Critics’ Picks

Claude Cahun, Autoportrait, 1927, black-and-white photograph, 
7 x 5”.

Paris

Claude Cahun

Jeu de Paume
1 place de la Concorde
May 24 - September 25

Raising the question “Why isn’t Claude Cahun a household name?,” this retrospective positions the artist (born Lucy Schwob in 1894) at the forefront of Surrealist photography, neck and neck with her contemporaries André Breton and Man Ray. The some 140 photographs and documents on view insinuate that Cahun’s marginality as a gay woman made for an oeuvre more audacious than those of her feted male contemporaries.

The first works encountered upon entry are Cahun’s best-known. These portraits from the 1920s picture the artist in various guises: an androgynous, shaved-head Narcissus at a mirror, a cross-legged yogi adorned with beads, a weight lifter shouldering a cartoonish dumbbell. Subverting the female image from its standard form, Cahun was not just ahead of the curve but also a matriarch for artists such as Andy Warhol, Cindy Sherman, and others interrogating the cult of personality.

Throughout this exhibition, display cases and framed works reinforce Cahun’s relevance across media, documenting ventures into avant-garde theater, literature, and illustration. Highlights include the stunning collages Cahun made in collaboration with her partner, the artist Suzanne Malherbe (aka Marcel Moore), for her 1930 autobiography Disavowals. Also remarkable are the political leaflets the couple created in resistance to the German occupation of the island of Jersey, where the couple had retired as a respite from Paris. The leaflets eventually led to their 1944 arrests by the Gestapo (initially sentenced to death, they were released the following year). The latest series on view is “The Way of Cats,” 1949, self-portraits taken in Jersey. Cahun is pictured in casual clothes, blindfolded, following a leashed cat across a bridge. Here, her character is communicated in more ways than one, speaking today with a boldness that transcends time.