Thursday, June 23, 2011

Paris' Cindy Sherman: Claude Cahun at the Jeu de Paume

Claude Cahun, Que me veux-tu?, 1928

It looks like we've found Cindy Sherman's long-lost French twin in Claude Cahun, gender-bending Surrealist photographer (and poet, and actress) obsessed with the art of theatrical deception. Born in 1894 in Nantes, Lucy Schwob began taking the self-portraits that would become her claim to fame during her teenage years, coming up with the androgynous pseudonym and persona of "Claude Cahun" soon after. In the early 1920s, Cahun settled in Paris with her stepsister and life partner, the artist Suzanne Malherbe (who in turn adopted the pseudonym "Marcel Moore"), and the two began to hold artists' salons at their home, which would be frequented by the likes of André Breton, Sylvia Beach and Henri Michaux. During World War II, Cahun and Malherbe took their radical political activism to the streets, producing and distributing anti-German flyers and participating diligently in the French resistance. They were arrested by the Gestapo, and though they were spared, their home was pillaged and a great amount of their artwork destroyed. Cahun's oeuvre was not rediscovered until the 1980's, which explains why her work has been relatively unknown until recently.

Cahun (L) and Malherbe

Cahun's prolific, often absurd and outlandish body of work ranges from the playfully poetic to the staunchly political.
In her carefully-designed self-portraits, she challenges socially accepted notions of feminine identity, exploring and documenting a chameleonic range of personas (thus the obvious Cindy Sherman comparison!). She oscillates from a strangely-convincing Buddha to a marionette to a doll to a male aviator; she appears in elaborate costumes and carefully-applied stage makeup, or utterly bare-faced with a shaved head and eyebrows, calling into question the often-ambiguous nature of gender and sexuality.

A few weeks ago, I visited the extensive Claude Cahun retrospective held at the Jeu de Paume, one of my favorite galleries in Paris, just on the edge of the Tuileries. The exhibit showcases hundreds of Cahun's works, capturing the essence of her eccentric, bold foray into the early realm of self-representation and the photographic image.

Some of Cahun's legendary self-portraits, all featured in the exhibit, below:

Autoportrait, 1927

Autoportrait, 1927

Autoportrait, 1929

Untitled, 1939
Autoportrait, 1947

(P.S. Apologies for the posting-hiatus!)

Claude Cahun: Exposition is on display until September 25, 2011 at the Galerie Nationale du Jeu de Paume, 1 Place de la Concorde, 75008 Paris.

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