some real homage


First, a somewhat spittle-laden squawk: how one positively slavers for a good biography of the astonishing French artist known as Claude Cahun (1894-1954). Mention her in conversation and you are likely to draw a puzzled ‘Claude who?’ even from otherwise predatory culture vultures. In my own case – it’s true – certain vile French diphthongs may be part of the problem: the phonetic distinctions between Cahun, Caen, Caïn, Cannes, Cohn, canne, cane, cagne, camp, cône and con remain, sadly, a perpetual trial. Yet it’s also undeniable: though one of the most extraordinary personalities associated with both the French Surrealist movement and the Resistance, Cahun is still scarcely known to an English-speaking public.

Which isn’t to say she has languished in utter obscurity. In the baleful little world of academic ‘gender studies’ (strap-ons and piercings strongly advised) the cross-dressing Cahun has been a cult heroine for a decade or two. Nor is it difficult to see why. She was an inventive and fearless early practitioner of set-up photography: the self-conscious ‘staging’ of images in order to produce a theatrical or conceptual effect. And as with many other set-up specialists, Cahun was her own favourite subject. Though it’s hard to say if she knew the work of either, two of her most notorious precursors in this regard were the Countess of Castiglione (1837-99), a wealthy and eccentric Franco-Italian narcissist who hired a studio photographer to take scores of secret pictures of her in bizarre poses and costumes, and the Stieglitz associate F. ‘Fred’ Holland Day, whose semi-nude impersonation of Jesus Christ on the Cross – at once gauzy, grisly and homoerotic – provoked a scandal when he exhibited the photographs in 1898.

more from the LRB here.