Magic Mirror, 2013
Over the course of 20-plus years, Sarah Pucill has created a mirroring universe, that probes the notion of identity and "the Other". In this interview, the artist discusses her new project surrounding French surrealist artist Claude Cahun. Part essay, part film poem, Magic Mirror* combines a re-staging of Cahun's black and white photographs with selected extracts from her book Aveux Nos Avenus (Confessions Untold).
Pucill, who has been influenced by Cahun's photographs and writing throughout her career, speaks of the artist's persecution by the Nazis and her relationship to her contemporaries. Compared to Cahun, who had much of her work destroyed on grounds of it being pornography, Pucill sees her own practice to be on a different trajectory in many ways however both play with self-image across surface in a comparative manner. In Magic Mirror, Pucill is determined to craft a film drawing based on Cahun's ideologies and practice, as opposed to a biographical documentary, and as such to create a celebration of the artist's tested career.
Sarah Pucill: Claude Cahun was a French artist who became a member of the Surrealist group, working in the 1920s and 1930s in Paris, and who had close connections with André Breton. It seems she saw herself principally as a writer, although she is better known for her photographs. Her major text was the book currently translated as Disavowels, which she published in 1930 with her life-long partner and collaborator Marcel Moore (aka Susanne Malherbe) who made the images. The book is incredibly wide ranging in its references, which include philosophy, contemporary Symbolist/Surrealist literature, classical mythology, psychoanalysis, Catholicism, Judaism and more. But most importantly, it focuses on a scrutiny of the self as image and word: exploring the idea of self as other and self as split and multiple, through a formal examination of a word-image relationship that entwines one with the other. A key theme within that is a critique of gender and sexuality, narcissus myth and theories of narcissism. In 1937, she moved with Susanne Malherbe to Jersey where they were active in resisting the Nazis during the island's occupation, for which they were both imprisoned, and which later affected Cahun's general well-being. She died in 1954.
LR: Tell me a bit more about her writings and her art.
SP: Many of her photographs are self-portraits and some of her most important images involve a mirror. In her Disavowals text, she examines the role of the mirror in many ways: through her writing on narcissism, her articulation of the experience of looking at one's reflection in a mirror and taking a photograph, as well as the connection between this self-regard and looking at a same-sex lover. For my film project, I want to work around some of the key themes in Disavowals: the relationship between word and image, the performance of looking in a mirror, of dressing up and photographing oneself. I also want to explore the negotiation of the relationship between narcissism and homosexuality, which was in the air at the time, apparent in André Gide's Treatise on Narcissism and The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, with whom she had some association, and who also questioned the negative association of same-sex desire with narcissism. David Lomas, in the catalogue to an Edinburgh show entitled Narcissus Reflected, describes how the ancient Greek myth of the Narcissus story is concerned as much with the relationship between the material world and the world of representation and illusion, such as reflections in water, as it is with love of one's image.
Magic Mirror, 2013
The reflection in water is very close to the experience of the photograph or film, a love of something intangible or beyond reach. Craig Owens talks about how the use of the mirror in Surrealist photography was also about self-reflexivity, and I think it is there for Cahun, I think she is playing with it.
LR: She is well known for her self-portraits, isn't she?
SP: Yes. But at the time her images could have been dismissed as essentially feminine and therefore not interesting, in a way that misses the reflexive element in the work. What interests me in her writing is her challenge of the Narcissus myth on gender grounds. She is looking at Echo and placing herself as the male or ungendered figure: as Narcissus. She also combines the act of reproducing her self-image in both mirror and photograph with a written monologue, so that the space between one and the other cannot be identified as a drawn line between self as image or as voice... Her self-regard in the mirror relates to the split which Lacan articulates in his mirror phase.
LR: Would she have known of Lacan's writings?
SP: I think she would have had access to his writing at least... Lacan was an associate of the Surrealists, though his publication on the mirror phase wasn't until 1936. Her examination of a split subjectivity is psychoanalytically informed; her play with the autobiographic as a confession, and the self-portrait photograph both as a claim to truth and the grammatical divisions of her "self" through I/you and he/she/ she also makes a connection between being the subject and object of her gaze as she looks in the mirror with her same-sex lover.
