In my reading recently I have come across mention of Claude Cahun at least twice. Once in a Guardian art article about Cindy Sherman, and once in an article about Aboriginal art that ran in the Globe and Mail. I'd never heard of Claude Cahun, so of course after so much Cahun buzz I thought better look him up.
Claude Cahun is a "sexually ambiguous psuedonym" for a lovely little lady by the name of Lucy Schwob. She was a French artist and writer who died in the mid 50's after living a very inspiring life that included working for the Resistance during the German occupation of France during WWII.
Claude and her lover/wife/partner Marcel Moore, otherwise known as Suzanne Malherbe, lived and worked in Paris, and later Jersy, becoming well known mostly for the Surrealist self portraits of Claude, Claude's published writings and for their artists' salons.
Claude is the original Cindy Sherman, although there are forerunners even to Claude. She began photographing herself, with Marcel as the camera woman, when she was 18 years old, in a series of elaborate and always seriously deadpan disguises. And she continued to do so for the next 20 or so years.
The photographs, many of which you can see on the web, are fabulous. They look so homemade and human. Claude and Marcel did not even develop their own film; they sent it off. There is something so vulnerable in that kind of small art making. The point was not to create a colossal plastic industrial piece of art, the point was the human being in all her/his/our complexity and bravado and self importance.
I think it's sometimes easy to scoff at the artist, to think of the work as being silly. I think even artists can and do turn against themselves and each other in this way. It's like the gay man who has internalized a perceived cultural homophobia and who hates himself and his lovers because of it. Looking at Claude's photos after reading about her reminds me of the first time I was introduced to Frank Zappa. I heard the music and I thought it was funny. Kind of sick and over the top but funny. Period. And then I saw a video of Zappa and the Mothers, and I suddenly realized that these guys were deadly serious. They were artists completely engaged in making art. And it changed the music for me. It became something to consider, to discuss, to be concerned about.
Just reading about Claude and her lady Marcel and the idea of dressing up like men and other creatures for the camera, really struck me as a little bit, I don't know, cheesy, maybe. I mean it has been done a lot. Role playing for cameras. And then I looked at the photos and I saw that sincerity, that earnestness that makes the art more than role playing. It's real. Claude in all her forms is real. And she opens the door for us, the lookers, to feel for ourselves our own shapeshifting possibilities. Our range. That is what artists do. That is what Claude and Marcel have done.