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Facing Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore: The Identity Question from All Angles

20 Dec 2019

For the past few months, a gigantic “they” illuminated by white neon lights has been decorating the entryway of the Ottawa Art Gallery. These four letters escape no one’s notice and create an air of mystery. What’s hidden behind them? To whom do they belong? It’s the voice of Cara Tierney (they/them), an interdisciplinary artist who’s invested in questions of gender and identity, that resounds behind the immense neutral pronoun—their voice and the voice of many other individuals who identify as non-binary. This diamond plate steel banner serves as a call for their reaffirmation in the public space and a call to fight against marginalization. The clever combination of art, language, and questions concerning identity reminds us of the work of Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore, the duo whose work has been on display at the OAG since September in an exhibition proudly presented by Simons.

We had the chance to speak with the exhibition’s curator, Michelle Gewurtz, about “Facing Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore,” a multigenerational artistic dialogue that features the work of six contemporary artists and questions gender norms.

Michelle, after learning more about your background, it seems that it was only a matter of time before you tackled the works of Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore. What was it that sparked this exhibition?

Yes, I have been researching and thinking about Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore's art for over a decade. To me, their body of work, which troubles expectations when it comes to gender, seems very contemporary, even though the most well-known images were taken around 100 years ago in 1920s Paris. Understanding gender as something performed, or that femininity and masculinity are social constructs as opposed to biologically determined attributes seem like relatively new beliefs. Yet, Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore’s work proves otherwise. For example, in this picture taken around 1921 or 1922, you see Cahun with a shaved head, wearing a suit.

In one image, Cahun subverts the era’s traditional idea of femininity (the famous “flapper” who wore knee-length skirts and excessive makeup). Cahun plays with the trope of the dandy, a 19th century cultural figure or type—typically a man—who was recognized by a devotion to style and who placed great importance on physical appearance. Today, people often think about Oscar Wilde when the word “dandy” is mentioned. What makes Claude Cahun’s images disconcerting are all the questions they raise about gender: Does this person place importance on physical appearance the way a dandy would? Are they a man? A woman? Both or neither? To what extent does their gender matter? We now see expressions of gender fluidity in contemporary art and culture. Drag is now quite mainstream, for example, and the idea of using fashion to express one's identity is definitely accepted. So, it seemed like a good idea to create a dialogue between contemporary and historical art.

Can you explain to us in further detail what
“Facing Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore” represents?

First, it’s a call and response between a group of artists who are thinking about gender, identity, and belonging. I believe it’s the first exhibition to credit Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore equally as the artists who produced the celebrated photographs of Claude Cahun. There is a fair amount of debate in the art world about whether these are self-portraits, and therefore produced by one artist, but it seems clear to me that Marcel Moore played a central role in not only Cahun’s life, but also in making the art. Marcel Moore was a visual artist who Cahun credited with all the illustrations that accompanied Cahun’s published writing. It’s clear that in many cases, Marcel Moore was behind the camera taking the photographs. The show is also a dialogue between the mediums of Claude Cahun, Marcel Moore, and the six contemporary artists, which includes photography, film, textiles, and installation art. I think visitors appreciate the call and response between these historical and contemporary artists. All of the contemporary artists included in this exhibition were aware of the ground-breaking photographs of Claude Cahun and use similar strategies in their work to explore ideas about gender and identity. There are also significant connections between the selected works. You start to see common themes and approaches to certain subjects that emerge and deserve our attention. 

Can you tell us a bit more about Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore and their relationship for those who have not yet had the chance to get to know these artists?

Before going into detail about their lives, it’s worth mentioning that “Claude Cahun” and “Marcel Moore” were pseudonyms. They are artist names that were adopted by Lucy Schwob (aka Claude Cahun) and Suzanne Malherbe (aka Marcel Moore). The artist names are both deliberately gender neutral, and the duo began making art using these names around 1915. Claude Cahun published writing using a variety of pseudonyms before settling on the pen name of “Cahun” in 1918.  Reflecting back on this decision in 1950, Cahun wrote that the surname is a tribute to “my obscure Jewish relatives, with whom I felt more affinity.”

Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore met in Nantes in their early teens. Cahun’s father later married Moore’s widowed mother, making them stepsisters. When they moved to Paris in the early 1920s, they became involved in the avant-garde art scene and befriended artists, writers, and publishers like Romaine Brooks, Adrienne Monnier, Sylvia Beech, Natalie Barney, Gertrude Stein, and Andre Breton. In 1937, Cahun and Moore left their Surrealist circle in Paris to live in Jersey, Channel Islands (UK). Soon after the Nazi occupation of the island in June 1940, the couple began a campaign of anti-Nazi propaganda. On July 25, 1944, they were arrested and imprisoned. That same year, they were sentenced to death, a sentence that was later commuted to life imprisonment. They were released from prison on May 8, 1945, the day before the liberation of the island. Their home had been pillaged and a significant amount of their work had been destroyed by the Nazis. The photographs that survived were brought to light only after Marcel Moore’s death in 1972. When the work was first exhibited in the late 1980s, the photographs caused something of a sensation. Cahun has become something of a cult figure due to Cahun’s gender fluidity and undeniable activism. I think that the activism, which is less well-known, is important to highlight because it shows how art can be mobilized and have a real impact. Art in service of social justice, you might say. 