LR: So, the lover relationship is a process of the mirroring?
SP: Yes, it is, and in one key photograph she gestures to look at herself in the mirror but turns her head to look at the camera. So while her pose suggests she is looking at herself in the mirror, the gaze of the viewer is brought into the picture. Within the split self of her looking and her being seen, the third eye is acknowledged, that is the "other" gaze watching her looking at herself, the camera/viewer.
LR: And of course the camera contains a mirror that reverses the image seen in the viewfinder from that exposed on the negative, so mirroring is integral to the process of making a photograph. There is also a sense of the mirror acting as a kind of portal into other worlds in your films, particularly Stages of Mourning (2004) and Phantom Rhapsody, and maybe this is something that you are discovering through her work?
SP: I think that's right. I think there are quite strong parallels regarding her reflexive use of mirrors and how, in her collage work, she frames fragments of the body, and also in her use of masks. Cahun said, "I will take one mask off, another mask, however many masks I take off there will be more." So there is a tension between a self-image that creates and a self-image that isn't a self-image, in fact, but a mask, a push and pull of asserting an identity and then describing it as only a disguise. There is a key moment in her writing where she describes a camera movement:
The lens tracks the eye, the mouth, the wrinkles skin deep... the expression on the face is fierce, sometimes tragic. And then calm – a knowing calm, worked on, flashy. A professional smile – and voila! The hand-held mirror reappears, and the rouge and eye-shadow. A beat. Full stop. New paragraph.
An association is made between the hand-held mirror and a camera. Both close in on the face as make-up is applied; the camera beat, the click of the shutter, runs into the rhythm of the sentence, the full stop. And so the motion of the camera pan turns into that of a sentence. She plays with the grammar of the image, with the camera and the word.
Magic Mirror, 2013
LR: You mean how the rhythm of the grammar that she uses supposedly mirrors her experience of looking and photographing herself in the mirror?
SP: Well I was thinking of how she makes a parallel between the rhythm of a camera moving and the person being photographed, taking images with the rhythmic movement of the verbal equivalent, the rhythm of a sentence that describes this performance from both sides of the camera. There is space for the viewer to bring their interpretation. I sensed that being behind glass is a kind of entrapment and this abstraction of something visual works very well.
A sheet of glass. Where shall I put the silver? Here or there; in front of or behind the window? In front. I imprison myself. I make myself blind. What does it matter to me, passer-by, if I provide you with a mirror to see yourself in, albeit distorting mirror and signed by my own hand? I'm not a dealer in mirrored wardrobes, or comical swing mirrors. Repellent attractions for the great fairground of human flesh... behind. I shut myself in just as much. I will know nothing of what is outside. At least I will know my face – and maybe that will be enough to please me.
This could relate to Sylvia Plath's analogy of the bell jar, even though Cahun is writing earlier. The sheet of glass in relation to her image; it could be a mirror, the glass in front of a photograph, or the glass of the lens.
LR: Or the glass the nitrate is painted onto in old negatives?
SP: Exactly. We hear the camera click and images are frozen... and the glass mirror or "looking glass" has silver on one side and she asks, which side should it be? In front or behind? Will she be visible through glass? Reflected through the mirror or hidden behind the silver?
LR: So let's talk about your own images. Are these the start of a way into your Cahun project?
SP: They are parallel to the film project, but I think there are shared concerns with Cahun's images, such as the investigation of a gendering of self through mirror images, through performing to a camera, the image of self as other and, within that, lesbian imaging and desire. All her nude photographs were destroyed by the Nazis, many of which, I think, included her partner Susanne Malherbe, which they described as pornography.
LR: The Nazis really persecuted homosexuals through their "degenerate art" programme, didn't they?
