CLAUDE CAHUN & SUZANNE MALHERBE / by Caitlin Murray

Hence Farwell to the Muse, which follows five pairs of women artists from the late 1930s through World War II - no longer the muses or femmes-enfantes of Surrealist legend, but creators in their own right. Chadwick's fascinating account of Claude Cahun and Suzanne Malherbe's wartime resistance on the German-occupied island of Jersey quickens the pulse even seventy years later. Although other Surrealists, like Paul and Nusch Eluard, engaged in subversive activities in France during the Occupation, these two middle-aged French lesbians in poor health elevated resistance to an art form, risking their lives in a small, isolated community in which even the natives had not quite accepted them. The women created collaged texts, leaflets, and banners in German to "sow doubt in the minds of German soldiers." Some of their messages (left in cigarette boxes for soldiers to find) were so oblique as to seem surreal: "Ohne Ende" (Without End) read one, alluding to a Nazi pre-war slogan, "Terror without end or an end to terror." They evaded discovery until near the end of the war, when they were arrested, held in solitary confinement, and condemned to death. In February 1945, the German High Command granted them a reprieve from execution. They were reunited in prison, where they organized a clandestine postal system among prisoners and made nuisances of themselves until the Occupation ended. (NYRB, Regina Marler, March 8, 2018)

Claude Cahun (25 October 1894 – 8 December 1954), born Lucy Renee Mathilde Schwob, was a Jewish-French photographer, sculptor and writer. She/They adopted the gender-ambiguous name Claude Cahun in 1917 and is best known for their self-portraits, in which she assumes a variety of personas. Their work was both political and personal, and often undermined traditional concepts of static gender roles. She/He/They once explained:

“Under this mask, another mask; I will never finish removing all these faces."

Claude Cahun, Self Portrait, 1927

Claude Cahun, Self Portrait, 1927

Taking the text of Jersey-based surrealist Claude Cahun’s incomplete personal memoir as its inspiration, this successor to Sarah Pucill’s Magic Mirror, is a sumptuous and passionate re-imagining of the artist’s life. It moves from childhood, through her politicisation and defiant activism, to her eventual imprisonment with her partner, Suzanne Malherbe, at the hands of the occupying Nazis force, along with the destruction of many of her precious photographic works. Pucill seeks to redress this violence against Cahun’s legacy by meticulously recreating vignettes and scenarios that trace her artistic practice, her lesbian relationship and her resistance to the occupation. She employs sound, movement and colour to connect Cahun’s personal yet radical practices with the themes and techniques of her own image making. Part-love letter to the artist, Confessions to the Mirror reveals the power of art as human communication, within in the most repressive of circumstances. (Helen de Witt)

2013, 16mm b/w, sound, 75min

Magic Mirror combines a re-staging of the French Surrealist artist Claude Cahun’s black and white photographs with selected extracts from her book Aveux non avenus (1930, Confessions Denied). In Surrealist kaleidoscopic fashion the film creates a weave between image and word, exploring the links between Cahun’s photographs and writing as well as between those of the films of Sarah Pucill, as both artists share similar iconography and concerns.

Cahun’s multi-subjectivity as expressed in both her book and photographs, set the scene for the film, where she dresses and makes her face up in so many different ways, swapping identities between gender, age and the inanimate. Three women masquerade as Cahun’s characters: often it is hard to tell them apart. The splitting of identity appears as a double which persists throughout; as a literal double (through super-imposition), as shadow, imprints in sand, reflections in water, mirror or distorting glass. Likewise the voice is split between differently dressed voices, which sometimes speak at the same time and sometimes in dialogue. Part essay, part film poem, Magic Mirror translates the startling force of Cahun’s poetic language into a choreographed series of Vivantes Tableaux, intermixed with stagings from her writing.

Revelations 21:1  Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.

Revelations 21:1
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.