9 Apr 20

Claude Cahun


This essay was originally published in the 2019 July/August edition of NGV Magazine.

Aveux non Avenus, by the celebrated poet, writer, sculptor and photographer Claude Cahun, was published in 1930 by Éditions du Carrefour, Paris, in an edition of five hundred. The book comprises a series of texts in French: poems, literary aphorisms, recollections of dream sequences and philosophical thoughts, ideas and meanderings. Pierre Mac Orlan, a French novelist who wrote the preface to the book, described Mademoiselle Claude Cahun’s text as ‘de poèmes-essais et d’essais-poèmes’, or ‘poem-essays and essay-poems’, and said that overall ‘the book is virtually entirely dedicated to the word adventure’

The alliterative title presents a conundrum for English translation – ‘aveux’ meaning ‘avowals’ or ‘confessions’, and ‘non avenus’ meaning ‘voided’ – and is variously translated as Disavowals, Denials, and Unavowed confessions, among other things. Curator Jennifer Mundy has written that the title suggests ‘an affirmative expression immediately followed by some form of negation or retraction’.1 Mundy, ‘Introduction’, Disavowals or Cancelled Confessions: Claude Cahun, The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2007, p. xi.

Ambiguities around the title aside, there is a strong visual aspect to the book too. The texts are each demarcated with a complex and fantastical photogravure created by Cahun’s partner, Marcel Moore. These photogravure (where an image from the negative of a photograph is etched into a metal plate, similar to printmaking) are collages made up of photographic images of, and by, Cahun. Throughout the book, graphic devices of stars, eyes and lips are also used to separate sections of text. Aveux non Avenus, which has been described as an anti-realist or surrealist-autobiography of the multi-disciplinary Cahun, exists as a potential critique of the autobiography format altogether, is wonderfully irreducible.

Claude Cahun was born as Lucy Renée Mathilde Schwob into a prominent intellectual Jewish family in Nantes, France, in 1894. Her father, Maurice Schwob, owned the regional newspaper Le Phare de la Loire; her uncle was the avant-garde Symbolist writer Marcel Schwob; and her great-uncle the orientalist and writer, David Léon Cahun. Following the institutionalisation of her mother, Mary-Antoinette Courbebaisse, Cahun was raised from a young age by her grandmother, Mathilde Cahun. In her teens, her father remarried and she gained a stepsister, Suzanne Malherbe; they were to become life-long partners and collaborators.

Fond of alliterations, and having temporarily used several different male pseudonyms (Claude Courlis and Daniel Douglas), around 1916 she adopted the name of Claude Cahun – the surname taken from her maternal grandmother’s side of the family, and Claude for its intentional gender ambiguity and neutrality. Suzanne Malherbe, similarly, took on the name of Marcel Moore. Cahun also explored ideas around gender indeterminacy through her physical appearance and dress – early self-portraits show her with shortly cropped and shaved hair, and intentionally ‘masculine’ forms of dress, as well as adopting various guises – from doll, to aviator, to dandy. It was the beginning of a long exploration, in art and life, into a radical and persistent questioning of traditional ideas around gender roles, identity and authority.

The city of Paris re-established itself as the hub of the arts during the early years of the postwar period, drawing together artists, writers and musicians from around the world as the population of the city reached a historic high in 1921. As the economy gradually recovered from the desperation of the First World War, the city hosted major international events in the 1920s, such as the Olympic Games in 1924 and the international Exposition of Decorative Arts in 1925. Before the eventual Great Depression of the 1930s the 1920s was characterised as les années folles, or ‘the crazy years’ – a period of intense artistic experimentation that saw the rise of Josephine Baker and her extraordinary, erotic performances at the Folies Bergère; the unique compositions of musicians such as Erik Satie and Maurice Ravel; the flourishing of new voices in literature and poetry through writers such as Ernest Hemingway and Ezra Pound; and the development of visual art movements such as Surrealism, Cubism and Dadaism.

Against this cultural and social backdrop, Claude Cahun commenced studies in philology and philosophy at the Sorbonne in Paris while Marcel Moore worked as a graphic designer and fashion illustrator. Their first known collaboration, ‘Vues et visions’ (‘Views and Visions’), with text by Cahun and illustration by Moore, was published in the literary journal Mercure de France. In 1920 they made a home together in Montparnasse – the centre of artistic activity at this time – and became a prominent couple immersed in a circle of avant-garde literary, artistic and theatrical practitioners. Particular friends during this period were two significant bookstore owners – Sylvia Beach, the British expatriate who established the bookstore Shakespeare and Company, and Adrienne Monnier, owner of La Maison des Amis des Livres. Independently wealthy, Cahun and Moore also hosted artists’ salons from their apartment and guests included the likes of the co-founder of the Surrealist movement, André Breton, and Belgian writer and painter Henri Michaux.