SP: She was both Jewish and gay. I think my photographs that a totally different trajectory in many ways, in terms of formal aesthetics, but what is shared with Cahun is the play of self-image across a surface. A relationship is made between female to female [sexual] relationship and a mirror reflection. In some ways this has been an obsession over a long period. And it seems there is a similar recurring focus in a lot of Cahun's images... I don't want my project to be a documentary. I want to pull images out of her writing alongside a vocabulary of my own images. Inevitably it will be my interpretation of her writing so I need to start with that. I am thinking of it as a kind of collaboration with her.
LR: Would you call it an homage in some way? An homage to how she has been an inspiration to you?
SP: I might end up feeling like that but I wouldn't want to start from that position. For me the greatest homage would be to present her writing, but then I will be taking it out of context because it will be ideas that are of particular interest to me. For example, almost, or all, of her writing/critique on religion I won't pick up on because it doesn't feel relevant to me. I will pick up on ideas that resonate for me. I like to think of it as collaboration. Sandra Lahire spoke of how her films drew on Sylvia Plath's writing as collaborations, so I think I'm taking on that way of thinking about it. The things Cahun was trying to say, I want to say with her. Maybe it is dangerous or disrespectful to a major artist to be thinking like that?
LR: I don't think the idea of collaboration is dangerous or problematic. I like what you are saying about sharing ideas. So have you been aware of her work for a long time?
SP: Sharon Morris, who was my tutor at Slade, first mentioned her work to me early on. In fact Sharon had written about the relationship between word and image in her photographs and writing, also in relation to the poet HD [Hilda Doolittle]. I think this was before her photographs had received the attention they eventually got in the UK during the 1990s. There was a show of her photographs around 1991 or 1992 at the ICA in London with Tacita Dean, so that might have been the first time I saw her photographs.
Magic Mirror, 2013
LR: Yes. I remember that show.
SP: So probably her work had more of an influence on my filmmaking than I can know because I've been looking at her work over a long period of time.
LR: So why did you decide to do this now? To use her writing more directly as a form of collaboration?
SP: Disavowals has only been translated into English in the last few years [2007, Tate Publishing]. Maybe I feel I'm ready and confident enough with my own practice, so working with her won't crowd me. I feel I'm in a place where I know I can do something that won't be a documentary and I'll be able to collaborate between her ideas and those I have been working on in my own photographs and films. There were two documentary films made on her a few years ago and that made me start to think, "Oh, could I do something?" And when I discovered Disavowals I thought that would be something I would like to do. Actually, I also got mentioned in Gen Doy's book on Cahun and weirdly I think that sent a message too, that maybe I should address her ideas in my own work, but up until that point I think it was a question of confidence.
LR: I think this also chimes with a point you have come to in your work through Phantom Rhapsody and Blind Light (2007) and other recent films you have made. Perhaps the way Cahun is exploring self-image feels especially relevant for ideas you want to explore right now?
SP: Maybe something that came from my last film Phantom Rhapsody has taken me there. I was working with the mirror more and more. One day while filming on the shoot, Vicky Smith, who was helping me with the camera, ran upstairs and grabbed a book from a shelf, opened it, flicked through lots of Cahun photographs and then said "that's it!" and I thought, wow, it's not that close but there is a distinct connection somewhere. It was an image of Cahun dressed in a black cloak with masks all round her neck. It related to the black drapes that doubled as magician cloaks in Phantom Rhapsody, which had a kind of economy of means. Cahun was involved in avant-garde theatre in Paris. In fact, she was a member of the Plateau Theatre Company, set up and directed by Pierre Albert-Birot. The images of her dressed as the puppet-doll Elle in the production Barbe Bleu (1929) and as Monsieur in La Banlieue (1929), come directly from those theatre performances. The performances were anti-naturalist to the point where performing rejected characterisation altogether, allowing only expressions of mood indicated through make-up or mask so there was minimal dialogue. Image and mime, with an emphasis on mechanical puppet movements, were all important.
LR: I would suggest that in Phantom Rhapsody there is a kind of minimalism in the sense that you were magicking certain kinds of illusions and allusions out of very simple means. With this in mind, can you say more about how disguise has been used in your own work?
