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PHOTOGRAPHY / Behind the mask: Who was Claude Cahun: man, woman or member of the third sex? Adrian Searle reviews the gender-bending Surrealist photographer

Adrian Searle
Tuesday 25 October 1994 00:02 GMT

Sometimes she looks like a man, at other times like a disconcertingly contemporary androgyne, with a shaven head and fabulously loud shirt. She cuts the scariest edge of fashion, yet was born exactly a century ago. Who is this third-sexer made-up to look like a cross between Sinead O'Connor and Nosferatu?

She's Lucy Schwob, born in 1894 in Nantes; she's Daniel Douglas, named after Lord Alfred Douglas, Oscar Wilde's beloved 'Bosie'; she's 'The Unnamed Soldier', a veteran of the Jersey Resistance, who urged the occupying Germans to desert. She is Claude Cahun, a little-known Surrealist photographer whom the archivists presumed was a man.

What Cahun's self-portraits share with the works of Tacita Dean and Virginia Nimarkoh, the two young artists with whom she posthumously shares this exhibition at the ICA in London, is a fascination with photography as a means of conjuring complex narratives from the enigmatic evidence a photograph provides.

Cahun steals the show. But this extraordinary figure would be a star anywhere. There is more to her than dressing-up, although from 1917 to her death she made herself the playful subject of hundreds - perhaps thousands - of photographs and photomontages, many now lost. Raiding the prop-box was only the visible aspect of her self-invention. Her gaze pulled itself away from the narcissist's mirror, turning to face those on the other side of the camera.

With lacquered hair and kiss-curls, and wearing a Clara Bow pout and love-hearts on her cheeks, she appears in a 1927 photograph sporting a shirt on which she has written 'I am in training. Do Not Kiss Me'. Her shirt has sewn-on nipples, and she is cradling a set of dumb-bells. Elsewhere, she looks like one of Hans Bellmer's mannequins, and in another shot she bears an unnerving resemblance to Pierre Molinier, another Surrealist photographer and cross-dresser, whose career is also being revived.

From a distinguished literary family, Cahun moved to Paris in the early Twenties with her step- sister and lover, Suzanne Malherbe. Over the years, she developed lasting associations with the poet and artist Henri Michaux, the polemicist Georges Bataille, and with Andre Breton, with whom she fell in love. She translated Havelock Ellis, contributed to important Surrealist exhibitions, acted, wrote short stories and autobiography, yet was intellectually marginalised as a woman.

In 1937 she moved to Jersey with Malherbe. In 1944 they were arrested by the Gestapo and sentenced to death for their Resistance activities, but were liberated the following March. In a photograph taken soon after their release, we see Cahun offering a wry grimace to the camera, a Nazi eagle insignia clenched between her teeth, like a cat with a bird in its mouth.

She never fully recovered from her year in prison, and died in 1954. The Jersey Museum declined the offer of her photographs, which had been discovered by John Wickham, a removal man with an interest in Surrealism. It is largely from his collection that this exhibition comes.

Cahun's photographs record an extraordinary life, and are the record of an enormously prescient artist whose chief concern was transforming and transcending her self. She created herself, and singled herself out.

The black man who stands at the very edge of a party of holidaymakers in one of Virginia Nimarkoh's found photos is singled out by a different kind of uniqueness. Herded in front of a couple of charabancs, the women in flowery frocks, the men in blazers - top pockets bemedalled with pens - are dressed in the off-duty garb of 30-odd summers ago. One adventurous chap sports a cravat. Almost cropped from the shot, which has been blown up to life size on the wall, the anonymous black man stands at the limit of visibility, yet strikes the viewer with his presence, his apparent inappropriateness.

Family and friends send Nimarkoh these amateur prints, which often portray black and white people in the same frame. Their power lies in the answers they cannot provide. A black girl, cheap suitcase in hand, waves goodbye to people out of shot. The constructions one puts on this are less innocent than this quotidian event might suggest, and Nimarkoh's blow-ups document not so much anonymous lives as the beholder's presumptions.

Tacita Dean once showed a photograph in which the martyred Saint Agatha's severed breasts were replaced by jelly-moulds. Here a film intercuts footage shot in modern Sicily with a scene in which ersatz nuns take part in a somnambulistic production line, gift-wrapping plaster breasts in boxes labelled 'Agatha (left)' and 'Agatha (right)'. A second film is based on a true story of a girl stowaway on board a windjammer travelling from Australia to Ireland in 1922. Dean offers a faked newspaper account, and in her film (distressed with scratches to make it look authentic) she potters about as a cabin boy. She also insinuates herself into the story, by way of some seemingly apposite coincidences. But Dean has a tin ear for the uncanny, even though she nearly witnessed a murder on the Cornish cliffs during her researches. Stretching things a bit, you could say that the stowaway (who dressed as a boy) bears a passing resemblance to Claude Cahun in drag. But Cahun would never have stowed-away: she was up-front all the way.

(Photograph omitted)

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