Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 22, 2000
Shelley Rice Inverted Odysseys: Claude Cahun, Maya Deren, Cindy Sherman Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1999. 168 pp.; 16 color ills.; 69 b/w ills. Paper $35.00 (0262681064)
New York University Grey Art Gallery, Nov. 16, 1999-Jan. 29, 2000; Museum of Contemporary Art/North Miami Gallery, Mar. 31-May 28, 2000.

This exhibition features the work of three women whose lives span the twentieth century: Claude Cahun, Maya Deren, and Cindy Sherman. Lynn Gumpert, the cocurator of the exhibition and director of New York University’s Grey Art Gallery, originally conceived of the project as a showcase for the extraordinary performance-portraiture produced between 1912 and 1954 by Cahun, a long-obscured member of Paris’s surrealist milieu. While Rosalind Krauss and Jane Livingston included examples of Cahun’s work in their milestone 1985 exhibition, “L’Amour fou: Photography and Surrealism,” at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C., and a number of other important shows in Europe and America have since featured Cahun, the current exhibition presents photographs that have never been seen on this side of the Atlantic. What is more, the catalogue places previously unpublished photographs and writings by the artist into circulation. Cahun’s tongue-in-cheek feminist parables, “Héroines” (translated by Norman MacAfee), appear here in entirety for the first time.

Since 1995, when the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris held the first major retrospective of Cahun’s work, critical investigations of this “forgotten surrealist” have proliferated. As Abigail Solomon-Godeau observes, “Cahun’s oeuvre, with its consistent play with the instability of identity, its frequent deployment of masquerade, its penchant for masks and mirrors is startlingly close to the terms of contemporary feminist thinking about identity, gender, and sexual difference. Consequently, it requires almost more of an effort to resituate Cahun in her actual time and milieu than it does to consider her work in the context of contemporary theoretical formulations about femininity, identity, and representation” (114). Solomon-Godeau’s catalogue essay, “The Equivocal ‘I’: Claude Cahun as Lesbian Subject,” effectively demonstrates the extent to which this artist’s work resists enclosure within the art-historical frame of Surrealism or within feminist theoretical projects—while contributing to the historical construction of such interpretive contexts. The essay distinguishes itself, moreover, by stressing the points at which Cahun’s practices pivot upon issues of lesbian, as distinct from feminine, identity.

The figure of Cahun dominates the catalogue, despite the evolution ofthe exhibition project towards a comparative format. Shelly Rice, who co-curated the exhibition, dramatizes the value of comparison as an analytical tool in her title essay “Inverted Odysseys.” Citing representations of women from Johannes Vermeer’s Young Woman with a Water Jug (1664-1665) to Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills (1978-79), Rice tracks historical shifts in the status of representation itself and relates these to shifts in the status of the social subject. When such transhistorical comparisons work (which they do in this essay), they enable us to rethink the imperatives of our own moment in relation to the past, and vice versa.

As Rice acknowledges, this exhibition is not the first to compare Cahun’s photographic project to that of Cindy Sherman. From the moment of Cahun’s “rediscovery” in the mid-1980s, Sherman’s oeuvre has consistently provided a point of reference. In a 1986 review, Hal Foster describes Cahun as “a Cindy Sherman avant la lettre” (“Amour faux,” Art in America, January 1986, 127). Cahun’s biographer, François Leperlier, makes the same identification in Claude Cahun: l’écart et la métamophose (Paris: Jean-Michel Place, 1992). Katy Kline’s more recent essay, “In or Out of the Picture, Claude Cahun and Cindy Sherman,” follows this pattern (Whitney Chadwick, ed. Mirror Images: Women Surrealism, and Self-Representation, Cambridge: MIT Press, 1998). Although Cahun is often typecast as Sherman’s precursor “in the continually reedited film of art’s history,” Rice maintains that “anyone who has seen one of Cahun’s tiny, black-and-white prints next to gargantuan, garish color photographs by Sherman knows that there’s more to this comparison than meets the eye” (24).

Lucy R. Lippard, in her catalogue essay “Scattering Selves,” cautions, “If Claude Cahun had been rediscovered in the 1970s instead of the 1990s, we would perceive her work differently” (36). But would Cahun’s work have impressed pre-postmodern audiences? Perhaps, as Joseph Koerner argues with respect to Albrecht Dürer’s self-portraiture, the suitable historical contexts in which to set any truly radical representational project “might only emerge at the end of the tradition it initiates” (The Moment of Self-Portraiture in German Renaissance Art, Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1993, 52). However, even if we could finesse the question of historicity that attributing Shermanesque qualities to Cahun’s work raises, a methodological question remains: does meaning continue to unfold within the framework of such an oft-repeated comparison—or does meaning become fixed, conventional, foreclosing the possibility of discovery?

Significantly, a hostility to fixed meanings is one of the characteristics shared by all three subjects of this exhibition. The artists share, too, a specific mode of investigation (performance) and a primary expressive vehicle (the body). All three women explore—through role playing—alternate constructions of the self. All three document their performances on film. All three understand the historical complicity of images, particularly photographic images, in the objectification of women. While these commonalties provide a solid basis for comparison, Gumpert’s introductory essay reminds us that “even as it highlights similarities, an exhibition can also emphasize differences” (xi). And, indeed, the differences here prove more telling than the similarities.

The artists come from very different historical, geographical, and cultural worlds. Cahun was born in France in 1894, Deren in Russia in 1917, and Sherman in the United States in 1954 (the year of Cahun’s death). Their representational projects, like their histories, diverge dramatically.

Cahun’s photographic oeuvre consists almost entirely of snap-shots. Intimate in both scale and address, these “self-portraits” were not intended for public display. Cahun’s lover Suzanne Malherbe (a.k.a. Marcel Moore) actually took many of the pictures commonly attributed to Cahun. By inventing and documenting a series of roles for Cahun over the course of a shared lifetime, the couple probed the very “nature” of subjectivity—while simultaneously challenging the transparency of both photographic and social representation.

Although Maya Deren also took photographs, she worked predominantly in film. She exploited the documentary yet illusory structure of the medium itself to explore the frontiers between reality and fantasy. Film and performance were for her not modes of critique, but the means of transcendence, of locating a less mundane and more authentic level of subjective experience.

Unlike Deren’s veritable film stills, Cindy Sherman’s “film stills” are simulations—indeed, simulations of simulations. Sherman’s work participates in and takes as its subject the proliferation of images that has, in the decades since the artist’s birth, thrown the very notion of authenticity into crisis.

To the extent that the exhibition and its catalogue highlight these differences, the tripartite comparative structure is productive. Most of the essays—those contributed by Gumpert, Rice, Lippard, and Solomon-Godeau—rigorously emphasize the specificity of each artist’s work, while at the same time exploring the larger cultural implications of shared thematics and practices.

Jonas Mekas’s paean, “A Few Notes on Maya Deren,” is an exception. Mekas suggests that the only difference between Deren’s project and that of Sherman, or Cahun, is “a tiny one…while Claude and Cindy go through different and drastic surface changes in their self-representations, bridging generations, ages, and centuries, Maya stuck very closely to who she was in real life” (127). Calling “Claude” and “Cindy” by their first names throughout the essay, Mekas in effect locates these artists in a relationship of false proximity to (and familiarity with) each other, with “Maya,” and with himself: “When I…saw Claude’s show in Paris, I thought I understood her and loved her, the same as I think I understand Cindy and love Cindy” (129). Be that as it may, Mekas’s reminiscences offer a cineast’s perspective on the character glimpsed, but never captured, in Deren’s haunting film stills.

If Mekas’s fusion of memory and fantasy echoes Deren’s own sensibility, Ted Mooney’s “Cindy Sherman: An Invention for Two Voices,” the catalogue’s final essay, outright appropriates Sherman’s methods. Mooney’s approach to Sherman’s work is not only theatrical, it is performative: it enacts that which it describes. Mooney’s imaginary dialog about a series of imagined encounters with Sherman’s avatars locates the author, his fictional “voices,” the artist, her artworks, and the viewer within an endless process of displacement—to which we readers contribute as we flip through the slick color plates representing Sherman’s oeuvre.

Inevitably, the exigencies of book design create a more homogenous visual experience than one enjoys in the gallery. Sherman’s life-sized photos must be radically scaled down, Cahun’s tiny snapshots enlarged, Deren’s films stilled. The book’s illustrations, as a result, level out some of the properties that distinguish filmic images of Deren from still photos, or Cahun’s performance-portraiture from Sherman’s mise-en-scènes. The highly textured literature that frames these images compensates, however—attuning the reader to the particularities that distinguish each of these key interventions into twentieth-century visual culture.

Tirza True Latimer
Associate Professor and Chair, Visual and Critical Studies, California College of the Arts, San Francisco