Inverted Odysseys: Claude Cahun, Maya Deren, Cindy Sherman
How do we see ourselves? How do others see us?
It is impossible to single out one consistent identity, as we all inevitably adopt multiple roles. A few common ones include inquisitive student, sage teacher, rebellious child, responsible parent, savvy professional, bewildered traveler. Inverted Odysseys: Claude Cahun, Maya Deren, Cindy Sherman brings together work by three twentieth-century artists who indefatigably explore questions of identity through self-portrayals in photographs or on film. Assuming different guises, they act out various roles, both real and imagined. Born in different countries, in different generations—Cahun in France in 1894, Deren in Russia in 1917, and Sherman in the United States in 1954—all three fracture a single, solitary sense of self, instead proposing identity as multiple projections of invented, fictional selves. Exploiting the theatricality inherent in photographic media, they adopt personae from diverse cultures, historical moments, and fictional narratives. Catapulting themselves into past and future, they overturn accepted distinctions between illusion and reality. Inverted Odysseys includes Cahun’s private “performances” for the camera, Deren’s experimental films and photographic works, and Sherman’s film stills and color photographs, bringing into clearer focus their inventive manipulations of conventional dress codes and their multifaceted strategies of masquerade.
Derived from Deren’s characterization of her film At Land as an “inverted odyssey,” the exhibition’s title implies a merging of divergent environments, including internal and external landscapes. With the emergence of photography as a popular medium in the second half of the nineteenth century, individuals could literally inject themselves into different settings and scenes. This flexibility is particularly evident in early photographic portraits. Whether sitters chose to be photographed in “straight” portraits or to dress up as favorite characters, they learned to pose—like actors—in elaborately furnished stage sets, exchanging private faces for public personae.
At the same time, these radically changing possibilities for representation were intimately linked to the widening of cultural boundaries through international expositions and increased travel. Today, at the turn of the millennium, photographic media and computer technologies—such as interactive videos and the Internet superhighway—continue to expand imaginative frontiers, transporting voyagers into virtual worlds. Inverted Odysseys proposes that the concept of multiple selves advocated by Cahun, Deren, and Sherman is more than a feminist or a psychological issue. As cocurator Shelley Rice has asserted, “The playful, imaginative urge to ‘try on’ the roles we see in pictures, in films, in travels, or in literature—to become a medieval princess or a Buddha or a witch—is central to the workings of our global culture, to our social definitions of human identity in a world where each individual exists in a multicultural and multitemporal environment.”
Claude Cahun employed photography to construct a personal mythology, an imaginary life outside the social confines of the historical world. Born into a prominent Jewish family of writers and publishers, she studied at the Sorbonne and then at Oxford before moving back to Paris with her lover and stepsister Suzanne Malherbe. There they participated in the creative ferment of French intellectual life between the World Wars. Cahun hovered on the margins of the Surrealist group, publishing in their journals and contributing sculpture-objects to their exhibitions but, for the most part, remaining independent of any movement.
In both her writing and her photography, Cahun disrupts restrictive ideas about gender, in particular, social prescriptions about femininity. Her texts were initially published in the newspaper Mercure de France, first in 1914 under the transitional name of Claude Courlis and then in 1917 as Claude Cahun, a family name on her maternal side. As “Claude” is gender-ambiguous in French, her choice of this pseudonym is itself a form of cross-dressing. Beginning in 1912, she initiated a lifelong obsession with self-portraiture, presenting herself alternately as elegant dandy in masculine attire and closely cropped haircut, and demure maiden in tightly-laced dress and fastidious braids. Almost as often, she depicted herself as androgyne, or as a historical or fictional character. Whether Buddha, masked avenger, vampire, rag doll, or her own father, Cahun assumed roles that were denied to her in the social world. Cahun’s use of costumes and her assumption of characters reflect her involvement in avant-garde theater. She was active in the Théâtre Esotérique and Le Plateau, two experimental troupes that included Japanese, Indian, and Sufi programs on their rosters. Many of her photographs obscure boundaries between public and private, or between theatrical stills and portrait photography. In several self-portraits she appears in actual theater costumes, posing in one example as Belle from Barbe-Bleu (Bluebeard).
In her costumed self-portraits, Cahun projects both multiple identities and multifaceted selves. Using dynamic compositional strategies, she often literally doubles her image through reflections, photomontages, or composites. Examples of such photographs, in which she manipulated negatives to multiply her image, include some of the self-portraits she made at her home on the Isle of Jersey, where she and Malherbe relocated in 1937. Cahun not only continued to make photographs in her new surroundings, but also began to transfer her strategies of masquerade from artistic production to political activity. With Malherbe as coconspirator, she launched a covert anti-Nazi resistance operation in which both women assumed disguises to undermine the German occupation. Cahun and Malherbe were arrested, tried, and sentenced to death, but ultimately released from prison at the war’s end. In the meantime, much of Cahun’s work had been confiscated or destroyed by German soldiers. She continued making photographs until her death in 1954.
