I, Claude

Claude Cahun: Beneath This Mask (Sidney Cooper Gallery, 28 February-Saturday 6 May 2017)
Latent: A Hidden History (Sidney Cooper Gallery, 28 February-Saturday 6 May 2017)

Claude Cahun was born in 1894 to a French literary family and apparent became interested in art and self portraiture from an early age. After experiencing anti Semitism at school in Nantes, Cahun went to a school in Surrey and then to University at the Sorbonne. Cahun was soon moving in artistic circles, including with André Breton and Sylvia Beach, and set up home with her partner, Marcel Moore. In 1937, they moved to Jersey and were there when the Nazis invaded, becoming part of the resistance. They were eventually arrested, and sentenced to death, but survived somehow. Time in jail weakened Cahun’s health and the artist died in 1954. Moore was to live on until 1972 and is buried in the same grave.

The earliest photos on show here, such as Skin Head (1916), are over a century old, but look incredibly modern, perhaps because they anticipated the androgyny of fashion photography of the last forty or so years. There’s a picture from about 1920, with Cahun again as skin head, screaming, hands over ears, á la Munch. The assexuality is shown again in a picture in which Cahun wears a “I am in training – don’t kiss me” shirt along with lipstick hearts on the cheeks and holding a set of barbell weights labelled TOTOR ET POPOL — this seems to be a reference to an early Hergé comic, The Adventures of Totor, Chief Scout of the Cockshafers. A strongman in make up. A model masquerading as a man.

Masquerade recurs — two 1929 pictures have Cahun “As Elle in Barbe Bleue”, in a long dress with x’s and flowers down the front. Here Cahun is playing the (unnamed) wife from Bluebeard, who enters the bloody chamber. Elsewhere we see Cahun as Harlequin, reflected in a mirror (I think with a negative image).

Double exposures allow a dissected body — Cahun’s head in a bell jar, Cahun’s body in a tallboy, reversed in a kind of clothed 69 with Cahun, Cahun’s isolated hands, a hand in the form of a tree, arms emerging from stone… There are a couple of photographs from 1947 with Cahun smoking in a suit, stood on a slab marked PRIVATE (what?) and flanked by gravestones, holding a skull and standing next to a cat. Memento mori. Memento meowi.

As far as I can make out, these are all self portraits, although there’s no give-away cable in almost all of the pictures. Did they have timers? Or did Malherbe operate the camera? Does that stop them being self-portraits? Photographers often have assistants — as do other artists.

What I also wasn’t clear about was whether the exhibition was misgendering Cahun. There were various artists in the 1920s who dressed in male attire and changed their names. Marlow Moss springs to mind — but I’m not clear whether Moss was living as a man or as gender neutral. In the main information panel for the exhibition, we are given some biographical information about how Cahun changed their name and are told “With this new identity Cahun was able to … reject what she saw as the narrow confines of gender.”

Yes, she did.

Ahem.

Perhaps it would be anachronistic to speak of misgendering, in the same way that homosexual becomes a problematic term before 1870 or gay does before… well, it depends. It is possible that somewhere Cahun writes about their preferred pronouns. Did they have a transgender identity? A gender neutral one? A masculine one? Cahun and Moore chose gender neutral names rather than male ones.

In today’s terms, the exhibition deadnames Cahun and Moore. Again, we hover on the fringe of anachronism. And there are many cases of artists who take on a name that is different from the one they are born into and exhibitions will draw attention to that. Is that deadnaming? I’m not sure. And I wonder if the symposium attached to the exhibition, which unfortunately I missed, raised these issues?

Meanwhile, in the front sideroom and lobby are photographs appropriated — is that the term? — by Sam Vale for his show Latent.

(I should declare an interest — he is a colleague.)

Canterbury Christ Church University is home to the South East Archive of Seaside Photography, which brings together various archives including the walkies taken by Sunbeam. Vale has looked through these and found photographs of men isolated together, subjecting them to what you might call a queer gaze.

I might also refer to it as the paranoid gaze, although perhaps “paranoid” isn’t quite the right word. Before the 1967 Sexual Offences Act, sexual acts between men were illegal, that is to legislation going back to 1886 (and before that, fourteenth century anti-sodomy legislation). After 1967, it was descriminalised in certain circumstances in England and Wales. The side effect of this is limited documentation of gay life styles and the need to read between the lines. We read homosexuality into imagery — which may or may not be there.

Take Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope or Fredric Wertham’s reading of the relationship between Batman and Robin. We *know* Philip and Brandon are in a relationship but they never confess to it, they never kiss, we never see them fuck. Sometimes this becomes a location of hidden figures where we have no role models. Sometimes this becomes a witch hunt.

I can remember a picture in the archive that’s been shown a couple of times: two men lying on the beach, of different ages but both adults. Brothers? The age gap felt wrong. Father and son? Uncle and nephew? I just felt that they were lying too close together. Just as Philip and Brandon stand too close together.

So, with the possibility of misreading, the possibility of a creative misreading, a paranoid gaze — or simply the kind of gaydar used to recognise other gay men, Vale offers us moments of men, maybe gay men, hiding in plain sight. Or perhaps not even hiding. The liminal space of the seaside has an ethics all its own.

What happens in Margate, stays in Margate.

The enlargements of the pictures to isolate such details gives a feeling of surveillance and spying, adding to the paranoia. Two men standing on a balcony. Clothed man, naked man. The isolation of a hairy chest and a nipple. A right hand on a naked shoulder. A photo of a photographer taking another man’s photograph. Two men walking past each other — in memory both were looking back. Parties known to each other? Or checking out the talent?

I know Sam has been looking for other venues to show the work at — I hope he has some success.

(An example)

“Cheese” Seems to Be the Hardest Word

The Radical Eye: Modernist Photography From The Sir Elton John Collection (Tate Modern, 10 November 2016–21 May 2017)

So Elton John got sober in 1990 and sold much of what he owned – but an art dealer friend showed him some black and white photographs and he became hooked enough to buy a dozen on the spot. Since then he has amassed something like 8,000 of them, which grace the walls of his Atlanta apartment in Academy style frame-by-frame, check-by-check. About 150 of them are on display, in John’s frames, in the new exhibition space at t’Tate t’Modern.

It is an extraordinary collection of modernist images, from the big names and the less well known, from the 1920s to the 1950s. Inevitably, it needs stamina – and the sudden bursts of colour on two walls is a relief from black and white, no matter how beautiful black and white is. As these are photographs as art, colour is mostly banished from the practice until the 1970s anyway. But when the photos can be as small as a cigarette card and no larger than A4, a certain amount of (sorry) focus is required.

Broadly speaking, the images split into three categories: the portrait; the document; and the estrangement. To my eye, the last is the most interesting, the first the least, but the categories overlap.

A lot of the portraits are of artists, authors or musicians, as artist photographs document their own circle. There are muses, teachers and pupils – so we have Man Ray, Edward Weston, Tina Modotti, Alfred Stieglitz as subject or object. Alfred Stieglitz’s portrait of Georgia O’Keefe is unusual as her face takes up the left side of the print, with wood, perhaps fencing, forming the right half; usually he chops her up into body parts. We have a row of artists and composers, André Breton and Ivor Stravinsky among others, where we are invited to perceive the artistic impulse at work in the face staring back at us.

Projection, much?

Along one wall, almost appropriately, are Irving Penn’s images of celebrities jammed into the corner of a wall apparently structured for the purpose. Noel Coward looks especially tall and wiry, although the caption, “Noel Coward was a playwright, director, composer and noted wit”, whilst not wrong, seems a little… off. Spencer Tracy did indeed win two Oscars, but that seems a little clipped too. Meanwhile, Carl Van Vechten depicts Leo Coleman as Toby in The Medium 18 May 1946, but doesn’t explain Leo Coleman was a black dancer in the Katherine Dunham troupe who appeared in an opera, The Medium, premiered at Columbia University ten days earlier. Dora Maar appears, but it’s assumed that you know she’s one of Picasso’s muses as well as a photographer and painter.

There is a room devoted to documentary, with some of the greats – Ansel Adams, Ilse Bing, Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Helen Levitt and so on, the great projects of the WPA in the 1930s and images of cities. Of course, there are all kinds of ironies and paradoxes – not least the millionaire rock musician and philanthropist owning and empathising with an image of poverty such as Lange’s Migrant Mother (1936). We have the art of poverty rather than the poverty of art, but we are projecting the story on the image. Part of the documentation is possible due to new smaller format cameras or faster films; some of the pictures are snatched street photographs, taken without their object’s knowledge, others would have been carefully set up. The distinction is not clear here; you’ll need to go elsewhere (the catalogue?) for technical details. I appreciated a picture by Robert Frank of Paris, I suspect the only living photographer from the exhibition.

Finally, the estranging, the avant garde, the experimental. Lazló Moholy-Nagy’s View From the Berlin Radio Tower (1928) is a good starting point, as objects blur into abstraction when viewed from on high – as does the Boy On Bicycle From Brooklyn Bridge by Ralph Steiner. There are several radio towers and aerials here, some as vantage points, others a view from below, as choice of bird or worm’s eye view collides with modernity. In distinction from distance, there is the close-up of objects (eggs, cups, plants) or tight cropping, to make us question what we are seeing. The photo as still life become abstract. Paul Strand – a protégé of sorts of Stieglitz and underrepresented here – combines both with the play of shadows of the commuter against the columns of Wall Street. And then there are the distortions in the photographing or developing stages, the double exposures, the scratches and damaged. I knew Herbert Bayer’s Humanly Impossible (Self Portrait) (1932) with the missing underarm chunk, but I hadn’t connected him to Lonely Metropolitan (1932), the eyes on hands in front of montaged buildings, which I half recognised. There is Man Ray’s Glass Tears, the titular drops like beads across a tightly cropped face, I think a mannequin’s? (It’s telling I can’t tell – take that, uncanny valley. Apparently he made it just after he split up from Lee Miller; I don’t think there were any of her photos on display here but it’s a depressing though that she would be so replaced.) And of course, there’s the Rayographs, one of several versions of the technique of camera-less pictures where objects are placed on light sensitive paper.

There is much here to enjoy and appreciate, if you can have the patience to slow down and admire. John evidently has taste, or has been well-curated (odd labelling aside). Ideally, I think, you’d go in and see half a dozen pictures and then go and stare at a bright coloured painting to recalibrate. But the thought of whatever selection there is of eight thousand pictures on his walls – where inevitably they must become invisible, feels me with a sense of unease.

Painting Exposed

Painting with Light (11 May-24 September 2016, Tate Britain)

I am bringing two pieces of baggage to this show.

Firstly a sense that a few London galleries seem to be finding excuses to show the ever popular Preraphs — compare the National Gallery Painters’ Paintings and the V&A’s Botticelli. And also the talk by Karen Shepherdson on Tony Ray-Jones and Martin Parr puts a debate about photography as art and commerce onto my mind. And having just seen William Eggleston at The National Portrait Gallery, my mind was on art.
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Ray-Jones of Light

I don’t think that Tony Ray-Jones was a name known to me, but I’m pretty sure I’d seen a photo or two — I’m thinking couple having a picnic at the Glynebourne festival, surrounded by cows. And then Martin Parr curated an exhibition of his photos and his own work, which I think opened the Media Space at the Science Museum I suspect an attempt to ease their presence out of Bradfoford, but that’s another story. That show, Only in England, has toured and I missed it by a day at Liveroool. Now a selection has come to Canterbury’s Beaney, supported by a talk by my comrade Karen Shepherdson.

There’s a curious tension in the photos — modernity and nostalgia, realism and the comic, celebration and, maybe, condescension. That last one is arguable. Shepherdson, whose own practice includes working on the harbour at Broadstairs, has enjoyed eavesdropping on the gallery’s viewers, noting their engagement and their memories.

Ray-Jones was born in 1941, son of Raymond Jones, a painter and etcher and part of the St Ives school (he had changed his name to Ray-Jones to help his image) who died when the photographer was an infant. After an unhappy time at Christ’s Hospital school in Horsham, he studied at the London College of Printing and won a scholarship to Yale, as spending time at the Design Lab, Manhattan, where he was introduced to street photography. He returned to England with a new aesthetic and credo, partly as an outsider in the era of British pop art and the Mersey sound and Swinging London.

