This March, I headed to Keele University for the Hayward Touring Exhibition, Claude Cahun, Beneath This Mask. Having previously engaged with Cahun's work during my undergraduate studies through books and a survey show at Jeu de Paume back in 2011, it was a welcome experience to reacquaint myself with her practice. Amongst a multitude of her iconic, elusive self-portraits - the likes of which are today recognised as a forerunner to queer theory and feminist art - I found myself reflecting on a series of connections with the natural world that I had not encountered before.
Achieving posthumous fame, Cahun is well-recognised for her malleable depiction of multiple identities and personae. This touring exhibition - comprised of 42 giclee prints - is a reminder of how relevant her imagery remains in the present moment. She subverts modes of traditional portraiture and reconstructs our perception of gender and identity - its still remarkable to think that Cahun was reflecting upon many of today's LGBTQI+ dialogues back in the early-mid 20th century.
Within the exhibition itself, I was drawn to the later works she produced on Jersey, as well as her, often overlooked, collaboration with her step-sister Marcel Moore. The accompanying showing of Playing a Part: The Story of Claude Cahun provided a wonderful insight into her life's stages. Many people are aware that Cahun (born Lucy Schwab) adopted her pseudonym in 1917 to defy the confines of gender, but some audiences are unaware that Moore (born Suzanne Malherbe) also lived and breathed a similar, if not the same, agenda as Cahun.
As lovers and collaborators, they were inseparable: many of Cahun's self-portraits were taken or facilitated by Moore. While their alignment with Paris's Surrealist circles fostered the early stages of Cahun's output - such as What Do You Want From Me and “I am in training, don’t kiss me” - the couple's visits and subsequent move to Jersey in 1937 reveals an interesting change in her depicted environment. Prior to Jersey, many images were staged indoors; in later works, the emphasis shifted towards relationships with the external and natural world.
This imagery is sublimely detached from the built environment yet conscious of the historical portrayal of gender in nature. Cahun, through her intelligence and visual aptitude, continues to question her non-binary identity through comparisons with nature's own dualities. She adopts modes of mimicry, identifying instances in which her body either aligns with or disrupts the natural order of things. While mimesis and symmetry exist throughout her lifelong oeuvre, Cahun's response to nature's textures, tonalities and surfaces represents her ability to reconfigure and relate to more than her own identity.
Curiously, Cahun turns to nature on Jersey at a time when the Nazis were invading much of Europe. The film, Playing a Part, reflects on Cahun and Moore's creation of "The Soldier with No Name" - a fictional character who authored multiple resistance letters on Jersey during the Occupation. The duo adopted a peaceful and non-violent manner in which to "spook" the Nazi soldiers: a lesser-known testament to their beliefs in freedom of expression and disrupting the confines of authority. Despite the Occupation period on Jersey, the imagery produced is perhaps Cahun's most liberating: she finds solace within the lush confines of vegetation and water, while pursing her dialogue on queerness.
The majority of Cahun and Moore's negatives have been lost: the show's giclee prints are made from scans of original photographic self-portraits. Hayward Touring: bit.ly/2GKBJv8 / Jersey Heritage Trust: bit.ly/2GIKoP2.