I Extend My Arms is a black and white photograph showing a dramatically gesturing pair of arms apparently emerging from inside a stone monolith. A tanned female left arm, ornamented with three beaded wooden bangles on its wrist, extends from out of a large hole in the lichen-covered stone. Its partner – wearing a ring on its little finger – emerges from the other side of the monolith, which is of similar dimensions to a human body. A section of low wall made of similar lumps of stone and cement extends towards the foreground of the image. An old iron fixing sticking up from the wall below the hole suggests that it was drilled to fit elements of a gate or other similar structure, supported by the monolith and wall. The owner of the arms is standing behind the monolith so that her body is completely concealed; this creates the illusion that she is inside the stone or has somehow become fused with it. The simple upright block-like form, softened by many years of weathering, is tightly cropped into the picture frame. Brightly lit by full sun, it stands out starkly against a sepia-coloured blue sky. As the work’s title indicates, the arms extend outwards with spread fingers as though they are reaching out for something – possibly attempting to grasp or embrace somebody. There are three known variations of this image (reproduced Downie, p.178): two photographed from similar angles showing the arms in different positions and a third viewed from a different perspective in which only one arm is visible. In an image titled Combat de pierres (Battle of the Stones), 1931 (private collection, Paris) Cahun used Tate’s version of the image in a double exposure with one of the other variations reversed, so that the two versions of the figure appear to be attempting to grasp one another. In all three images, the arms are held in stiff positions, either bent at the elbow or stretched out straight, palms facing or turned away from the shutter so that the splayed fingers are always displayed in full. The effect is comic, recalling slapstic gestures in early film.
Originally and most publicly a writer, Cahun rarely published and never exhibited her photographs which were not created, for the most part, for public consumption. Although recognised for her literary contribution in France, in the English-speaking world Cahun has come to be known primarily for her performative self portraits of the 1920s, in which she donned a range of costumes to play out a series of cross-gendered identities. She made these, and the related photomontages printed to accompany her major literary work, Aveux non Avenus or Disavowals (written between 1919 and 1928 and published in Paris in 1930), in collaboration with her partner and step-sister, the illustrator Marcel Moore (1892-1972), who is likely to have pressed the shutter on the camera in the making of I Extend My Arms. During the 1930s, Cahun produced a body of work, including photographs and objects, relating to the surrealist object (see Tate P79317, P79318 and P79320). I Extend My Arms falls somewhere in between the two bodies of work, both chronologically and conceptually. It is clearly a performative photograph in which the artist could be said to be ‘wearing’ the rock as a mask or costume; at the same time the photograph anthropomorphises an inanimate object. By her performance the artist humanises the rock, suggesting a narrative in the same way that many of her photographs of assemblages of objects taken during the 1930s do. Although the earlier of Cahun’s self portrait photographs appear to be staging an identity that is male – in two images from 1920 she poses with a shaved head wearing a sailor’s outfit and a smoking jacket with trousers – most of the images she produced subsequently emphasise androgyny (and narcissism). She wrote: ‘Shuffle the cards. Masculine? Feminine? It depends on the situation. Neuter is the only gender that always suits me. If it existed in our language no one would be able to see my thought’s vacillations. I’d be a worker bee for good.’ (Claude Cahun, Disavowals, London 2007, pp.151-2.)
While the monolith has an inevitably phallic form, the arms with their ornamentation are feminine, defying a single-gendered reading of the image. The beaded bangles with their African and Oceanic resonances represent a form of exoticism that relates to primitivism which the totemic simplicity of the image also evokes. As a reflection of the interest invested by the Surrealists in the ‘primitive’, ritual objects including Eskimo masks and Amerindian mummified heads were included among other ethnic artefacts listed in the exhibition catalogue for the Exposition surréaliste d’objets at Galerie Charles Ratton in Paris in May 1936, in which Cahun participated with objects of her own making. In I Extend My Arms, the ancient rock evokes the chthonic, essential, primal non-gendered self that Cahun’s many self portrait images express, particularly an image from 1928 which shows her back and profile, her head shaven but her eyes and lips made up, combining a non-gendered human form (the head reduced to its bare structure) with the clichéd feminine masquerade. At the same time it links with the notion of masks and death evoked in the artist’s photograph Crystal Heads, 1936 (P79321), taken at the British Museum.
Louise Downie (ed.), Don’t Kiss Me: The Art of Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore, London and Jersey 2006, reproduced p.178.
Heike Ander and Dirk Snauwaert, Claude Cahun: Bilder, exhibition catalogue, Kunstverein Munich, Gesellschaft der Freude der Neuen Galerie Graz, Fotografische Sammlung, Museum Folkwang Essen, reproduced p.84, cat.130.
Claude Cahun: Photographe, exhibition catalogue, Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, 1995, reproduced p.87, cat.130.