Lesbian Surrealist Photographer Cahun Feted in Paris: Review

"Self Portrait" (1929) by Claude Cahun. The photograph is on view at the Jeu de Paume through Sept. 25. Source: Jeu de Paume via Bloomberg

A generation ago, she was an obscure footnote to the Surrealist movement. Today, she has become almost a cult figure.

For the second time in 15 years, a Paris museum devotes a major exhibition to the eccentric photographer Claude Cahun.

She was born in 1894 as Lucy Schwob. Her assumed first name, which can be male or female, reveals her obsession with role playing. Openly lesbian, she liked to dress as a man, cut her hair short or even shave her head.

She was lucky enough to find, at age 15, a soul mate who became her lifelong companion -- Suzanne Malherbe, who called herself Marcel Moore. So intimate was their collaboration that it’s often unclear whether a particular photo was shot by Cahun or, following her instructions, by her friend.

By a curious twist of fate, the two became sisters when Cahun’s father later married Malherbe’s mother.

Until 1938, when they moved to Jersey, the largest of the Channel Islands, they lived in Montparnasse, the preferred quarter of the Paris intelligentsia, only a few blocks from another lesbian couple, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas.

Most of the pictures on view at the Jeu de Paume are self-portraits (the previous show was at the Musee d’Art Moderne). Cahun never tired of disguising herself and adopting unconventional poses. She appears as a butterfly, a cross-legged Buddha or with dumbbells and the warning: “I am in training, don’t kiss me.”

Surreal Objects

In 1932, she met Andre Breton, the guru of the Surrealists, and joined the movement.

From that period date a number of photomontages, mixing heterogeneous objects such as twigs, bones, insects, feathers, gloves and shoes. In 1936, she explained her “theater of objects” in an essay titled “Prenez Garde aux Objets Domestiques” (Beware of Household Goods).

It would be wrong to regard Cahun as a forerunner of the feminists who condemn household appliances (and the publicity for them) as instruments of female enslavement. She was too playful and ironic for any kind of dogmatism.

One of her favorite items was a wooden mannequin appearing in various poses, probably inspired by the German artist Hans Bellmer, who frequently visited Paris. Bellmer’s fetish was a life-size doll of his own making that he photographed in twisted postures, suggesting scenes of rape and perverse sex.

The occupation of Jersey by the Wehrmacht, in 1940, jolted Cahun from her Surrealist daydreams and brought her back to the real world.

Gestapo Thugs

Unconcerned by her partly Jewish origins, which already put her life at risk, she joined the Resistance. In 1944, after she was interrogated by the Gestapo and her house was vandalized, Cahun tried to kill herself. Sentenced to death, she was saved by the end of the war.

The Surrealist movement, on the other hand, didn’t survive World War II. Most of its leading lights had fled occupied France, and the movement never regained its prewar significance.

Cahun died in 1954, almost forgotten, so much so that the catalog of a 1985 exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., assumed that she had perished in a concentration camp. Malherbe died in 1972. They are buried together on Jersey.

“Claude Cahun” runs through Sept. 25 at the Jeu de Paume in Paris. Information: http://www.jeudepaume.org or +33-1-4703-1250.

(Jorg von Uthmann is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE