"Photography is a kind of primitive theater, a kind of tableau vivant," Roland Barthes remarked, shifting attention away from the medium's significance as an evolutionary event in the history of pictorial representation.1 Viewing photography in this way, as a dramatic art, enables us to think about the photograph as an arena in which to act rather than a stilled frame out of reality's filmic continuum. Since theatrical performance invariably requires an audience, looking at photography through the lens that Barthes proposes brings the spectator's role in the production of meaning into focus. This, in turn, opens new realms of insight into a range of photographic as well as theatrical practices and has specific applications with respect to the work generated by Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore in the early twentieth century.
The photographic oeuvre featuring Cahun has earned acclaim and circulated in contemporary shows and publications under the banner of "self-portraiture." I take exception to this classification on several counts. Hardly anyone would deny that these images result from some sort of collaboration, since Cahun could not possibly have realized most of them without assistance. This observation alone suffices to compromise the word "self" in the generally accepted formulation "self-portraiture." Yet the categorical designation has provided scholars, curators, and other viewers with what seems a viable term of convenience. A number of art historians have compared Cahun's photographic tableaux to those of the contemporary artist Cindy Sherman--who engages assistants to produce the photographic compositions that she enacts and/or envisions.2 While the designation "self-portraiture" unquestionably elides important aspects of Sherman's representational process and project, framing the collaborative work done by Cahun and Moore as self-portraiture has additional consequences. Cahun's collaborator, after all, was not a professional assistant but her life-long mate, Moore. What social prejudices and artistic hierarchies does the erasure of Moore accommodate and to what extent did the two artists foresee, forestall, foreclose (or, on the contrary, foreordain) this erasure?
Let us look for answers--that is to say, statements of or about co-production--in the work itself. The Jersey Heritage Trust collection (featured in the current exhibition "Acting Out") preserves numerous negatives and prints that make both the fact and the thematic of collaboration apparent. Some shots, for example, picture first Cahun and then Moore posing alternately in the same setting [figs.1-2, JHT/1995/41/n and JHT/1995/24/h].
In addition to these reversals, the device of doubling and other metaphorical and formal references to artistic and emotional complicity--such as the intrusion of the photographer's shadow upon the space of the photograph--affirm Moore's engagement in less literal ways. A photograph, taken circa 1915 [fig. 3, JHT/1995/15/m],
representing the still adolescent-looking Cahun posing against a massive formation of granite offers a case in point. We see Moore's shadow cast upon the scene (and upon the photographic paper) in the lower right hand corner of the composition--just where we are conditioned to look for the artist's signature. This doubly indexical mark could be understood as a sort of artistic contract that the couple would honor for nearly forty years. The silhouette, which draws the photographer/viewer into the frame of the picture, allows us to imagine the sitter's expressive acts coming to fruition in the eyes of an unseen but present observer to whom those gestures are addressed.
At the very least, it would seem expedient to remove the hyphenated "self" from the label "self-portraiture" and to reconceive of portraiture, like photography, as a theatrical pursuit. Certainly portraiture, as practiced by Cahun and Moore, performed something other than the traditional functions of commemoration or classification. It appears to have served, on the contrary, to destabilize the notion of "self" that the portrait genre has historically upheld--and, more constructively, to provide an arena of experimentation within which the photographer and the subject could improvise alternate scenarios of social, sexual, and artistic practice. Within this arena, Cahun and Moore--subject to the constraints that faced "the weaker sex" in patriarchal societies in their time--could act up, act out, enact their desires, and act upon their convictions.
The creative alliance between Cahun and Moore formed in provincial Nantes, where, in 1909, the fifteen-year-old Lucie Schwob (who would later adopt the pen name Claude Cahun) encountered the seventeen-year-old beaux-arts student Suzanne Malherbe (Marcel Moore) in what they both described as "une rencontre foudroyante."4 Eight years later, Cahun's father, Maurice Schwob, a prominent publisher, married Moore's widowed mother, Marie-Eugènie Rondet Malherbe, entwining the two "daughters" in a familial relationship that undoubtedly facilitated their artistic collaborations and provided a degree of social cover for their intimacy. An emblem designed by Cahun makes the division of emotional and artistic labor within this partnership clear [fig.4, uncatalogued, 2003 acquisition].
The monogram, a motif repeated twice within the composition, would, in fact, be more accurately described as a "duogram"--in that it merges the initials of Lucy Schwob with those of Suzanne Malherbe. The pivotal letter "S," a self-complementing flourish that turns singular to plural, intersects the palm of an outstretched hand as if to retrace the heart line. "Elles s'aiment," the letters pronounce. They love each other. But who are they? A monstrous body cobbled together out of symbolically resonant parts: a pair of lips inscribed "Lucy Schwob," from which a hand reaches skyward, balances upon an equally disproportionate eye whose iris spells "Suzanne Malherbe." The entire awkward construct rests precariously upon a well-turned ankle and a foot modeling a high-heeled shoe posed near the ground line of the enclosing frame. If Lucy Schwob reaches for the sky, Suzanne Malherbe endeavors (however perilously) to ground her. Lucy Schwob reposes upon, depends upon, Suzanne Malherbe. Lucy Schwob, the lips and hand, speaks, gestures, writes, performs; Suzanne Malherbe, the eye and foot, visualizes, envisions, understands, stands up, stands fast, carries forward. Advancing in this manner, the partners aspired to revise the scripts and schemas of bourgeois femininity that they had inherited.