Claude Cahun at Leeds Art Gallery: Self-portrait and performance

Polly Checkland Harding

The photographic self-portraits of Claude Cahun explore identity and performance in a way that’s still resonant today.

Claude Cahun is an intriguing artist to look back at from the age of the selfie. Though she was born in France 120 years ago, Cahun’s work explores the boundary between self-portrait and performance in a way that starkly foreshadows the social media trends we see today. Cahun was called Lucy Schwob at birth – Claude Cahun, the androgynous name she adopted, was part of a persona through which she acted out a range of identities, both male and female. Cahun’s most famous works are the photographic self-portraits she took, carefully staged explorations of gender, identity and social roles. In a modern context, these photographs are a rich, artistic echo of the inevitably branded selves we present online.

Claude Cahun’s work starkly foreshadows the social media trends we see today

Many of Cahun’s images weren’t printed during her lifetime – none were exhibited in the form they take at Leeds Art Gallery. The artist experimented with her audience’s understanding of photography as the documentation of reality, presenting startlingly persuasive depictions of herself under a male guise, for instance. The prints are a reminder of the over-credulous way we sometimes accept curated personalities on Facebook or Instagram. Cahun’s Heroines stories were also a mode of interrogating the past, taking up female historical figures like Salomé, Saphho and Cinderella, who she felt had be misrepresented or misunderstood. This new exhibition is a revealing exploration of a complex artistic vision, one that still speaks to us today.

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