For centuries, no one questioned why all the great artists were men. It was not until the 1970s that feminist art historians began a decades-long effort to give women artists some of the attention they were historically denied. Some devoted their efforts to unearthing forgotten or misplaced women artists, attempting to canonize them alongside their male peers. Others have taken a more radical path, arguing that we need to look at art, artists, and artmaking differently, to challenge built-in biases in art history and criticism that would exclude or diminish the importance of women artists.
A Surrealist photography show on display through July 31 at the Judah L. Magnes Museum reflects both of these struggles. Entitled Acting Out: Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore, the exhibit tells the story of a lifelong partnership and artistic collaboration between two women whose work has only recently resurfaced.
Claude Cahun (the pen name of Lucy Schwob) was born in 1894 to a prominent Jewish publishing family in the French provincial city of Nantes. Cahun and the slightly older Marcel Moore (born Suzanne Malherbe) met and fell in love as schoolgirls. When Moore's mother married Cahun's father, they became stepsisters, which, as art historian Tirza True Latimer points out, provided "cover" for their relationship. Between 1920 and 1937, the couple lived among other artists in the Montparnasse district of Paris. They participated in avant-garde theater (Cahun performed while Moore worked backstage) and became active in the Surrealist movement and leftist politics. During this time they also produced hundreds of photographs of Cahun that would appear as a photomontage in Cahun's unpublished autobiography, Aveux non avenus (Disavowed/Voided Confessions); Cahun was the author, Moore the illustrator.
Of the pair, Cahun is the better-known artist. Her fame dates to the 1990s, when French author François Leperlier published her biography, containing little-seen photographs of Cahun that he had unearthed during his research. These images were later included as self-portraits in the 1995 exhibition Fémininmasculin, the sex of art at the Pompidou Center in Paris, and they have helped to establish Cahun as an important Surrealist artist.
The Magnes show, guest-curated by Latimer, includes some of the striking photographs of Cahun that she is best known for. In some, Cahun experiments with androgyny (with closely cropped hair or with her head shaved, she could be a man or a woman); in others, she interprets literary or historical male and female roles. In one photograph dated 1927, she poses as the Buddha (a costume she wore in a theater production). In an earlier photograph from 1914, she impersonates Medusa. The picture transforms the fearful female monster of myth into a young woman, who looks out at us with an unsettling gaze. Her dark hair is spread out against a white pillow, with the sheet pulled up to her chin; and the photo is cropped, or "severed," at the neck, in keeping with the Greek story.
In most of these pictures, Cahun stares at the camera unsmilingly. Her poses challenge -- and at times may unnerve -- the viewer. In one memorable shot, where she is dressed in what looks like a checkered bathrobe, she appears to have just turned away from a mirror, which catches her in profile.
Art critics have compared Cahun's portraits to the role-playing self-portraits of contemporary photo-artist Cindy Sherman, and to most modern viewers, these photographs will seem remarkably contemporary because of their feminist content. Yet, in hailing these images as extraordinary self-portraits by a forgotten woman artist, Latimer argues, we miss some of their significance. Someone else actually took these photos, and she was Cahun's lover, Moore. The irony is that while one forgotten artist has been celebrated, the other has been left out of the picture. But the oversight also may reflect a critical bias on the part of the art world in favor of work that's produced by brilliant individuals operating alone. The Magnes show attempts to make amends.
The problem, Latimer suggests, may lie in labeling this work as self-portraiture, which puts the focus entirely on Cahun. Instead, the current exhibit presents these photographs as products of a collaborative process and as an extension of performance art, which captivated the two women from the start of their relationship. In most cases, this show attributes photographs on display to both Cahun and Moore. Additional illustrations by Moore and short excerpts from Cahun's writings help buttress the claim that the couple saw themselves as artistic collaborators throughout their lives together.
The show at the Magnes restores Moore to our frame of reference, in some cases by analyzing individual portraits of Cahun and pointing out traces of Moore's presence. She is there as a shadow intruding upon the foreground of several shots, including one taken as early as 1915, showing the young Cahun posed against a slab of granite. The photographer/lover's shadow diverts the viewer's concentration from the main image. The show also pairs shots of Cahun with pictures of Moore posing in the same setting. Interestingly, the few pictures of Moore on display capture someone less comfortable in front of the camera and less posed; clearly she preferred being behind the lens.
This intimate exhibit tells the fascinating story of their lives and relationship. With images like the one of Medusa, produced while they were still in Nantes, the young women were attempting to redefine cultural stereotypes of femininity they found to be oppressive. We follow their move to Paris and subsequent expanding theater work, association with Sylvia Beach and Shakespeare and Co., and contact with André Breton and the Surrealists. During this time, the couple's "acting out" became more public and political. While Cahun and Moore were not the only prominent same-sex couple of the day, Breton and others in their milieu were openly disdainful of homosexuals, and in the late 1930s, anti-Semitism was on the rise.
In 1937, the couple left Paris, moving to the relatively desolate English Isle of Jersey. In the early 1940s, when the Germans captured the island, Cahun and Moore organized a two-woman resistance campaign, papering the island with anti-Nazi propaganda to effect the appearance of a much larger struggle. They were eventually imprisoned for this activity. The couple survived the war, but over the next few years Cahun's health deteriorated, and she died in 1954. Moore took her own life in 1972.
The women were buried together in the churchyard next to their house. The last photograph on display at the museum is as revealing as the rest, but this one, taken by Latimer herself in 2003, is a photograph of their shared tombstone, with the inscription "And I saw new heavens and a new earth, two names, two Stars of David."
Cahun and Moore were artists of a different era. The art they conceived together may seem way ahead of its time, but it was of its time, as well.
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