Post by Alessandra Ferrini

Magic Mirror is Sarah Pucill’s latest film, investigating the work of surrealist artist Claude Cahun. It premiered at Tate Modern (London) in April 2013 and it will be screened at the ICA (London) on the 7th of November, the  7th and  8th  of December 2013. Currently Pucill is also in the process to release the film as a DVD with LUX in 2014.

Claude Cahun was a French writer and artist. Being female, Jew, left wing and homosexual, Cahun’s status as the Other within the society she lived in, was to deeply influence her work. Although Cahun considered herself primarily a writer, she is best known for her self-portraits, a series of black and white photographs that were not conceived for public display. Cahun took these pictures in her home, with minimal equipment and props. The images reveal Cahun’s concern with questions of identity, gender and race. Dressing up, using masks and make-up, Cahun’s intimate exploration of multi-subjectivities is paralleled in her writing, which offers a very introspective and autobiographical insight into her life’s work.

Magic Mirror explores the links between the writing and photographs of Claude Cahun, creating a multilayered film in which complex relationships between performance, photography and moving image are set in motion. By no means does Pucill’s work verge towards the documentaristic, rather, the film is a work of art in its own right. Pucill controversially defines it as a ‘collaboration’ between her and Cahun, a relation that defies spatial-temporal constraints. It is the medium that makes this possible: filmic reality creates a dimension in which time collapses, in which the two artists can meet. This is the result of a very intimate process of re-enactment that Pucill has established. By re-staging Cahun’s images and transorming them in living and breathing tableaux vivant, she actually animates Cahun’s work, thus activating her archive. Through the medium of 16mm film, Pucill has been able to stage an uncanny series of performances for the camera, set against excerpts from Cahun’s book Aveux Non Avenus. In this way Pucill was able to expand on the multiplicity of identities created by Cahun in her images. Working with different (female) performers and narrators she has created a kaleidoscopic and ambiguos – almost illusionistic – set of (moving) images, in which the performers’ identities become difficult to discern, as much as it is difficult to discern where Cahun’s work ends and Pucill’s begings.

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A conversation about Claude Cahun

Sarah Pucill interviewed by Alessandra Ferrini and Elisa Adami.

This is the first part of our interview with Sarah Pucill about Magic Mirror. This part is concerned with Cahun’s biography and Pucill’s interest in her work. Part 2 of this interview, focussing on Magic Mirror, is accessible here.

AF: Your work Magic Mirror explores, or better re-stages, the photographs and writing of French Surrealist artist Claude Cahun. When did you come across Cahun’s work for the first time and what has drawn you to make a film about her?

SP: I was first introduced to her work in the late 1980s when I was studying at the Slade. At that time, my tutor Sharon Morris was doing a PhD on Cahun and her use of word and image, writing and photography, also in relation to the poet HD [Hilda Doolittle]. So I was first exposed to her at the very beginning of my film-making practice. In 1994 there was a show of her photographs at the ICA in London with Tacita Dean. It was one of the early shows of her work internationally. Since then I have always been on the lookout for her work. She probably had more of an influence on my film-making than I can know. Her writing I discovered much later. Cahun had written some short essay texts that had been translated into English, but it wasn’t until 2007 that her major book, AveuxNonAvenus, was published in English. The title has been translated in different ways such as Disavowals, Cancelled Confession, or as I have put it Confessions Cut Off, which is a creative translation, because it references the ‘cut up’ helio-gravures in the book. Somewhere I read that Cahun had translated the book title as just ‘Denials’. I was completely fascinated by this book, and, as soon as I read it, I thought ‘it would be brilliant if one day I could do something with this’.

AF: Can you tell us a little bit more about Cahun’s writings, her work and her life. Why is she so interesting to you?

SP: What is really interesting about Cahun’s work is that it can be seen as ‘speaking from another time’. She couldn’t be fully understood in her time, but has had increasing attention since the 1900s. She was a member of the Surrealist movement, but at the same time she was challenging it in a way that couldn’t be understood in her time. The perspective Cahun brought to the group was as an independent woman and feminist, gay and Jewish. She was also a bit older than a lot the key figures so in comparison to many of the other women involved in Surrealism she offered something different to the group which it can be said was both misogynist and homophobic (Andre Breton expelled members of the group early in in the movement for being homosexual). Cahun resisted the idea of a fixed identity of any kind so it seems she would resist the specificity of a lesbian identification. She presents herself as: undefined and undefinable. For instance in Aveux Non Avenus, she talks about her love relationship with her life-long time partner Suzanne Malherbe (the text is not transparent in this way, it is only my reading), but she also describes passionate desire towards particular men in her life. I understand this as part of a philosophical and political strategy aimed at presenting contradictions which is not to make a claim one way or another about her personal life. The whole of the book presents contradictions and difficulties. I suppose it draws on Freud’s psychoanalytic ideas of denial: the idea that whenever you profess something, underneath there is the opposite hovering somewhere.

