly loved from inception and therefore confirmed, not your gender or its, and your social place in a larger world, then you wrap your arms around your body that contains all these uncertainties and you feel its solid presence: I’m here and real. You conjure Narcissus and you see your face and form, and a correspondence is registered. Self-reflection and ego are generative, but unaccompanied by ties and connections that go beyond those characteristics, they can have the individual sliding toward pathology where Narcissus lends his name to a dysfunctional condition. Recognizing the thinness of that particular meal and seeking some sustaining nourishment, you would look for an other, a double who extends beyond yourself in some form of collaboration and exchange.

Cahun had substantial and articulated doubts about social conformity and institutions, including love. The couplings, conventional or otherwise, are “treacherous harmonies” where it is necessary to recognize that the heat of love generated by the flesh is in fact a creation of the mind. Success lies in the brief balance between provocation and response. “Beyond complete narcissism,” she wrote, “the couple splits into two. We come out of our splendid isolation and lend ourselves to the world. My lover will no longer be the subject of my drama, he will be my collaborator.”

The preface to the 1930 publication Aveux non avenus was written by the novelist Pierre Mac Orlan in language that was tributary and parallel in introducing this new and difficult work. He says, “This book is virtually entirely dedicated to the word adventure,” and then goes on to say that the adventure is interior. But Cahun did also take risks in her life that were very much exterior, particularly in the resistance work she and Marcel engaged in against the Nazis who occupied Jersey in 1940, activities that resulted in their being jailed and sentenced to death. In France in her early years and after the war in Jersey, Cahun’s life, while not aggressively public, was nonetheless conducted in the world in which she moved and was certainly far from conforming. She and Marcel Moore lived as a couple, Cahun’s close-cropped and sometimes shaved head and lean body were startling, and her wardrobe, elegant and beautifully tailored. She admired Oscar Wilde’s work and life, and dandyism was an assumed affect that extended beyond dress to social and sexual attitudes and conduct, a Dandy’s life being lived as though in front of a mirror.

But Cahun’s interior adventures were more radical than an observer would have perceived. In Body Art and Performance: The Body as Language (Skira, 2000), Lea Virgine writes about the impetus in performance art to internalize perceptions of self. She suggests there is a comfort in “the control of specular identification–which is to say in one’s motorial coordination in a mirror.” Narcissus is here, projecting his exterior being in order to love what is inside. Virgine goes on, “The search for another self is the search for a partner, and vice versa. One is alone and not only alone, but also separate.” In performance art the audience’s role is a necessary component; for Cahun it was collaboration that provided her with the completing audience her self-enactment required.

While acknowledging Narcissus as a player in her troupe, Cahun is not engaging in mirrored self-reflection, in her often-reproduced and complicated Self-Portrait photograph from 1929, which shows her in a checkered-pattern coat in front of a mirror. Instead of gazing into the mirror, both she and her double look away from it. Looking out, it can be argued, to a collaborating other, to Moore, her partner whose image had replaced her own in a breath-clouded glass and who in many of the self-portraits would have pressed the shutter. In this Self-Portrait the mirror is only one of four key elements–Cahun, her face as a three-quarter profile reflection, and the receiver of the intense but gentle sideways inquiry being the fourth. Narcissus has lifted his gaze from the unyielding surface to risk engagement with another being more substantial and challenging than Echo. The mirror has ceded its role of pre-eminence and serves as the stage for the collaboration and self-affirmation Cahun always sought. It’s of interest to note that the production of the photographs, photomontages and constructed objects wasn’t impelled by a desire to exhibit them. Today the work is consistently shown and included in discussions of performance art. Cahun’s staged and costumed self-portraits are identified as precursors to the work of Cindy Sherman, and while Cahun’s colleagues were Andre Breton, Henri Michaux, Robert Desnos, the Surrealist artists and writers, and there were active exchanges and discussions among them, my sense is that her primary audience was her own in seeking a personal understanding, and Marcel Moore’s with whom the work was often made.

Pierre Mac Orlan suggests a cinematic quality to Cahun’s Disavowals and adds, “The great emotional valets of our age are the camera and the gramophone.” Cahun’s language is resonant and sonorous, if not lyric; I can see a reference to the then new, one-horned player, and by 1930 photographs were broadly dispersing information and carrying, with cinema, readily available evidence of emotion and sentiment. Apart from words, photographs were Cahun’s primary tool and the camera her eye. She is describing, in Disavowals, a nightmare image, something horrible to contemplate. “I do my best to believe that the image is out of focus; I contract, I dilate, I fiddle around with the astonished diaphragm of my eyes.” And, again using the camera as reference, “Life’s role is to leave me incompleted, allow me only freeze frames.”

