Friday, November 04, 2005

Radical Lesbian Artists Finally Find an Audience

(Link) They were performance artists who took part in surrealist theater in Paris, confronted gender politics -- and the Nazis. Seventy years later, their spirit, partnership and work are on display.

1 comment:

LNewsEditor said...

JIC Post:

Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore did their most important work for each other, and for the future.

We are that future. Long before most of us were born, they were radical feminist lesbian performance artists. Although they weren't the only ones tackling the issues of gender and sexual politics during the artistically heady days in Europe before World War II, their work has a silky élan missing from more confrontational approaches to the theme.

They weren't scandalized or scandalizing. As a deeply-in-love cult of two, they extended girls' games of dress-up into seriously fun identity quests, staking out conceptual ground on which their socially unacceptable ideas could flourish.

Although Cahun (born Lucie Schwob) took part in surrealist theater in Paris during the 1920s and early 1930s while Moore (born Suzanne Malherbe) designed the sets and costumes, their most engaging theatrics were staged privately and documented through photography.

Cahun and Moore were key participants on the surrealist scene, but by the mid-1930s, they'd been pushed to the margins. One photograph shows Cahun standing with a bright group of male peers. White lines indicate crop marks. She's the one being cropped, left outside the line and beyond the pale.

Most artists are forgotten. Cahun and Moore were forgotten until the 1990s, when the future they hoped for finally produced art historians who looked back and dug the pair out of a deep obscurity.

We'll never know their range and depth. After they left Paris in 1937 and moved to the Isle of Jersey, a Channel Island, they fomented a two-person anti-Nazi campaign through leaflets and graffiti.

Looking at that material now, it's hard to imagine why the Nazis needed four years to find them. Obviously, artists were behind it, and how many artists could there have been on the island?

Their neighbors must have been fond of them, as nobody ratted them out. They were caught in the act and sentenced to death. Gestapo officers camped in their house and destroyed as much of their work as they could easily lay hands on.

Spared at the last minute thanks to an Allied victory, they left prison with their spirit intact and health broken. They asked to be buried together under one tombstone with a Star of David over each name, one for Moore, raised Catholic, and one for Cahun, a secular Jew. After the Holocaust, there was nothing else they wanted to say.

Curator Tirza True Latimer organized "Acting Out: Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore" for the Judah L. Magnes Museum in Berkeley, Calif., where it opened last spring. Senior curator Robin Held brought it to the Frye.

Critics are now fast-tracking Cahun's reputation. She's in the most provocative photos, the one who steps up to greet us as a proto-Cindy Sherman. Moore is a footnote to that career. This show engages them as a pair, the way they saw themselves.

Cahun favored crew cuts and sometimes dyed them purple or pink. She'd dress as a boy and double herself in the mirror: two boys equal one woman. She'd paint herself as a sinister clown or curl up in a cupboard like a forgotten doll.

Those photos are terrific, but what puts the show over the top are the doubling photos -- Cahun in Moore's shadow and vice versa, couplings that maintain a pretense of solitude. Single women they weren't. They may not have wanted their island neighbors to know, but they want you to know and to celebrate what they had, a partnership on the deepest level, a fusion of flesh and spirit and a willingness to confront evil when, jack-booted, it goose-stepped into their lives.


WHERE: Frye Art Museum, 704 Terry Ave.

WHEN: Through Feb. 12. Hours: Tuesdays-Saturdays 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sundays noon-5 p.m.