Summary

This is one of a group of photographs Cahun produced in 1936 from assemblages involving a bell jar and a wooden artist’s mannequin. While the mannequin in Untitled, 1936 (P79317) has been feminised with the addition of a lock of hair, in this miniature mise-en-scène the figure is crowned with tall, pointed structure (possibly made from the quill of a feather), that evokes a phallic spear or a single rosebud, coming out of a disc set on his head at an angle. Seated on his podium, the mannequin clasps symbols of power to his groin with his wooden hand. These include an unwieldy object on its side – from other photographs in the group (reproduced in Downie, pp.180-1) it may be seen that this is a large key – and what appears to be the fist of a larger doll. His right arm holds aloft a wispy plant in a tiny vase as though it is an accessory of some importance. Outside the jar, a turtle shell leans against the glass, suggesting a shield. To the jar’s right, two porcelain dolls’ heads arranged with another turtle shell and a miniature gilded chair represent subjects, possibly attendants, in thrall to the enthroned figure enclosed in the jar. Their vacant stares and apparently chaotic arrangement emphasise the comic debunking of the display of the trappings of power staged by the assemblage. Another version of this work (reproduced in Claude Cahun: Photographe, p.105, cat.152) shows the mannequin in the same position viewed from a slightly different angle, with the second turtle shell and a porcelain doll’s head shifted to be next to the first. The same mannequin poses with an upraised sword and set of scales in the bell jar in a further image in the same group (reproduced in Claude Cahun: Photographe, p.104, cat.155).

Cahun’s photographs of posing wooden mannequins (see P79317) recall photographs of similar wooden figures taken by Man Ray (1890-1976) in 1926 and 1927. Based in Paris during the 1920s and early 1930s and friends with several of the Surrealists after joining the Association des Ecrivains et Artistes Révolutionnaires in 1932, Cahun is very likely to have seen the June 1926 issue of the magazine La Révolution surréaliste in which Man Ray’s Untitled photograph of a mannequin seated between a wooden sphere and cone was printed to illustrate ‘L’Enclume des forces’ (‘The Anvil of Strength’) by Antonin Artaud (1896-1948). In his 1927 photographs entitled Mr and Mrs Woodman, Man Ray posed a male and female figure in a series of sexual positions that relate to his erotic photographs of his lover Kiki de Montparnasse. In a similar way Cahun used the wooden figure poetically to restage her theatrical camera performances in expression of her politics of social revolution.

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. The layering of masks in Cahuns imagery echoes 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. The mannequins that feature in P79318 and P79317 provide a further means of enacting the theatrical gender play that is a central theme in Cahun’s oeuvre.

Further reading:
Louise Downie (ed.), Don’t Kiss Me: The Art of Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore, London and Jersey 2006, p.80.
Claude Cahun: Photographe, exhibition catalogue, Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, 1995, p.105, reproduced fig.160 p.151
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 cat.160 pp.89 and 127.

Elizabeth Manchester
January 2008