Shepherdson pointed out the significance of the seaside to British photography. In the U.K. We are never further than seventy miles from the sea and it became the default destination for the working class day out or holiday. From the early days of photography in the Victorian era, businesses set up on the beach or promenade, taking walker that would be developed and sold to the subject within minutes. Companies had props and backdrops, and portable developing facilities or darkcars. Hundreds of photographs would be taken each day — in the early days ambrotypes and ferrotypes. It became a precious memento of a family jolly, rare in the century before camera phones. The beach is also a carnival space — it is a holiday, even if a day trip, alcohol might have been involved and the family is off duty. Morality … slips. At the same time there is a curious formality — most people would have had work clothes and best clothes, so the beach visitors are often in suit and tie.

Whilst Ray-Jones did not only take photographs at the seaside — and had used colour film in America — the beach photos were part of a self conscious project cut short by his death in 1973 from leukaemia. Among his notes are lists of seaside towns — Ramsgate, Margate, Broadstairs, Bridlington and so on — with the one visited ticked off. The south east was more completed than the north east. He toured round England in a dormobile 1966-79 with his wife, seeking to capture an England at risk of becoming Americanised. The seaside towns frequently document nineteenth century resorts in decline — and to my mind offer a sequel to the charabanc trip in Uses of Literacy.

In a series of notes to himself, he lists his credo: “Don’t take boring pictures”. He wanted to avoid mid shots in for close ups, to be part of the action. “Be more aggressive.” “Get in closer.” “Not all at eye level.” It seems good advice.

Karen showed a picture of people on a boat trip — it gets labelled somewhere like Scarborough but in fact is off Beachy head. A crew member and several passengers are on a pleasure boat, looking in all directions, including a figure you might read as a shepherd in a Yorkshire context. At the centre are a casually dressed young couple, kissing and embracing, he in glasses, she looking like she’s walked off a French new wave film. Je t’Aime. Je t’Aime. They are the only people of their generation in view. The picture was cropped from the original — she is bare footed, a scantily clad woman is off frame. I also notice an older woman in glasses, the only person apparently aware of Ray-Jones at work. Despite Ray-Jones’s injunction to take fewer photos, there were about seventy on the boat.

Parr paired Ray-Jones’s pictures with his Nonconformist series, mostly taken around Hebdon Bridge as it made an awkward transition from manufacturing town to a trade based on tourism. He records rituals and routine, again the observation of the every day, with an eye to the absurd. There’s a tableau Shepherdson showed us of a mayoral buffet, a scrum of people at a table, some with filled plates, some yet to reach through, and again a single figure in the background eyeing the photographer. Like Ray-Jones the framing is both perfect and there a sense of people coming in and out of frame, and towards and away from the photographer’s (and our) viewpoint.

Parr’s seaside photos – many again in Thanet, perhaps most striking a series at New Brighton in the early days of Thatcherism after he had spent two years in Ireland – are in a garish colour, for me teetering on camp or kitsch, rather like the resorts themselves. There is an honesty and a knowingness – and I recall Parr saying that the beach was a laboratory for his wider photographic practice.

Shepherdson notes a sense of estrangement at the heart of both photographers – they make us look again at the every day. At the same time, this risks making the ordinary look alien. In taking these anonymous people and making them into – well, if not art then a quasi-ironised representation (although I’m happy for it to be art, baggage and all) – there’s the risk of being accused of looking down. The photographer here takes his telling image and moves on, having used. Maybe. Shepherdson suggests they refract rather than reflect.

But it is up to us to empathise and celebrate and recognise — and as Karen said, perhaps quoting Parr or Ray-Jones, walk like Alice through the looking glass.

Don’t Confuse Her With the Actor

Lee Miller: A Woman’s War (Imperial War Museum, London, 15 October 2015-24 April 2016)

Do you know you are not allowed to drink beer in the Imperial War Museum? Or – given that I’m fairly surely they sell it in their café – you are not allowed to drink beer you’ve brought with you in the IWM? Also, I’m pretty sure I’ve seen themed beers in the shop.

I was forced to use a locker for the bottle of Solaris I’d bought for the train home.

I think the last paid exhibition I saw at the Imperial War Museum was Don McCullin – his fantastic war photography. Other photographers, of course, specialise in fashion, or in art, or landscapes or people.