Do you think that this type of art is still possible today?

I hope and do believe that the kind of work that Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore produced is still possible today. We are living in equally complicated times. The events that occurred during Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore’s lifetime show that when political systems fail, other knowledges and relations emerge. I think that art plays an important social role in this, whether it results in a “revolution” or change, like in the case of Cahun and Moore, or if it just allows for space to reflect and find moments of quiet and stillness. Today, artists are making work that calls for respect, tolerance, and inclusion of different cultural viewpoints, and I encounter a lot of compelling work that draws attention to environmental issues, for example. I see many of these internal and external concerns reflected in this exhibition. 

Similar to how Claude Cahun’s poetry responded to and articulated the artist’s self-portraits (and vice versa), we have this same impression seeing the variety of media used in response to Cahun and Moore. How did the chosen artists approach the work of our two “protagonists?”

Just as Cahun and Moore worked across photography, drawing, painting, sculpture, performance, poetry, and prose, here you have contemporary artists responding to their work in several different ways. I certainly had a number of artists that entered into a dialogue with the works of Cahun and Moore that I could have choosen from, which made the curatorial selection process challenging. It seemed more interesting to me to approach artists whose work I felt would create an interesting conversation when placed near Claude Cahun’s writing, Marcel Moore’s drawings, and the photographs for which the duo are now best known. I have to say that I learned quite a bit during the curatorial process and especially while working with the six artists whose artwork is currently on display in Ottawa. I not only learned about the respective practices of the contemporary artists, but I was also able to view Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore’s work through different lenses.

Could you tell us a bit about the artists’ work and approaches?

Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore’s work is fundamentally about the performance of gender and subverting societal norms. The work of the contemporary artists is a bit harder to summarize, although all the artists included in the exhibition also make art that addresses gender, sexuality, identity, and the body.
Laura Taler and Sarah Pucill have both made experimental films especially for this exhibition. Sarah Pucill has previously made two feature length films that animate Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore’s photographs. For this project, Sarah proposed reworking clips from her second film, Confessions to the Mirror (2016), to create an installation much like the sets that she created for the film shoots. Laura drew inspiration not only from Claude Cahun’s work, but also from Maya Deren, a Ukrainian-American experimental filmmaker who worked in the 1940s and 1950s. Laura did a lot of research on early experimental film and photography techniques and also incorporated journalistic writing about these subjects to create an original installation built around her film. Cara Tierney (they/them) is an artist whose work questions the role of gender and its relationship to the body. Here, they produced two large sculptural installations: text-based wall works drawn from phrases they chose from Cahun’s 1930 book, Aveux non avenus. These phrases relate to their experience of genderqueer identity. Mark Clintberg is a conceptual artist, and for this exhibition, he produced a handwoven textile that was then screen-printed by hand. It was important for Mark to make such a monumental piece (the textile is 7m long) by hand because, for one, it allowed him to make the point that gender isn’t something that is manufactured. Gender is created all the time by each individual through small gestures. I also like that the piece is about identity and the body, even though it is the only work in the exhibition where a body is not directly represented. Dayna Danger’s contribution forms part of an ongoing project where the artist presents beaded masks and photographs of subjects wearing these masks to address Indigenous sexuality and notions of kinship and sovereignty. Similarly, Zanele Muholi, who self-identifies as a visual activist, focuses on the intersection of race, gender, and sexuality. Muholi’s work as a photographer is deeply connected to their advocacy on behalf of the Black LGBTQ+ communities in South Africa and beyond.

Questions of identity have always been an artistic motor, whether they touch on gender, social class, faith, politics, or the body. How would you explain the evolution of the subject of gender and the body in art over the past century?

That is a big question! Art certainly continues to deal with important questions like the ones you mention. I think that gender and the body have been a preoccupation for artists for quite some time, but certainly since the 1960s and 1970s. With the sexual revolution in the West, you really started to see contemporary art dealing explicitly with the body, identity, and sexuality. It was a time when you started to see more public activism, especially in art. This resulted in more liberal attitudes and a desire to make a mark in the social sphere. You had the rise of the women’s movement, the civil rights movement, and access to and developments in contraception. There were and are, of course, reactionary attitudes and censorship, famously with artists like Robert Mapplethorpe, but I see contemporary artists today who are pushing boundaries when it comes to the body, how it is represented, and for whom.

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To see this for yourself, Simons invites you to discover the Facing Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore exhibition, which will be on display until February 4, 2020, at the Ottawa Art Gallery. We would like to thank their team, and especially Michelle Gewurtz, for the time they’ve taken for this interview.