National Portrait Gallery – A Review of Gillian Wearing and Claude Cahun: Behind the Mask, Another Mask

I am always overjoyed to see large exhibitions featuring female artists, particularly Surrealist artists. This exhibition presents a ‘spiritual camaraderie’ between Claude Cahun and Turner Prize Winner Wearing, setting their self-portraiture and object work into a fascinating reverie.

As research for this exhibition Wearing and Howgate traveled to Jersey to visit the Cahun archive, and to explore the spaces and places located in the portraits, poignantly taking a self-portrait at Cahun’s and Moore’s neighboring graves. Wearing reflects on how Cahun seemed to come alive again on this archival journey: “when we were there it felt like there was nothing in the way—it was just her. [ . . .] She has become part of my family.”11 Behind the Mask, Another Mask is a vital and energizing experience, as well as being disconcerting and slightly uncanny. It puts two female artists in conversation, and leaves the viewer to draw her own conclusion. Since the 1990s, scholarship on Cahun has grown, and in whichever guise—a Surrealist artist, a queer activist, a lesbian provocateur, a shape-shifter, a polemicist—this exhibition highlights her relevance and contemporary spirit not only through Wearing’s direct engagement with her work but also in the exploration of what it means to examine oneself through (self) portraiture and artistic collaboration. Surrealism courted the unexpected and thrived on collaborative experimentation, and the National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition continues in this tradition, asking for active participation in these associative self-portraits.

Please check out my review of the exhibition written for the excellent ASAP Journal ASAP Journal – Claude Cahun and Gillian Wearing at the National Portrait Gallery


In her hugely influential article on magic realism in 1920s Germany, the much-cited  Irene Guenther examines the emergence of magischer realismus and the political and cultural climate from which it sprang. I was reminded of her work when I read of the incredible uncovering of in excess of 1,500 paintings in the home of Cornelius Gurlitt, the son of Hildebrand Gurlitt (a museum director in Zwichau until ousted by the modern art-loathing Nazi Party), who had been hiding the paintings ever since being declared a victim of Nazi war crimes.

Irene Guenther gives examples of how the Third Reich censored Neue Sachlichkeit artists ‘The left-wing political artists, and, of course all Jewish artists were particular targets of Nazi cultural cleansing (Guenther, Magic Realism, New Objectivity, and the Arts during the Weimar Republic 1995). Numerous painters, including Max Beckmann, Max Ernst, Otto Dix, and George Grosz were denounced as ‘bolshevists’ or ‘kunstwerge’ (art dwarfs) by the Reichskulturkammer (Third Reich’s Chamber of Culture), headed by Joseph Goebbels. Often prohibited from painting and fired from teaching positions, their works were destroyed or displayed for ridicule in vicious ‘Entartete Kunst’ (Degenerate Art) shows or Schandausstellungen (Abomination Exhibitions). Hartlaub was fired from his job as museum director in Mannheim. Roh, accused of being a “cultural bolshevist” was taken to the Dachau concentration camp in 1933’ (Guenther 1995, 55). A few artists’ national landscapes (Schrimpf and Carl Grossberg) proved exceptions and were deemed acceptable to German national pride’ (55).

As a big fan of this era of German painting, it is the idea of Radziwills, Ernsts, Dixs, and Groszs that thrill me with anticipation perhaps even more than possible Matisses and Picassos.

Above is a wonderful shot taken inside the  ‘Entartete Kunst’ show which opened in Munich on the  19th of July, 1937, showcasing 650 confiscated paintings frpm 32 museums. Attented by Goebbels and Hitler, the exhibition toured to 12 other cities, framing these works of art as ‘sick’ and degenerate. I particularly love the fact that in the centre of this photograph we see Max Ernst’s fantastical collage La belle jardinière [The Beautiful Gardener]

La belle jardinière [The Beautiful Gardener], 1923, oil on canvas, (whereabouts unknown)

It is an example of Ernst’s ‘overpaintings’ in which he bases drawings on earlier collage works, or alters existing paintings, creating ‘palimpsests that recorded resolutions of contradictions’ (Spies 1988, 55-57).


Hiroshi Sugimoto

Hiroshi Sugimoto

Following on from a short exploration of Eugène Atget’s Paris in my thesis, I was prompted to learn more and experience more widely the traces captured in the long exposure, and the minuscule breaths of movement given material presence thanks to the slow shutter.

Hiroshi Sugimoto’s long-exposures of theatrical cinema-viewing spaces have something very interesting to say about cinema. He describes his process thus:

Dressed up as a tourist, I walked into a cheap cinema in the East Village with a large-format camera. As soon as the movie started, I fixed the shutter at a wide-open aperture, and two hours later when the movie finished, I clicked the shutter closed. That evening, I developed the film, and the vision exploded behind my eyes.