Disavowals is a difficult, challenging and rhapsodic book. The writing is by intention enigmatic; it pulls you up short, draws you in, slams shut the door and then shows you the slant of light that leads you to carry on. Cahun wants the reader’s engagement. In the Afterword, Cahun biographer François Leperlier describes the reader’s role as collusion, the collaboration indispensable. It is a demanding book–a mix of short and long poems, aphorisms, dreams, instructions, explanations, shot through with word play–reversals and double meanings, tricks and traps and music hall one-liners a vaudeville stand-up comic would wish to have conceived. That’s a partial list of the support but not the content. It might be a metaphoric biography, a personal history by allusion. Where form and content do come together is in the language–what she writes and how she writes it. If the stories are autobiographical, they are not directly so, but there are stories. There’s the telling of a wish to be rid of the unwanted problematic body. From a lengthy section titled “Aurige,” “My body frequently humiliated my thought, my body badly constructed, full of graceless mutinies,” and then in a dream, “If I thought only of the ugly flaws of my despised body, quickly and with enough force, I still could, for certain! halt the collapse of the known universe.” And on waking, “And touching each of my deformed, hideous and hateful limbs, I declared myself safe and well.” The writing leaves the reader breathless, feeling a blow to the belly. “I am in the fist and in the wound; I recognize myself here, there and everywhere. I will not intervene.”

Laced through the book are brief stories of a small child, rebellious and staunch but also vulnerable, hurt, looking to be hurt and longing for the unavailable father. She writes, “What does a well-behaved child dream about, apart from the inhumane, the monstrous, the impossible? The ordinary. The most ordinary life with her adventures, her tales, her wonders.” And then, “The well-behaved child put on his grey canvas overall and cleared the table of the books that covered it, of the agreeable junk of images. An unremarkable surface without anything questionable on it. Then, in front of a respectable wall, a good quality wall, he shut himself up in his dreams.” Further–“Still obedient the child despaired. But suddenly his despair inflames him. He clings onto what can never be made perfect, he will not let it go.” Resilience and the core of self responds. “I’ve always had, I always will have, a spare tyrant at the bottom of my heart.” It’s this resolute sense of her being that can encompass the apparently seamless gender shifts, the perceived betrayals, the profound sense of being misperceived that has the book’s character, narrator, author, biographer, myth maker, dream reader rise each day to manufacture and live a life that this extraordinary new writing form embodies. “‘Open your mouth and shut your eyes!’ this is how adults became accustomed to perverting the young…With me and most children the expression of desire is mouth shut and eyes wide open. This shouldn’t be abused. Mute. Unisensual. A variety of infirmities. The example is not well chosen!” Her recounting or construction of a nightmare is a narrative of conflicted longing. “There is a silence between us, an obstinacy. It must be my father. He tries his best to understand and I to convince us–he, my own heart, and this man…But I have no sooner felt that my destiny yielded, cracked, that infinity was restored to me, that I had seen a stop notch in the adverse abyss–in short: the click of longing–than I turn and flee, shouting, spitting out my soul, denying and renouncing my conquest, hurling abuse at my star.”

Pierre Mac Orlan had introduced this book, writing that Cahun, through her illustrious literary and unusual family, “has inherited a state of torment so richly productive that one should not wish her rid of it.” He speaks about the writing’s particular light, and the reader can assume heat. For me, the chaffing of anomalies, missed and cancelled yearnings generated a heat that seared my lenses and fingertips. I often closed my eyes and pulled back my hands from the pages. Cahun seeks for and almost names her desires, identifies a source, has it within her grasp and taunts herself, frustrates her own demands by hurtling them away, refuses to allow herself (if self she is writing) the comforts her soul and body seek.

This book, rich in wit and humour, erudite as the contents of a bibliotheque, is a paradox so intense its words barely rest on the page. It is Surrealism in the earliest expression of the movement: dreamlike, splintered, ridden with chance and risk and switches. She is a masquerade, and the book offers the willing reader an opportunity of unmasking, and each section is interleaved with the collaborative montages Cahun and Moore assembled. Finally, it is a tantalizing, destabilizing, upending book of oppositions. Cahun’s words are the last, “The abstract, the absolute, the absurd are a malleable element, a plastic material, the word one appropriates. That is all for me alone. And so, at ease, I associate, dissociate–and formulate without laughing the odious rule of my collection of exceptions.”

Volume 30, Number 3: Photography

This article originally appeared in Border Crossings #119, published September 2011.

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