PRINT December 1995

Elizabeth Lebovici


Any show of photographs by CLAUDE CAHUN would be cause for excitement, but the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris’ presentation of her work (some 160 original prints) made for the show of the year. Cahun was asking relevant questions about gender and sexual identity from the time of her first self-portrait, at age 18, to her last, at age 45. It’s unclear whether these self-portraits—head shaved or hirsute, outfitted as a man or woman, or in an anamorphic view—were ever intended for public viewing, or whether they should even be considered self-portraits at all (the extent of Cahun’s collaboration with her lifelong companion, Suzanne Malherbe, is unknown). Perhaps the biggest uncertainty is whether Cahun, who eventually became active in the resistance against Nazism, ever thought of herself as an artist at all. These ambiguities, against the present-day backdrop of artworld institutions that are more and more self-conscious of their role in the validation of esthetic choices, paradoxically made the works on display appear that much stronger.


What does it mean to begin an exhibition with the bound, scratched, and mutilated bodies of the Vienna Actionists and end it with the hydrocephalic children photographed by Nancy Burson, tossing all manner of artists, the mentally ill, and children with birth defects in the same “pathological” bag? This is what “IDENTITY AND ALTERITY,” PART II, did. Organized for the Venice Biennale by Cathrin Pichler, with altogether too much assistance from director Jean Clair, the exhibition, with its 19th-century fetish for estheticizing ugliness, takes the prize for the most unattractive show of the year. But this unseemliness wasn't the show's biggest flaw. Instead, it was the reduction of all works involving the body to the mere continuation of a figurative countertradition introduced in Part I; for example, the show incorporated nudes by Eric Fischl and Vincent Corpet (known for his rather fey gimmick of having famous art critics undress and pose for him), alongside photographs by Cindy Sherman and Inez van Lamsweerde, who would rarely fall under the mantle of “figurative artists.” But worst of all was the duplicitous attempt to impose a late- 19th-century view of identity on late-20th-century art: a consommé-like reduction of identity to its “essential” features.

Elisabeth Lebovici is an art critic for Libération.

Translated from the French by Sheila Glaser.