Thursday, 18 February 2016

Five Things I Learnt @ Claude Cahun Beneath the Mask

I'm pretty sure that Diane Torr introduced me to the work of Claude
Cahun, but the exhibition at the Exeter Phoenix is the first time that I have seen a series of Cahun's self-portraits. And I learnt some stuff.

David Bowie didn't invent gender fluidity
When he wasn't using his power as a rock celebrity to support a post-hippy patriarchy, David Bowie manipulated his identity until he became the poster-boy for a generation of queer performers. His self-conscious theatricality lent his personae a mystique.

Cahun, working in the 1930s, pre-empted this in a far more interesting manner: changing her name to Claude, she discussed her gender, then took a load of photographs in which she played with masculine and feminine stereotypes. That one of her dressed up like a weight-lifter, or the one where she stares out from a mirror at the camera, are far more challenging than Bowie in his big trousers.

A single photograph has a dramaturgy
As dramaturgy is my thing, I am now annexing photography as a form of performance. Someone has probably already done this, but Cahun's self-portraits are placed carefully in time and space. Sometimes she is wearing a stage costume - like in Ellie in Barbe Bleue - and that is easy to claim. But this one where she is in a rock and all waving her arms about - there's a whole narrative in a single picture.

Then there's this one where she is wearing a mask and a cloak adorned with masks. Theatricality as form and function, or something.

Curators are a bit like comic book writers
Putting all the pictures in sequence, and the exhibition forms a kind of biography of Cahun. Plus, in a gallery, you can go backwards and forwards, reflecting on the sequence... 

There's a good reason for positive discrimination in art
In my humble opinion, Cahun's photography is as interesting and beautiful as the stuff her mates in the surrealistic movement knocked up... and there's less of the weird wounds-and-sex business they all loved. So why is she not as familiar as Man Ray? 

It couldn't be her gender, could it? 

Art turns up all over the place
It's always worth nipping into a local gallery - I never know what's there, and how inspiring it can be...

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