This is one of a group of images Cahun created in 1936 to illustrate a book of poems for children by Lise Deharne (1898-1979) entitled Le Coeur de Pic (published Paris 1937). It is a black and white photograph showing a view looking down a set of wooden steps into almost complete darkness. On the upper steps the artist carefully arranged three shoes and a piece of floral patterned fabric to create a mise-en-scène in miniature. Flowing down the steps on the left side of the image, the fabric appears held in place by a glass clog ornamented with a white flower romantically evoking a glass slipper. On the same step, an old-fashioned ladies’ shoe of the style worn in the early years of the twentieth century has been transformed into a surrealist object by the addition of stuffing from which two miniature clog-like shoes comically protrude on cocktail sticks like a pair of flowers or antennae. The shoe is propped on its side so that it appears in conversation with a second shoe of a similar type, animated by the addition of a mask showing the upper half of a face. Its eyes are turned towards the pair of miniature shoes, suggesting interaction between the two shoe-beings. The mask is surmounted by an ivy leaf and a bouquet of tiny white blossoms that echo the white on black patterning of the fabric. As the stairs descend, the light on four banister rods makes light stripes in the darkness echoing the shadows cast by the foreground stairs on each other and the dark stripes on the stairs twisting in the lower darkness. Unidentifiable scraps of what could be potato peelings are brilliantly illuminated on the upper step.
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. However, during the 1930s, Cahun produced a less known body of work, including photographs and objects, relating to the surrealist object. Conceptualised in 1931 by the surrealists Salvador Dalí (1904-89) and André Breton (1896-1966) as an avant-garde art form transcending the formal concerns of modernism and at the same time refusing the traditional craft skills of the artist celebrated by the Communist party with whom the surrealist group was at first linked, the surrealist object was typically an assemblage made from unusual juxtapositions of ordinary things. Cahun met Breton after joining the Association des Ecrivains et Artistes Révolutionnaires in 1932, and became friends with Dalí and Man Ray (1890-1976) among others. She contributed three objects to the Exposition surréaliste d’objets at Galerie Charles Ratton in Paris in May 1936 and wrote a text, ‘Prenez garde aux objets domestiques’ (‘Beware of Household Objects’) for the special issue of the magazine Cahiers d’Art published to accompany the exhibition. Her political motivations are expressed in the words:
I insist on a prime truth: we must discover, handle, domesticate, make irrational objects ourselves to appreciate the particular or general merit of what we have before our eyes. For that reason, in a certain sense manual workers would be better able to understand its meaning than intellectuals, if everything in capitalist society, including communist propaganda, did not keep them away from it. That is why you are beginning to put your hands in your pockets and maybe empty out their contents on the table.
(Quoted in Downie, pp.79-80.)
Cahun’s twenty illustrations for Deharme’s poetry are photographs of compositions of miniature worlds that elevate ordinary objects into a mysterious and extra-ordinary world of the imagination. Featuring dolls, fragments of dolls, dolls’ house furniture, flowers, leaves, seeds and such humble domestic objects as forks, spoons, scissors and reels of cotton, they were created in a variety of settings both indoors and out. Powerfully symbolist in flavour, a result of the influence of Symbolist poetry on the young Cahun, whose uncle Maurice Schwob was a symbolist novelist and poet, they combine a child’s ability to invest life in inanimate forms with an intensely poetic sensibility. A tiny doll’s hand, severed from its body, appears in many of Cahun’s photographs for Le Coeur de Pic. The recurring image of the hand is not inappropriate for work involving ‘the lady of the gloves’, as the poetess, Lise Deharme (née Anne-Marie Hirz) was known in 1930s. The muse of the surrealist movement, she featured as Lise Meyer, ‘la femme aux gants bleu ciel’ in Breton’s 1928 novel Nadja. Breton went on to analyse the etymology and symbolism of Cinderella’s glass slipper in his next great surrealist text, L’amour fou or Mad Love, published in Paris in 1937.
In Le Coeur de Pic plate seventeen was made using a double exposure of the negative from which Tate’s Untitled print was created; for the second exposure the image was reversed to create a mirror double that partially overlays the first. The image, heavily overpainted to highlight the shoes, is coupled with verses that chant: ‘trois petits souliers / ma chemise me brûle / trois petits souliers / montent l’escalier’ or ‘three little shoes / my shirt burns me / three little shoes / climb up the stairs’ (Deharme, [p.43]). An untitled photograph created in the same year features the same pair of shoes, with miniature clog extensions and half mask, and the glass clog, unadorned, as in Tate’s work, P79320.
Lise Deharme, Le Coeur de Pic: illustré de vingt photographies par Claude Cahun, Nantes 2004, pp.43-4.
Claude Cahun, exhibition catalogue, Institut Valencià d’Art Modern, 2001, p.153.
Claude Cahun: Photographe, exhibition catalogue, Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, 1995, p.153.