Self-portrait, 1928, black and white photograph
Little known until recent years, Claude Cahun (1894 - 1954) is currently the focus of a great deal of international attention and her work has been in numerous touring exhibitions. Presentation House Gallery organized this first Canadian solo exhibition. Born Lucy Schwob and later taking the ambiguously-gendered name of Claude Cahun, she was a poet, actress, sculptor and photomonteur, sometime-associate of the French surrealists, and was considered a political and sexual revolutionary. Like Cindy Sherman and other contemporary artists some 50 years later, Cahun emphasized in her image-making the cultural coding of the body rather than the body itself, using costumes, masks and theatrical make-up to exploit and disrupt the categories in which women were/are defined and open up notions of identity to allow for multiplicity, ambiguity and the unknown. Cahun's self-portraits astonish us with their ability for transformation: from skinhead to Japanese puppet, Buddhist statue to disembodied preserved head, from vamp to some strange otherworldly being. During the Second World War, her home on the Isle of Jersey was occupied by Nazis. She openly resisted them, distributing anti-Nazi leaflets and unveiling banners that mocked Hitler. When arrested, much of her work was destroyed and she was sentenced to death. The war ended before her scheduled execution.