Claude Cahun

Crystal Heads, British Museum, London, June-July 1936


In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Claude Cahun 1894–1954
Original title
Têtes de cristal, British Museum, Londres, juin-juillet 1936
Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper
176 x 236 mm
Purchased 2007


This is a black and white photograph looking into a vitrine display of a group of exotic artefacts. The title is derived from Cahun’s identifying notes on the wallet for the negative in the collection of the Jersey Heritage Trust, which read: ‘Londres – juin – juillet 1936 / Exposition Surréaliste / British Museum / Têtes de cristal - / magasins –‘, indicating that the photograph was taken in the British Museum, London in summer 1936. Three carved faces ranged in a line stare out of the double-sided vitrine towards the viewer. The central head appears to be a human skull with sculptural additions, including a pair of blankly-staring large black eyes. The faces on either sides are carved and painted masks, as are the objects behind them, which are lined up to look out of the other side of the vitrine. The crystal head that titles the image is on a raised metal stand above the mask on the left side of the photograph. It seems likely that this object is a crystal skull acquired by the British Museum in 1898 and believed for many years to be an ancient Aztec relic. Above the embellished human skull, a double-headed serpent carved from stone rests on a small plinth. Below it, between the skull and one of the masks, a face peers between the plinth and a caption card through the glass at the viewer. Only the upper part of the face and some wispy blonde hair are visible; this is sufficient information to identify the subject as the artist, Claude Cahun.

Visiting London for the International Surrealist Exhibition at the New Burlington Galleries in summer 1936, Cahun took several pictures of objects in shop windows. These include an incongruous mixture of stuffed animals in the window of a military tailors and a collection of impossibly high-heeled shoes and boots in the display window of a shoe shop (reproduced Claude Cahun: Photographe, p.158, cat.247). She had just participated in the Exposition surréaliste d’objets at Galerie Charles Ratton in Paris that May, in which a large number of Eskimo and Oceanic masks from the private collections of such surrealists as André Breton (1896-1966) had been exhibited. The Aztec or Mexican objects photographed in the British Museum have the superficial appearance of a window display through Cahun’s cropping of the image, but this time the artist is inside the display, looking out. On the same horizontal plane as the masks, Cahun’s face equates with them, reinforcing the words that she wrote on one of the ten photomontages accompanying her major work of fiction, Aveux non Avenus or Disavowals, published in Paris in 1930: ‘Sous ce masque un autre masque. Je n’en finirai pas de soulever tous ces visages’, meaning ‘Under this mask, another mask. I will never finish removing all these faces’. (Claude Cahun, Disavowals, London 2007, p.183.) On the photomontage this text captions a double row of eleven overlapping faces all growing from the same neck and all cropped, like masks, from the series of performative self portraits the artist had produced during the 1920s, in which she donned a range of costumes to play out a series of cross-gendered identities.

A journalist, poet and writer as much as an artist, Cahun’s most significant contribution to the arts has been through her expression of female subjecthood in fictional writing and in photographic self portraits executed in collaboration with her partner Suzanne Malherbe, alias Marcel Moore. Cahun’s series of stories, Héroïnes, first published in the Mercure de France in February 1925, subverts feminine stereotypes as portrayed through such legendary Biblical and mythological heroines as Delilah and Judith, appropriating and reinterpreting them as possible images of herself. In a similar way the performative self-portraits offer a set of identity-challenging roles or costumes in which the artist’s body and face become a kind of mask. In a group of untitled photographs from around 1928 Cahun appears with actual masks – naked but for a half-mask across her face in one image, cloaked in black fabric covered in half-masks while wearing a doll’s face mask in another. A distorted half-mask with large black eyes similar to those of the skull in Crystal Heads anthropomorphises a shoe in the image that Cahun used to illustrate Lise Deharne’s book of poetry, Le Coeur de pic (see Tate P79320).

Recalling the double-headed dove that features in the photomontage printed as a frontispiece in Disavowals, the double-headed serpent sculpture in Cahun’s Crystal Heads photograph embodies the notions of doubling, reflection and narcissism that run through the artist’s photographic oeuvre, echoed in the photograph by the double-sided vitrine and the doubled masks. Although partially concealed and at a further distance from the camera than the crystal skull, Cahun’s head is readable as the same form and size as the skull, and is similarly pale against the darker tones of all the other artefacts. The artist’s use of the plural in the title suggests that she intended the viewer to read her face as a second crystal head. Her self-equation with masks and a clear, mystical and mysterious skull, emphasises the ultimate inability of the masquerade (or donning of masks) to reveal her subjectivity which instead becomes a transcendant identification with death.

Further reading:
Louise Downie (ed.), Don’t Kiss Me: The Art of Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore, London and Jersey 2006, reproduced p.128.
Claude Cahun, exhibition catalogue, Institut Valencià d’Art Modern, 2001.
Claude Cahun: Photographe, exhibition catalogue, Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, 1995.

Elizabeth Manchester
January 2008

Display caption

Cahun visited the British Museum while in London for the International Surrealist Exhibition in 1936. The two-headed serpent sculpture in embodies the ideas of doubling, reflection and narcissism that run through the artist’s photographs. Cahun’s head is visible at the same size as the crystal skull on the upper left, and is similarly pale against the darker tones of all the other artefacts. The artist’s use of the plural in the title suggests that she intended the viewer to read her face as a second crystal head.

Gallery label, October 2016

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