AF: Is this the reason why her work has not been acknowledged for a long time? Because she was ahead her time?

SP: She was angry that her book Aveux Non Avenus didn’t get the attention she felt it deserved. To quote from the Tate translation of the text:

In vain in Disavowals I tried through black humour, provocation, defiance to shake my contemporaries out of their blissful conformism, their complacency. Ostracism was more or less the general response. Aside from silence, the book was met with the basest insults. This is how

litrerary criticism’ sought to welcome the ‘prose-poems’ of this unwanted Cassandra …

(Cahun Claude, Disavowals, trans. Susan De Muth, Tate Publications 2007 p16)

Her work was neglected for a long time. After she died, her partner contacted a major museum in Paris to donate the whole body of Cahun’s works: her writings, photographs, everything. And they turned down the offer. So the whole collection was dispersed to nowhere including the local library in Jersey. Because of her masculine adopted name the French writer and art historian Francois Leperlier who is largely responsible for bringing Cahun to recognition thought at first she was a man. Cahun’s works and life started to be researched in the 1980s, and she came into prominence in the 1990s, a few decades after her death. Her self-portraits remained unknown for a long time, because she didn’t intend to exhibit them publicly. When she participated in an important Surrealist show in London, she didn’t exhibit her self-portrait photographs, but her small sculptures. She said regarding her photographs she wanted to be and considered herself an amateur. What is really inspiring is that Cahun continued to make her images for four decades even though there was not a public outlet. In this respect, I think she is an inspiration for artists: because she stood apart and alone, continuing to make her work independent of external exhibition or recognition.

EA: She didn’t exhibit her photographs, but she did publish her book…

SP: That’s right. She saw herself foremost as a writer. When she published Aveux Non Avenus, she was very disappointed by the fact that it wasn’t acknowledged by the literary establishment. She called herself Cassandra: that is the Greek Goddess who has been given the gift of prophesy but because she doesn’t want to sleep with Apollo, she is punished so although she will retain the gift of phrophesy, no-one will believe her.

EA: Cahun is known for her political resistance to the Nazis, could you say a bit about this?

SP: Right, that’s another important aspect of her life. In 1937, she moved to Jersey with Suzanne Malherbe. Following the Nazi occupation of France and the German occupation of Jersey and the other Channel Islands, they became active as resistance workers and propagandists. The two worked extensively in producing anti-German flyers, pretending to be Nazi soldiers saying to the other soldiers ‘give up this war’, ‘it’s not going anywhere’, ‘abdicate’. The couple then dressed up as Nazi widows and attended many German military events in Jersey, strategically placing the fliers in soldier’s pockets, on their chairs, etc. Also, fliers were inconspicuously placed underneath windscreen wipers whilst Nazi soldiers attended the funeral of their fellow compatriates, posted into newspapers and newsagents. Cahun and Malherbe’s resistance efforts were not only political but artistic actions. The idea of disguise is through all her work or their work. It is a debate the degree to which her partner contributed to what has been authored as Cahun’s photographs and writing. In 1944 they were arrested and sentenced to death, but the sentences were never carried out. They both attempted suicide. Suzanne recovers but Cahun went into a coma. She was put into a Nazi ‘hospital’, which was in fact a dungeon dug out in Jersey by prisoners of war. It was a traumatic experience. Cahun speaks about it in her text Confiding to the Mirror. I will maybe work on it for my next film, but it’s very difficult material. She describes the feeling of being dead, being meat. She never recovered from the trauma, neither psychologically nor physically. After the war, she couldn’t leave because of health problems. Otherwise she would probably have got back to Paris. She died in 1954.

Since her biography is so important it has inspired two important documentary films: Lizzie Thynne’s Playing a Part and Barbara Hammer’s Lover Other. But my project would be something different.

EA: Yet you didn’t want to make a documentary and you weren’t so interested in the ‘historical’ facts of her life. Can I ask you why?

SP: Well documentaries have already been done but anyway I don’t do documentaries. I wanted to explore what could be done as a creative collaborator, a collaborative process. I’m interested in the possibility to transform written text and photographs from the archive and to transform that material into film, a transformation that necessitates a collaboration of some sort. I was interested in what she had to say with her work, in her artistic and intellectual voice. It often bothers me when an artist gets to be remembered more for their biography rather than for what they had to say in their work, their artistic and intellectual voice.

You can vist the artist’s website here.

Link to Magic Mirror screening at ICA.

Read more about the film here.