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  • Claude Cahun: contexte, posture, filiation. Pour une esthétique de l'entre-deux
  • Shelley Rice
Claude Cahun: contexte, posture, filiation. Pour une esthétique de l'entre-deux. Edited by Andrea Oberhuber. (Paragraphes, 27). Montréal: Université de Montréal, 2007. 260 pp., ill. Pb CA$22.00.

This collection of essays, which grew out of a 2004 conference at the Université de Montréal, signals that scholarship about Cahun (née Lucy Schwob) is coming of age. Born in Nantes, marginally known during her lifetime (1894-1954) as a writer in Surrealist circles, Cahun spent decades photographing herself in various guises. Often made in collaboration with her partner Suzanne Malherbe/Marcel Moore, the self-portraits were originally conceived as private endeavours and have come into public view only since the 1990s. Exhibited first in France and then in Germany, her photomontages, illustrated books, and black and white prints resonated with an art world in thrall to Cindy Sherman and the gender studies of the feminist movement. It was not until 2002 that François Leperlier, her original biographer and the curator of the earliest retrospectives, published Écrits, a 787-page collection of Cahun's writings — fiction and non-fiction, published and unpublished. The impact of this newly available information, and the increasingly sophisticated discourse surrounding it, is very evident in Oberhuber's book, which is marked by a depth of understanding, a complexity of thought, and a quality of scholarship that would not have been possible before. Divided into three sections — one on general issues (her connections to Surrealist sexuality, her lesbian lover, and European politics), one on analyses of the literary works Vues et visions, Aveux non avenus, and Héroïnes, and one on comparisons linking her art works with those of other women before and after her (for instance the Countess de Castiglione, the Baronness Elsa, Sophie Calle) — this volume makes an attempt to articulate the significance of Cahun's achievement by interpreting and contextualizing her manifold expressions. The twelve essays, by scholars based in Canada, Europe, and the United States, are serious, well researched, and well edited. They vary in their ostensible subjects but share a general interest in the diversity and fluidity of (especially female) gender definitions. The l'entre-deux prominent in the book's title is a focal point of most of the texts, a trope used to describe the fragmentation, heterogeneity, and multifaceted political and personal investigations common to all of the artists under discussion. The choice of topics is inclusive and comprehensive; together, the essays paint a rich verbal picture of this complex and mysterious figure, but it is unfortunate that visual illustrations are few and far between. It is understandable, [End Page 501] perhaps, that the editor chose not to compare Cahun with Sherman (see my edited volume Inverted Odysseys (1999)), but disappointing that no one made a match between her and the contemporary French artist Orlan — an obvious pairing on many levels and one that would have opened up some hot new areas of inquiry. But these are small objections. There is no question that this erudite and impassioned book is a valuable addition to the growing list of volumes about a fascinating maestro of masquerade.

Shelley Rice
New York University


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