It was during these years in Paris that Cahun wrote the majority of text for Aveux non Avenus – specifically between about 1919 and 1925, with a later section added in 1928. Cahun begins the book with a statement that reveals the complex self-analysis she was exploring and sets the tone for the abstract and non-coherent picture that the book paints of the artist. As she wrote, imagining herself in front of a camera:

The lens tracks the eyes, the wrinkles skin deep … the expression on the face is fierce, sometimes tragic. And then calm – a knowing calm, worked on, flashy. A professional smile – and voilá! The hand held mirror reappears, and the rouge and eye shadow. A beat. Full stop. New paragraph.

At this time Cahun was also experimenting extensively with photography and self-portraiture. It is believed that her first self-portraits were taken around 1913, in her late teens, and the examination of gender using her own face and body continued throughout her life. In the 1920s, the images were often highly theatrical and staged, and made use of costumes, makeup and masks to blur and alter her identity. Cahun often gazes directly at the camera in her portraits from this time – her distinct, angular face and androgynous hairstyle is immediately recognisable and yet intentionally inscrutable. Indeed, Marcel Moore clearly had an abundance of photographic materials to work with when producing the collages for the book – with Cahun’s face mirrored, cropped and repeated extensively throughout the illustrations, and yet, like the texts, telling you very little about the person in the traditional sense of an autobiography. The frontispiece is one of the most obscure images in the book, introducing symbols of the eye and mouth, and mirroring techniques, all of which appear throughout. Curator Anne O’Hehir has said that ‘the eye represented Moore, the artist, and the mouth, Cahun, the writer and actor’.2 O’Hehir and Wise, ‘Sole survivor: Re-evaluating and conserving Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore’s only known remaining photomontage used for Cahun’s 1930 publication Aveux non Avenus (Disavowed Confessions)’, Topics in Photographic Preservation, 2013, vol. 15, p. 380.

A later collage by Moore, in the section entitled ‘I.O.U.’, or ‘self-pride’, shows a detail of a photograph by Cahun from 1927 reworked in the lower right corner. Cahun is seen posing as a carnival weightlifter, legs crossed and her top adorned with the phrase ‘I am in training don’t kiss me’, and a love heart drawn onto her leggings and painted onto her cheeks. Combining photographs, drawing and text, the composite image also shows a series of stacking dolls, each receding in size and revealing an X-ray-like image of a baby or foetus within; a drawing of a man, woman and child whose stomachs extend out from their bodies to join them physically together; a stack of Cahun’s ‘faces’ are repeated and overlaid to form an abstracted tower of eyes and foreheads and mouths. Hand-written text outlines this ‘tower’ – translated into English, it reads, ‘Under this mask, another mask; I will never finish removing all these faces’.

Following the rise of fascism throughout Europe, Cahun and Moore left Paris for the isolated Channel Island of Jersey. It was not the haven they had anticipated; soon after German military forces invaded Paris, Jersey was also overrun. Cahun and Moore became highly active anti-Nazi campaigners – eventually being arrested and imprisoned by the Gestapo in 1944. Sentenced to death, they were saved only when the island was liberated in 1945. Cahun’s health suffered terribly during this time, however, and she died in 1954. Marcel Moore died in 1972; they are buried together in St. Brelade’s Church, on the island.

Many of Cahun and Moore’s remaining possessions and artworks were bundled into chests and crates and sold, for little, at auction – fortunately much of the archive ended up at the Jersey Heritage Trust. Having been largely forgotten in the mid-twentieth century, their work was gradually rediscovered and widely circulated through publication and exhibition in the 1990s. Their radical ideas around gender-indeterminacy and selfhood became of great influence, as did Cahun’s pioneering use of self-portraiture as a means of questioning and constructing identity – ideas and techniques which were, and continue to be, of vital interest to contemporary artists of the late twentieth century. Aveux non Avenus remains one of Cahun’s best-known, if perpetually intriguing, works.

This edition of the book was purchased for the NGV through the Friends of the Gallery Library Endowment in 2017.

Notes

1

Mundy, ‘Introduction’, Disavowals or Cancelled Confessions: Claude Cahun, The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2007, p. xi.

2

O’Hehir and Wise, ‘Sole survivor: Re-evaluating and conserving Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore’s only known remaining photomontage used for Cahun’s 1930 publication Aveux non Avenus (Disavowed Confessions)’, Topics in Photographic Preservation, 2013, vol. 15, p. 380.