Claude Cahun



In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Claude Cahun 1894–1954
Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper
Image: 228 × 170 mm
support: 238 × 180 mm
Purchased 2007


This is one of a group of photographs Cahun produced in 1936 from assemblages involving a bell jar and a wooden artist’s mannequin. Another version of this work, a photograph of the same assemblage slightly altered, is in the collection of the Jersey Heritage Trust archive (reproduced Downie, pp.78 and 180). In both images the mannequin is feminised by a length of blonde hair woven around its body. It stands in a dynamic position as though arrested in movement – arms held out, supporting the lock of hair that extends down to the doll’s pedestal and curves around its ankle. What appears to be a piece of wire describing a flower-shape extends from the lock of hair to the mannequin’s groin. A strip of white tape around the mannequin’s head (possibly fixing the hair in place) appears to blindfold it, suggesting that the extended arms are blindly feeling their way. On the wooden surface in front of the bell jar a length of white fabric lies in a haphazard arrangement with another length of blonde hair that points upwards towards the mannequin. At the extreme right of the image a china doll’s head is supported on the bun of hair at the back of the head so that its face looks up. In the Jersey Heritage Trust version the length of ribbon and the doll’s head are inside the bell jar which is framed at the top of the image, above the broad length of wood (part of a table or mantelshelf) on which the bell jar stands, showing the shadow cast by the mannequin and its hairpiece on the wall behind. The same mannequin poses with symbols of masculine imperialist power in Untitled, 1936 (P79318), with an upraised sword and a set of scales in an additional image (reproduced Claude Cahun: Photographe, p.104, cat.155) and with an outsized key, a hammer and a doll-sized book in several further photographs (reproduced Downie, pp.180-1) in the same group.

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 visual focus on a world in miniature as represented by the figure in the bell jar is reflected in her writing, which expressed the sense of impending apocalyptic chaos caused by the social and economic crises of the 1930s: ‘the mass production of more and more unusual objects (like microscopic forceps, which can only be used under a microscope) assures us that our present is cracking up all around us: the stultifying chain gang, the gold harness of passions will break and break again perhaps before the photographs of perishable objects exhibited before my eyes fade’ (‘Prenez garde aux objets domestiques’, Cahiers d’Art, 1936). In the same year, Cahun illustrated Le Coeur de pic, a book of poetry by Lise Deharme (1898-1979, ‘The Lady of the Glove’ who featured in Breton’s 1928 novel Nadja), published in Paris in 1937 (see P79320), with twenty-two photographs of arrangements of plants, miniature hands, a cat, shoes and various household objects.

Cahun’s photographs of posing wooden mannequins recall photographs of similar wooden figures taken by Man Ray in 1926 and 1927. 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.

Further reading:
Louise Downie (ed.), Don’t Kiss Me: The Art of Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore, London and Jersey 2006, pp.78, 80 and 180.
Claude Cahun, exhibition catalogue, Institut Valencià d’Art Modern, 2001, p.120.
Claude Cahun: Photographe, exhibition catalogue, Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, 1995, reproduced pp.103 and 150 cat.154.

Elizabeth Manchester
January 2008

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