In contrast to the ghostly apparitions passing through Atget’s photographs or the ghoulish animism of Bragaglia’s photodynamism, Sugimoto’s ‘whole movie in a single frame’ leaves a static, shining image of the film,  what in ‘real’ diegetic temporality is a series of flickers. The usually dynamic screen is transformed into an eerily vacant repository of itself, yet the artist finds it ‘explosive’.

Investigate the artist’s work further here: Hiroshi Sugimoto.



Anton Giulio Bragaglia – Futurist Photodynamism 1911

‘We love and we observe reality in its fatal and vital motion’ – Anton Giulio Bragaglia

Futurist Photodynamism 1911

 Bragaglia’s article on photodynamism is something that I’m working on at the moment in conjunction with ideas on material affect.  Bragaglia’s approach to the photographic image anticipates a visual condition in photography that German art historian Franz Roh later attempts to theorise with his work and the written preface in Foto-Auge (1929). Along with commentary by artists such as Cocteau, Man Ray, Atget, Boiffard, Ubac, Ernst, Magritte and Buñuel, Bragaglia’s ‘manifesto’ helps us to understand the potential of photographic and film arts for capturing what lies below and within the real – the theory of visual interiority. 

Project MUSE – Futurist Photodynamism 1911.


SOAS Centre for Film and Screen Studies presents: International Symposium: Rediscovering the Diva; Considering the Impact of Female Star Personae on Japanese Film and Visual Media


‘Diva fight’ – Still taken from Bara no soretsu [Funeral Parade of Roses] – Matsumoto Toshio, 1969

I will be presenting a paper at the SOAS Centre for Film and Screen Studies Symposium on the 11th of June entitled ‘The angura Diva: Photodynamism and Identity in Matsumoto Toshio’s Funeral Parade of Roses’. The paper examines the role of the transvestite diva  within a theoretical framework focusing on the visual collage and countercultural subtext of Matsumoto’s film.


Eddie! Still taken from Bara no soretsu

If you are in London on either Monday 10th (for the Symposium screening of Kurosawa’s The Idiot), or Tuesday the 11th for what looks to be fascinating programme of speakers charting and unpicking the  diva persona in Japanese film, please do come along. Register online here and take a look at the exciting programme

Funeral parade mask


Still from Bara no soretsu


Sarah Pucill’s ‘Magic Mirror’ – Claude Cahun, Narcissus, and scattered selves


Last Monday I attended the world premiere screening of British artist filmmaker Sarah Pucill’s feature on the text and images of Surrealist Claude Cahun. While I was fully aware of Pucill’s work, I was drawn to the screening primarily because of my own interest in Surrealism and its legacies. Upon arrival at the Tate Modern cinema, it was very pleasing to see a full house (with a queue for return tickets) because I’ve recently experienced quite empty cinemas at both Tate and the ICA (why so few people at the ICA screening of Post Tenebras Lux a month or so ago? ). So yes, a great turnout.

Pucill Magic Mirror Hands and lenses

Still taken from Magic Mirror, Sarah Pucill, 2013

French artist and writer Claude Cahun, (1894 – 1954, née Lucy Schwob)  is now well known, her work appropriated by art historians, feminist and queer theorists, who have focused on the imagery in her photographs and its positive transgressions of heteronormative discourse. This was not always the case, and she and her work were largely forgotten until  French poet François Leperlier came across Cahun as a somewhat marginal figure in his research for a publication on Surrealism.  By all accounts intimidated by Breton’s circle (hardly surprising), Cahun was nevertheless friends with some of the Paris circle, such as Soupault and Desnos, and eventually met Breton in Paris,, photographing him and Jacqueline Lamba as well as contributing photographs to journals such as Bifur (a journal publishing works by former Surrealists).

Claude Cahun - Jacqueline Lamba & Andre Breton, 1935

 Jacqueline Lamba and André Breton, Claude Cahun , 1935

For Pucill, who spoke before and after the screening, Claude Cahun had been on her radar since being introduced to her work as an undergraduate in the 1990s. Pucill feels an affinity with Cahun’s artistic practice and her use of mirroring and fragmentation to explore sexuality and clichés of identification such as the Narcissus myth and self-portraiture. The majority of Cahun’s visual works are self-portraits in which costume, artifice, superimposition, reversals of gender stereotypes, the interchangeability of animate and inanimate objects, mirrors, closeted space, and collage, prevail. Although Cahun is best known for her images, she was a prolific writer, and Pucill explained how her book Avenue non avenues (1930) (published in English as Disavowals, but translated by Pucill as ‘confessions untold’) with its photomontages and heliogravurs served for her (making the film) as an expansion and  clarification of the photographs.