Lee Miller (1907-1977) does art, people, landscape, fashion and war. A rare combination, especially, one might say, for a woman. I’ve seen various exhibitions of her work of late – as if her son Antony Penrose is a man on a mission – most recently her photos of Picasso and her family at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, and there’s a vast website at www.leemiller.co.uk. She’s shown up among women surrealists, too.

I don’t think I’d picked up before that she’d been raped as a young child, nor that her father had photographed her in the nude. I recalled nudes of her, including self-portraits, and some of these are on display, along with Paul Homann’s cast of her torso (1939) – an echo of Man Ray’s photo of her – and this suggests an apparent degree of bodily freedom that seems a little odd. Exhibitionism as defence?

She’d worked as a model in New York for Arnold Genthe, George Hoyningen-Huene, Nickolas Muray and Edward Steichen, before going to Europe in 1929 and working with Man Ray as muse, model and photographer. She experimented with the solarisation process – which was also to be used by Barbara Hepworth. On her return to New York in 1932, she set up her own studio, but married wealthy businessman Aziz Eloui Bey and moved to Cairo. Her photography shifted from surrealism to landscape, focusing on the desert and ruined villages in the sands. On a trip to Paris she met the collector and artist Roland Penrose, beginning a long affair with him that would eventually become a marriage. She took photographs in the Balkans, as well as Syria and Egypt, before war broke out.

In theory she should have gone back to the United States, but she had taken a job with British Vogue. Initially she was working as a fashion photographer – it was Vogue, after all – and part of the work was to keep spirits up with the keeping up of standards. But as the war went on, it intruded on the photographs. Models posed in bomb sites or wore gas masks – fashion colliding with surrealism. She took photographs of women in uniforms and doing war work, as well as nurses.

By 1944, she was accredited as a war correspondent for Vogue — there’s an intriguing photograph by David E. Sherman of her in uniform in front of the Vogue cover with a soldier, women and a stars and stripes flag – and she got more involved in the war. The way she tells it, it was almost a lark, but that might be a survivor talking.

She was meant to go to Normandy, after the landings, and to avoid trouble, but she ended up in Saint-Malo, still under German control but heavily shelled by the American army. Unlike other journalists, Miller mixed with and apparently had affairs with the military, and didn’t buckle down to follow the official itinerary. She ended up in liberated Paris – where she photographed fashion shows – and went into Germany. The photographs on display include some of Dachau and Buchenwald, the concentration camps, one being feet in boots, somewhere between a dancer and a fashion shoot. In Munich she entered Hitler’s apartment, Scherman taking a photo of her in Hitler’s bath, nude of course, her muddied boots on the mat, a photo of Hitler on one side, a statuette on the other. It is a grim jest.

That was almost it – she returned to Britain in 1946 and took more photos of Budapest, finally reconciling with and marrying Roland. In 1948, Antony was born; Picasso continued to visit and remained a friend of the family. Miller gave up photography almost entirely – there’s a 1946 photograph of Max Ernst and Dorothea Tanning, with Ernst as a giant and she had photos in the 1955 The Family of Man exhibition curated by Steichen at MOMA, New York – in favour of becoming a cordon blue cook and writing about it for British Vogue.

Antony apparently didn’t know about the war photographs until after her death, which seems incredible. Miller was also focusing on helping Roland with his various biographies of artists.

But the body of work is remarkable – black and white, sharp, often square and remarkably well framed. Sometimes the fashion influence is discernible in the reportage, sometimes there is staging, but a dark humour and sense of surrealism often bubbles through. She wasn’t the only female war photographer – the exhibition mentions Margaret Bourke-White (1904-71), who was also with the US Army and had been in the Soviet Union in 1941 when the Germans invaded – but hers remains an impressive body of work.

Exhibitions for Expotitions

This is in no way complete… it’s mainly exhibitions that I could conceive of getting to, with a London/Southeastern bias. Although I can conceive Edinburgh, Newcastle, Gateshead, Liverpool and Manchester. Go figure. Check details before travel — galleries really don’t like Mondays.

Corrections welcome.

Yes, I know this is messy. Tidier next month.

Closing September 2015

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