Gender-bender: ‘Entre Nous’ with Claude Cahun (From the Archives)

cahun-1Left: Claude Cahun, “Autoportrait,” 1926. Gelatin silver print, 11.1 x 8.6 cm. IVAM, Institut Valencia d’Art Modern, Generalitat. Right: Claude Cahun, “Autoportrait,” 1927. Gelatin silver print, 10.4 x 7.6 cm. Soizic Audouard Collection.

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Text copyright 2012, 2017 Paul Ben-Itzak

(First published on February 3, 2012.)

And what if the artist uses herself as the clay? Not because she’s a narcissist and thinks she’s the most fascinating subject in the world, but because as matter and model, she’s so malleable, and thus an ideal canvas for her own artistic explorations, macro ideas about the culture unearthed on an intimate terrain? This was the case with French-born Claude Cahun in the staged self-portraiture, photo-montages, and prose texts she produced, mostly between 1920 and 1940, more than 80 of which figure in Entre Nous: The Art of Claude Cahun, on view at the Art Institute of Chicago February 25 – June 3. Organized with Paris’s Jeu de Paume museum and co-produced with Barcelona’s La Virreina Centre de la Image, where it continues through Sunday, this first retrospective of the artist’s work in the U.S. reveals a vital source for later feminist explorations of gender and identity politics — to say nothing of how Cahun inspired the Surrealists. In her self-portraits, which she began creating around 1913, Cahun dismantled and questioned pre-existing notions of self and sexuality, at the same time re-assembling artistic ingredients and assembling dreamy mis-en-scenes. Posing in costumes and with elaborate make-up, she appeared masked as various personae: man and  woman, hero and mannequin, both powerful and vulnerable. More than 80 years after Cahun created them, these photographs and their adventurous, unrestrained execution are still pertinent today for their treatment of gender, performance, and identity — and as an example for artists across genres of how to use their small world to speak to the greater one.

cahun-2

Left: Claude Cahun, “Autoportrait,” 1929. Gelatin silver print, 11.5 x 8.5 cm. Jersey Heritage Collection, ©Jersey Heritage. Right: Claude Cahun, Sans titre, 1936. Gelatin silver print, 17.9 x 13 cm. Private collection, ©Beatrice Hatala.

cahun-3Left: Claude Cahun, “Combat de pierres,” 1931. Gelatin silver print, 21 x 15.5 cm. Private collection, ©Beatrice Hatala. Right: Claude Cahun, “Aveux non avenus,” planche III, 1929-1930. Gelatin silver print photomontage, 15 x 10 cm. Private collection.

cahun-4Left: Claude Cahun, “Autoportrait,” 1929. Gelatin silver print, 24 x 19 cm. Musee des Beaux-Arts de Nantes, ©RMN/Gerard Blot. Right: Claude Cahun, “Autoportrait,” 1939. Gelatin silver print, 10 x 8 cm. Jersey Heritage Collection, ©Jersey Heritage.

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