Claude Cahun in Chicago

Claude Cahun by Claude Cahun

Claude Cahun is Having – as they say in the fashion world – A Moment.

The major exhibition of her work that took place in Paris last year (video below) has moved on to the Art Institute of Chicago to become, astonishingly, the first US retrospective of the French artist, who died in 1954.

A recent piece in The Guardian and online comments which ensued provided an interesting measure of Cahun’s present-day profile. The writer, Gavin James Bower, dared to suggest (not unreasonably, I thought) that Cahun remains generally unknown to the broader public. This being The Guardian, however, it led to endless refutations of that point by those wishing to signal their prior knowledge. The comments further revealed – apart from why I rarely read comments on The Guardian – that Bower is working on a book about Cahun.

Claude Cahun by Claude Cahun by Gillian Wearing

British artist Gillian Wearing is currently the subject of a major retrospective at London’s Whitechapel Gallery, in which she makes her own Cahun-esque, Sherman-infused play of identity. Using masks, she assumes the likenesses of family members, or of artists who have influenced her, including Andy Warhol and Robert Mapplethorpe. One piece draws on a 1927 Cahun self-portrait, in which Wearing holds a mask of her own face. You may find otherwise, but I find Wearing’s dress-up pieces derivative, flat, pointless, vapid, incredibly literal and ulimately dispiriting, especially compared with yesterday‘s Cahun self-portraits. If Wearing were tricked up as Cindy Sherman it would be no less risible, but would at least demonstrate some honesty about the source of her tired, redundant schtick.

In any case, all of this got me to thinking why exactly Claude Cahun should now be so present in the moment. Partly of course it’s simply that the rest of the world has caught up with her thematic concerns, but it’s not just that. It strikes me that Cahun, like Maya Deren, has finally found her imperfect vehicle. Deren’s short, mesmerising films seem like they were made, decades ahead of time, for YouTube (and are probably viewed by more people per month than saw her films during her lifetime). Cahun’s arresting self-portraits, viewed by almost no-one while she was alive and for years after, are exactly the kind of images that encourage re-transmission on Tumblr. Sure, it may not be ideal. We may prefer to witness these unique works in the more respectful frame of the cinema and the gallery, respectively, but failing that I imagine both artists would be gratified by the belated, compromised acknowledgment.

Oh, and this is the 300th Strange Flowers post. Ever more people are viewing, linking to and commenting on the blog, which is highly gratifying. Thanks for your interest.



  1. Your observations are spot on.
    We become what we do.
    Everything else is irrelevant.
    Claude self actualized.
    Cindy is merely a mittel klass narcissisma.
    Gillian is a little fishy swimming in the wake of a leviathan.
    Claude is actually quite terrifying as well.
    The other two are yawn inducing.

  2. thombeau

    I will try to catch this at the Art Institute on Wednesday (free day!), otherwise I’m afraid I’ll miss it. Too bad you (or NurseMyra or Butterscotch) can’t join me!

    Also, congrats on your 300th post! The work you do here is wonderful and greatly appreciated.

  3. Sadly, the Fates conspired against me and I was unable to visit the Art Institute last week. I won’t be in the city again until next month, by which time the exhibit will have left. So it goes…

  4. LizzieT

    you may be interested in my work on Claude Cahun including my film Playing a Part: available from me

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