During the 1940s and 1950s, Maya Deren and her first husband, Alexander (Sasha) Hammid, played an integral part in the creative life of Greenwich Village. Deren came to filmmaking with academic degrees from New York University and Smith College, and with a background in literature, dance, and dance criticism. While creating her films she continued to write for dance magazines and photography journals, and also worked as a still photographer, producing artists’ portraits and interiors scenes for publication. Deren completed six films in these two decades, casting her friends, colleagues, and avant-garde artists in prominent roles as well as insuring central ones for herself.
Deren’s devotion to masquerade was evident in her personal life as well as in her professional projects: she owned a collection of exotic dresses that she wore to parties and other social events, where she vividly acted out the dramatic roles she envisioned. In her films, she concentrates less on strategies of disguise, more often seizing opportunities for self-projection and multiplication. In her landmark and best-known film, Meshes of the Afternoon (1943), which she co-directed with Hammid, Deren employs the strategy of doubling, showing herself in two roles and allowing past and future selves to meet. In At Land (1944), she renders this possibility even more explicit, stating her intention to realize in this film “a mythological voyage of the twentieth century.” Even in her terminology, she elides past and present, history and legend, conjuring up images of Homeric sagas collaged onto contemporary ventures, all in a film whose main character—characteristically played by Maya herself—traverses familiar oppositions. She negotiates between dream spaces and waking life, deserted wilderness and claustrophobic civilization, juxtaposing migrations through successive environments with rational meetings at chess matches, ultimately merging these contrary mental processes and separate physical spaces near the end of the film. Deren viewed her films as intersections between real
and unreal, and through them pursued a goal of self- transcendence, seeking to achieve unity with the larger collective consciousness.
An inverted odyssey can also be understood as “a journey that takes place exclusively within the confines of the mind.” Deren’s participation in and documentation of Vodou rituals in Haiti explores an actual cultural environment in which competing realms of space and time, life and death, sacred and profane intertwine. She began her documentation of these rites with the support of a Guggenheim grant, traveling to Haiti in 1947 to study Vodou dance. During subsequent visits, she was initiated into the practices of the Vodou religion. Vodou ceremonies involved periods of possession that enabled her to record, even to inhabit, the relativistic universe that she proposed in her films. By 1953 Deren had shot many reels of film footage in Haiti, but chose instead to compile the documentation into her book Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti. The following year she founded the Creative Film Foundation, which she oversaw, also travelling to lecture and screen her films until her sudden death from a cerebral hemorrhage in New York City in 1961.
Like Cahun and Deren, Cindy Sherman exploits photography’s potential for transformation. In her art, she invents roles that range from movie star to witch, Italian gentleman to aristocratic matron. Private points of view merge with public icons of femininity as she convincingly makes illusion her personal reality.
She began her Untitled Film Stills in the late 1970s, after receiving a bachelor of arts degree from the State University of New York at Buffalo and moving to New York City. In these works, Sherman impersonates female character types from various B movies. Composed of sixty-nine stills, the series reprises numerous characters, but Sherman disrupts any possibility of narrative continuity and refuses any link between her heroines’ roles and her own subjectivity. In her next and first color series, Sherman again assumed multiple guises in photographs that replace the monochrome of black-and-white films with the technicolor of contemporary television dramas. Both series involve character types and production techniques borrowed from the film industry: Sherman positioned herself in front of a wall in her studio onto which she projected both urban and domestic scenes. Her realization of her first commercial movie, Office Killer, which was released in 1997, can thus be viewed as a logical extension of her early explorations in photography.
In Fairy Tales and History Portraits, two series dating from the mid-1980s, Sherman assumes more specific guises, appropriating characters from well-known stories as well as art history. The heightened theatricality of these scenes turns on their very artificiality. In their staging, Sherman plays with the juxtaposition of the real and the unreal. She presents figures composed of both actual and prosthetic body parts and hidden under thick applications of makeup, encouraging viewers to seek the gaps in her creations.
During the 1980s and 1990s, Sherman received commercial commissions from fashion designers like Jean-Paul Gaultier and Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons, which not only allowed her work to cross boundaries into mass media but also enabled her to stage an alternative to conventional fashion advertising. Employing props and creating characters, Sherman constructs herself and the mannequins who pose in her place as fanciful, dejected, even grotesque figures. As masterful magician in her use of masquerade, Sherman strives toward artifice that is always multifaceted: she multiplies fiction upon fiction as she reinvents herself through makeup, costumes, and props.
Although the three artists in this exhibition were born and lived in different times and places, they all employ photographic technologies and fanciful costumes not only to turn private visions into public images but also to inject real bodies into elaborate fictions. From Cahun’s photographs to Deren’s filmic representations to Sherman’s virtual landscapes, their work comes full circle. All three artists challenge the notion of fixed identity: they construct, and sometimes as quickly dismantle, relationships among posing body, assumed costume, and surrounding environment. The background street scenes and landscapes seen in Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills are not documents of actual sites, but rear projections onto empty walls. As the depths of her compositions reveal only their accretions of fabrications and facades, Sherman materializes what Cahun only hints at in her statement, “Under this mask, another mask. I will never finish lifting up all these faces.” All three artists take the ritual of dressing up to extremes. In different ways, they all embrace the possibilities of expanded selves, blurring boundaries between exterior and interior, fact and fiction.
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