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.

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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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estampes-daliDali rides again: Among the work auctioned off October 17 in Paris by Artcurial in its Prints and Illustrated Books Sale was Salvador Dali (1904 – 1989)’s “Dalian Horses,” an album in mauve metal box created by the artist, with gold stamp on the cover. The lot featured twenty-six 63.4 x 58.6 cm color lithographs, each one signed and justified. Estimated pre-sale by Artcurial at 10,000 – 15,000 Euros, it went for a whopping 33,800. Image copyright and courtesy Artcurial.

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Given the rarity of the oeuvre’s availability at auction as well its renewed currency — notably in a 100-example strong exhibition, Magritte, the Treason of Images, running at the Centre Pompidou in Paris through January 23 before moving in a more limited form to the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt February 10 — one of the best bets in Artcurial’s Paris Impressionism and Modern Art sale today is, above, René Magritte, “Cheval” (Horse), 1947, a 34 x 42.7 cm ink on paper drawing. (Signed lower right by the artist with, on the reverse, the attestation — in French in the original — “This drawing is by my husband René Magritte. / Georgette Magritte.”) Estimated by Artcurial at 12,000 – 15,000 Euros, the work falls during a period, 1946 – 1948, when Magritte was bent on confounding public expectation — as if even his own by then established contrarian image as an artist was not sacred. (Or maybe, after a world war which left 50 million dead and, between the death camps and Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the very notion of civilization in chaos, he felt the need for a return to beauty; witness the seductive 1948 nude “The Pebble.”) In 1946, police seized two pamphlets on which he’d collaborated, “L’Emmerdeur” and “L’Enculeur.” In October of that year, he joined other Belgian surrealists in signing “Le Surréalism in plein soleil, Manifest No. 1,” which opposed the darker Parisian school with a Surréalism inspired by the Provençal light and voluptuous female forms of Renoir and the dazzling primary colors of the Fauves. And it was canvasses guided by these values that he shipped to the Galerie du Faubourg in Paris in 1948, pissing off a public expecting his more typical games of perspective and words to such a degree that nothing sold. Image copyright and courtesy Artcurial. — Paul Ben-Itzak

dali-fixedAmong the works currently on view at the Museum of Modern Art in its fifth floor Alfred H. Barr Painting and Sculpture Galleries, named after the museum’s influential former director: Salvador Dalí, “The Persistence of Memory,” 1931. Oil on canvas, 9 1/2 x 13″ (24.1 x 33 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Given anonymously. © 2011 Salvador Dalí, Gala-Salvador Dalí Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.