Claude Cahun: Beneath This Mask (Sidney Cooper Gallery, 28 February-Saturday 6 May 2017
Latent: A Hidden History (Sidney Cooper Gallery, 28 February-Saturday 6 May 2017
Claude Cahun was born in 1894 to a French literary family and apparent became interested in art and self portraiture from an early age. After experiencing anti Semitism at school in Nantes, Cahun went to a school in Surrey and then to University at the Sorbonne. Cahun was soon moving in artistic circles, including with André Breton and Sylvia Beach, and set up home with her partner, Marcel Moore. In 1937, they moved to Jersey and were there when the Nazis invaded, becoming part of the resistance. They were eventually arrested, and sentenced to death, but survived somehow. Time in jail weakened Cahun’s health and the artist died in 1954. Malherbe was to live on until 1972 and is buried in the same grave.
The earliest photos on show here, such as Skin Head (1916), are over a century old, but look incredibly modern, perhaps because they anticipated the androgyny of fashion photography of the last forty or so years. There’s a picture from about 1920, with Cahun again as skin head, screaming, hands over ears, á la Munch. The assexuality is shown again in a picture in which Cahun wears a “I am in training – don’t kiss me” shirt along with lipstick hearts on the cheeks and holding a set of barbell weights labelled TOTOR ET POPOL — this seems to be a reference to an early Hergé comic, The Adventures of Totor, Chief Scout of the Cockshafers. A strongman in make up. A model masquerading as a man.
Masquerade recurs — two 1929 pictures have Cahun “As Elle in Barbe Bleue”, in a long dress with x’s and flowers down the front. Here Cahun is playing the (unnamed) wife from Bluebeard, who enters the bloody chamber. Elsewhere we see Cahun as Harlequin, reflected in a mirror (I think with a negative image).
Double exposures allow a dissected body — Cahun’s head in a bell jar, Cahun’s body in a tallboy, reversed in a kind of clothed 69 with Cahun, Cahun’s isolated hands, a hand in the form of a tree, arms emerging from stone… There are a couple of photographs from 1947 with Cahun smoking in a suit, stood on a slab marked PRIVATE (what?) and flanked by gravestones, holding a skull and standing next to a cat. Memento mori. Memento meowi.
As far as I can make out, these are all self portraits, although there’s no give-away cable in almost all of the pictures. Did they have timers? Or did Malherbe operate the camera? Does that stop them being self-portraits? Photographers often have assistants — as do other artists.
What I also wasn’t clear about was whether the exhibition was misgendering Cahun. There were various artists in the 1920s who dressed in male attire and changed their names. Marlow Moss springs to mind — but I’m not clear whether Moss was living as a man or as gender neutral. In the main information panel for the exhibition, we are given some biographical information about how Cahun changed their name and are told “With this new identity Cahun was able to … reject what she saw as the narrow confines of gender.”
Yes, she did.
Perhaps it would be anachronistic to speak of misgendering, in the same way that homosexual becomes a problematic term before 1870 or gay does before… well, it depends. It is possible that somewhere Cahun writes about their preferred pronouns. Did they have a transgender identity? A gender neutral one? A masculine one? Cahun and Malherbe chose gender neutral names rather than male ones.
In today’s terms, the exhibition deadnames Cahun and Malherbe. Again, we hover on the fringe of anachronism. And there are many cases of artists who take on a name that is different from the one they are born into and exhibitions will draw attention to that. Is that deadnaming? I’m not sure. And I wonder if the symposium attached to the exhibition, which unfortunately I missed, raised these issues?
Meanwhile, in the front sideroom and lobby are photographs appropriated — is that the term? — by Sam Vale for his show Latent.
(I should declare an interest — he is a colleague.)
Canterbury Christ Church University is home to the South East Archive of Seaside Photography, which brings together various archives including the walkies taken by Sunbeam. Vale has looked through these and found photographs of men isolated together, subjecting them to what you might call a queer gaze.
I might also refer to it as the paranoid gaze, although perhaps “paranoid” isn’t quite the right word. Before the 1967 Sexual Offences Act, sexual acts between men were illegal, that is to legislation going back to 1886 (and before that, fourteenth century anti-sodomy legislation). After 1967, it was descriminalised in certain circumstances in England and Wales. The side effect of this is limited documentation of gay life styles and the need to read between the lines. We read homosexuality into imagery — which may or may not be there.
Take Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope or Fredric Wertham’s reading of the relationship between Batman and Robin. We *know* Philip and Brandon are in a relationship but they never confess to it, they never kiss, we never see them fuck. Sometimes this becomes a location of hidden figures where we have no role models. Sometimes this becomes a witch hunt.
I can remember a picture in the archive that’s been shown a couple of times: two men lying on the beach, of different ages but both adults. Brothers? The age gap felt wrong. Father and son? Uncle and nephew? I just felt that they were lying too close together. Just as Philip and Brandon stand too close together.
So, with the possibility of misreading, the possibility of a creative misreading, a paranoid gaze — or simply the kind of gaydar used to recognise other gay men, Vale offers us moments of men, maybe gay men, hiding in plain sight. Or perhaps not even hiding. The liminal space of the seaside has an ethics all its own.
What happens in Margate, stays in Margate.
The enlargements of the pictures to isolate such details gives a feeling of surveillance and spying, adding to the paranoia. Two men standing on a balcony. Clothed man, naked man. The isolation of a hairy chest and a nipple. A right hand on a naked shoulder. A photo of a photographer taking another man’s photograph. Two men walking past each other — in memory both were looking back. Parties known to each other? Or checking out the talent?
I know Sam has been looking for other venues to show the work at — I hope he has some success.