Cahun opening image Aveux non avenuesClaude Cahun and Marcel Moore, Phontomontage, Plate 1, Aveux non avenus, 1919 -1929

Pucill finds Cahun’s obsession with mirrors and other reflecting surfaces such as window glass and water, intriguing, pointing out that the opening words in Aveux non avenus: ‘Sash Window. Glass sheet. Where shall I put the silvering? On this side or the other; in front of or behind the pane?’ bring to the fore questions of self and of reflecting on the self in her film work.  The text continues: ‘In front. I imprison myself. I blind myself […] Leave the glass clear, and according to chance and the hours see, confused and partially, sometimes fugitives and sometimes my own look. Then, break the glass panes … with the fragments, compose a stained glass. Byzantine work! Transparency, opacity. What a vow of artifice.’ Dawn Ades notes how this is an overt criticism of Narcissus, of his death, deceived by an image. Cahun understands the artifice, dissolving herself ‘into a never-ending series of masks that have no ‘real’ underneath. These are not so much disguises as adoptions of the socially imposed shells of feminine or masculine identities (like the doll-woman) which need first to be displayed inorder then to be stripped.’ (Ades, ‘Surrealism, Male-Female’, in Surrealism. Desire Unbound, Jennifer Mundy (ed.), 2002,  171-201).

Narcissus Pucill

Sarah Pucill, Magic Mirror, 2013

Pucill’s film re-enacts the figures and mise en scene in Cahun’s photographs, creating further uncanny reflections and expansions of the original self that ultimately, for me, seem most akin to the photomontages in Aveux non avenus. More significant to my mind, is the dissemination of the self into a mise en abîme of self-reflexivity, a kaleidoscopic, polymorphous self that travels back and forth between Pucill and Cahun, refusing, unlike Narcissus, to die. Pucill terms this effect, the scattered self.

Self Portrait Claude

Self Portrait, Claude Cahun, 1928

It has oft been noted that Cahun’s work anticipated the work of Cindy Sherman, or the critical writing of Judith Butler on the ‘troubling’ parameters of socially ordained ‘gender identities’. Gender and self is, of course, at the centre of her work, and the play of feminine and masculine masquerades, yet Cahun’s work is much more than self portraiture and ‘gender-bending’. Although not a fully ‘signed-up’ member of the Surrealist group, her work exemplifies both Bretonian ideas of convulsive beauty, chance and merveilleux, but also the more abject, ‘primitive’, visceral power of Bataillean philosophy. There is a sinister, abject body that exceeds the images of women manifested in Breton or Soupault’s writing, or Man Ray’s photographs of the female form (for example), and offers alternative female bodies that tell of much deeper, experiential view of reality, and of the horrors of modern life. / 500 words


The ARTFORUM is a  favourite place of mine  to browse online – the 500 word page  is a great way to discover new art and ideas. The remit  keeps communication succinct and punchy.  Take a look here: / 500 words.

Left: Thomas Ruffma.r.s.05 III, 2012, chromogenic print, 100 3/8 x 72 7/8”. Right: Thomas Ruff3D-ma.r.s.11, 2013,chromogenic print, 100 3/8 x 72 7/8”.


Kinetic Connections – Laura Mulvey reflects on her career as avant-garde filmmaker and feminist film critic | Events Blog


Here is my brief account of Birkbeck’s celebration of Laura Mulvey back in February this year, at which the revered filmmaker and critic looked back on her career:

Kinetic Connections – Laura Mulvey reflects on her career as avant-garde filmmaker and feminist film critic | Events Blog.

Karl Blossfeldt is coming to Whitechapel Gallery!

Exploring the active, stretching tentacles of European modernism at the end of the ’20s for my thesis, I came across the following quote by Walter Benjamin on German artist Karl Blossfeldt’s microphotography and botanical subjects:

 Walter Benjamin [1928] ‘New Things about Plants’ A review of Karl Blossfeldt, Urformen der Kunst

 ‘Every calyx, every leaf confronts us with pictorial essentials which range through all stages of creation: metamorphosis in Nature has the final word. These have developed from one of the deepest, most unfathomable forms of creation – from the mutation in which the element of genius has always resided – the collective creative power of Nature. This fertile mutation is diametrically opposed to human invention – the natura non facit saltus of the ancients’  taken from David Mellor (ed.) ,1978,  Germany: The New Photography 1927 – 33, London: The Arts Council of Great Britain, 21

One of a group of Neue Sachlichkeit photographers, Blossfeldt stuck in my mind for his surrealist eye – in particular his isolation and cropping of particular objects that removes their immediate context and may initially puzzle the viewer. I am really excited that Whitechapel will be displaying over 80 silver gelatin prints of his work :


Karl Blossfeldt.

16 April – 14 June 2013
Galleries 8 & Victor Petitgas Gallery (Gallery 9)

Karl Blossfeldt.