Walking through the new photography exhibition Entre Nous: The Art of Claude Cahun, it can be difficult to place Claude Cahun in her own time. Her short haircut and winking self-awareness seem to fit in more with the post-modern examinations of perception and feminine identity that we associate with artists like Cindy Sherman and Nan Goldin, than with her own political and artistic moment situated during the budding Modernist movement. And then there is the Object, the one and only sculptural work in the exhibition—what is it? And what is it doing in a photography exhibition?
A contribution from the Art Institute’s collection, the tiny, enigmatic Object is a recent acquisition (from 2007), and is Cahun’s only surviving sculpture. Like a three-dimensional collage, Object combines a number of found elements: a fully exposed eye is mounted next to a child-like, grasping hand; a stiff cloud-shaped plane of wood rests atop the eyeball; coarse, dark hair gathers loosely on the orb in counterpoint to the starkly erect eyelashes. Beyond its curious composition and tactile quality, the object offers a glimpse into Cahun’s critical engagement with her Parisian Surrealist contemporaries.
Cahun produced three objects for an exhibition at Galerie Charles Ratton, Paris, in May 1936, of which only the Art Institute’s remains. The exhibition, called Exposition Surréaliste d’Objèts, lasted only one week and included pieces by famous Surrealists Marcel Duchamp, Salvador Dali, Dora Maar, Meret Oppenheim, Hans Bellmer, Andre Breton, Renee Magritte, and Man Ray. Cahun’s submission to the show marked the height of her participation in this Surrealist group; in an essay that she wrote for the catalogue, she offered everyday instructions for the construction of objects that disrupted a standard view of the world. At the time, Surrealists were interested in found objects because of the way everyday things could be estranged from their normal uses while remaining recognizable. And like many of the objets trouvés in the show, Cahun’s work repurposes found elements—wood, a tennis ball, iron nails, hair, and a doll’s hand—to emphasize the real, tactile importance of an object as opposed to an image. The natural objects, ready-mades, and Oceanic sculptures visible in the exhibition image above were meant to create an unconscious sense of instability or discomfort that would force viewers to see objects in new ways.
The two other aforementioned objects that Cahun produced for the show were called Un air de famille (above) and Souris valseuses. Though neither survive, the petite assemblage Un air de famille can be found in a photograph with the same name, just to the right of Object in our exhibition, echoing Cahun’s quirky, if short-lived, contributions to the Surrealist approach to sculpture.