Female. Lesbian. Jewish. Born in the French provincial city of Nantes. Working with Surrealist motifs which were barely acknowledged as such by the Surrealists, who – for all their talk of revolt – regarded women as little more than exotic furniture. Pioneering an approach to photographic self-portraiture which would scarcely find echo or audience until the end of the century. A life and career whose second act played out on an island in the English Channel.
It’s fair to say Claude Cahun knew a thing or two about margins.
And yet here she is, the subject of a comprehensive exhibition in the heart of the French capital. Claude Cahun, which begins at Paris’s Jeu de Paume gallery today, is an overdue overview of an undervalued artist. Cahun may have died in 1954, but she was so far out in front in her exploration of gender, sexuality and other building blocks of identity that the art world needed the second half of the 20th century to catch up.
Naturally the riveting self-portraits are the chief attraction, but this large-scale exhibition also finds space for lesser-known works, including nature studies which reflect the slightly eerie tranquillity of the Jersey surroundings Cahun shared with her lover (and step-sister) Marcel Moore. In any case the idyll was shattered with the arrival of the Nazis in 1940; both women agitated covertly against the invading forces and narrowly escaped execution once they were caught. It’s particularly appropriate, then, that Cahun should be honoured at the Jeu de Paume. Not only is it France’s most prestigious showcase of photographic art, during the Nazi occupation it was also a storehouse for confiscated artworks, mostly from Jewish owners who had fled the country. The collection comprised a good deal of “degenerate” art, as the Nazis termed it (and you have to wonder what they would have made of Cahun’s work had they encountered it).
As welcome as this exhibition is, one unfortunate side effect is that Moore’s contribution to this singular body of work is largely ignored. It is Cahun’s name which will flutter over the Tuileries, yet Moore was a close collaborator in front of and behind the camera, and research has failed to definitively establish sole authorship of numerous works.
You have been reading the 200th Strange Flowers post. 100 posts ago I foresaw a longer slog to the double ton (though in fairness even Harold Camping could have predicted that). But it’s been a treat to spend company with these beautiful freaks and the people who love them (that would be you, gentle reader). If I were asked to describe my ultimate dinner party guests in 100,000 words or less, the answer would be this blog.
Thanks for indulging me.