Claude Cahun 1894 –- 1954


03.10.-03.12.1997 10:00-18:00

Curated by: Dirk Snauwaert, Peter Weibel

steirischer herbst 1997
Neue Galerie im Landesmuseum Joanneum
Museumsgebäude, Neutorgasse 45, A - 8010 Graz
Curators: Dirk Snauwaert, Peter Weibel
in collaboration with Kunstverein München

The Neue Galerie is presenting the first exhibition of the artist and author Claude Cahun (1894-1954) whose oeuvre has been suppressed and forgotten in art history but which must be reassessed against the background of the ongoing "gender discussion".

Cahun's photomontages and theatrical photographic self-portraits actually anticipated central artistic positions of the eighties as well as structuralist and post-structuralist subject theories. Cahun put the subject on a linguistic base, defining it as a language game. With the aid of a constantly moving and changing self, Cahun aimed to make gender ambigous, fleeing the dictatorship of the male/female dyad. 

Instead of identifying with the other sex, that still conforms to the logic of the dyad, she searches for a third, indefinable gender. This radical position even bewildered the surrealist gaze. For the ideals of femininitiy upheld by the surrealists, with whom she sympathized, were also relatively conservative. Only the analyst Joan Rivière recognised in a text written in 1929 that there is no intrinsic female identity, but rather that the constructions and masquerades of the woman make up the "woman per se" as a result of cultural conditioning. This is why Claude Cahun writes in her main work "Aveux non avenus" (1929/30): "Beneath this mask, another mask. I will not stop peeling off all these faces." These words are written around a photomontage depicting a number of heads growing out of a single neck, each head showing Cahun in a different mask. The sequence of eyes, cheeks and lips with different make-up in each case underlines the artificial nature and flexibility of a single face or gender and is the first articulation of the post-modern position of the constructability of identity.

Photographer, authoress, journalist, actress, activist 
Claude Cahun was born in Nantes on 25 October 1894 as Lucy Schwob. Her father was a wealthy Jewish newspaper publisher, her uncle was the symbolist author Marcel Schwob. At the age of 15 she fell in love with her stepsister Suzanne Malherbe to whom she referred as her "alter ego" and who was to be her lifelong companion. After studying at Oxford and at the Sorbonne, Cahun moved to Paris with her stepsister where she published essays and short stories in various magazines. From 1914 on, she focused her work on self-portraits in various masks, costumes and make-ups. In 1925 she met Henri Michaux, with whom she was united in friendship all her life, and began work on a series of "tableau-photographs" with surreal object arrangements. 

In 1930 Paris publishers Carrefour published her autobiographical work "Aveux non avenus" with photomontages by her and Suzanne Malherbe, alias Marcel Moore. In 1932 she became a member of the communist "Association des Ecrivains et Artistes Révolutionaires" where she met André Breton and the surrealists. A year later she left the AEAR after the exclusion of the surrealists and in 1934 published her polemic treatise "Les Paris sont ouverts" in which she defends creative freedom against the cultural policy of the communists. In 1935/36 she participated in the actions and manifestos of the "Contre Attaque" group centered around Breton and Georges Bataille. In 1937 "Le Coeur de Pic" was published, a book with poems by Lise Deharmes and illustrations of Cahun's tableau photographs. The same year she and Suzanne Malherbe became active in the resistance movement and distributed pamphlets, posters and manifestos. In 1944 they were arrested by the Gestapo and sentenced to death. In 1945 they were pardoned but remained in prison until liberation in May 1945. 

During this time a large majority of her artistic work was destroyed. Cahun continued to work on her self portraits and texts but never fully recovered physically and emotionally from her imprisonment. She died on 8 December 1954 in Jersey. 

Suzanne Malherbe alias Marcel Moore (1892-1972) was a graphic designer and illustrator of books and magazines. Among others, she exhibited at the Salon d'Automne. After the death of Claude Cahun she moved to Beaumont in Jersey where she lived until her death.


A book containing texts by Laura Cottingham, François Leperlier, Dirk
Snauwaert and Peter Weibel will be published for the exhibition by Verlag
Schirmer/Mosel in Munich (c. 200 pages, 120 b/w photographies).

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