SP: I have used wigs and heavy make-up: the idea of an identity being taken up, and dress being transformative.
LR: I'm thinking of how in Swollen Stigma (1997) and even Backcomb (1994), where the wig features without the person inside it, you are really interested in costume, and how it affects the persona that someone does or doesn't take on. In Phantom Rhapsody magical personas are assumed in the act of putting on the wig, the cloaks are revealing and then hiding the figure. I can see it also in your use of the doll in your film Cast (2000). I think this also contains allusions to someone else who is very important to you: Maya Deren. Deren, of course, comes from a very different artistic tradition from Cahun, in some ways. We both know that Maya Deren was vociferous in saying she had nothing to do with Surrealism.
Magic Mirror, 2013
SP: But Cahun and Deren were both working with their self-image in black and white [photographic prints and film respectively]. Both were influenced by Symbolist poets, and had some relation to Surrealism; Cahun embraced it, while Deren, whose time period was a bit later in the 1940s, did not embrace Surrealism but all the same associated with it. I guess I do draw on artists from quite a way back. What interests me in Cahun is that she was articulate in her work on the issue of her sexuality, as a woman and as a feminist, and was quite seriously neglected in her time. I found a text where she is quite scathing about the critics who dismissed her book Disavowals.
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 ‘literary criticism'... sought to welcome the ‘prose-poems' of this unwanted Cassandra.
Her work was ignored until 30-40 years after her death.
SP: I think they were both doing something different to the group they were in and were not understood for that reason. Both, in different ways, were exploring questions of gender and were critical of gender politics, among other things.
LR: And they were wilfully not understood?
SP: Yes, but Maya Deren did get her films seen.
LR: She was her own advocate, because no one else was going to bother. But did Cahun have any advocates? People who supported her?
SP: Cahun's inner circle, Henri Michaux, Robert Desnos, René Crevel and eventually, but not initially, André Breton, spoke very highly of her talents, but she was upset that her major work – as she saw it – Aveux Non Avenus was not appreciated in the way she had hoped. I think their personalities were at opposite ends of the spectrum. Maya Deren could stand up and present her work and tell the world how wonderful and important her work was.
LR: But Claude Cahun didn't?
SP: No, I think she was diffident and unable to promote her work. Cahun questioned the value of her photographs i.e. whether in fact she wanted them to be exhibited as art. My feeling is that if the world had said then as it did later that ‘these photographs are wonderful, we consider them to be art', it would have been what she wanted. Her project Disavowals was precisely to examine the interrelation between word and image, visual artist, writer artists, and she certainly wanted her book to be taken as art.
LR: You say this won't be a documentary, but will there be aspects of it that will explore her life?
SP: I feel that, in our celebrity culture, everyone is interested in an artist's life and not their intellectual voice. I think it is fantastic that Cahun and Moore [her life-long partner] resisted the Nazis in the way they did but Cahun worked hard for her art to be celebrated, and for all of us that's what we'd like to be remembered for. She was well read, she was a visionary, and she had things to say.
LR: Have you just begun the project? Are you in the early stages?
SP: I have had and Arts Council Award, which may be for part one. I am getting ready to start the filming soon.
LR: You went to Jersey?
SP: I did. I felt I had to go to see the house and to see St. Brelade's Bay. I was really moved. It was amazing to see the graveyard where Cahun and Malherbe are buried, from the bay which overlooks the sea. Two lovers in a graveyard, two women and the Star of David in a Christian churchyard – a bit of a thrill really.
LR: In an English tax haven, yes that's quite good! So when can we expect to see the film?
SP: Hopefully by the end of 2012.
Endnotes Cahun, Claude (1930) Disavowals, trans. Susan De Muth, London: Tate Publishing, 2007
*Magic Mirror (2013, 75 mins, 16mm, B/W) is due for release early 2013.
The interview was originally published in Visual Artists Ireland Printed Project, Issue 15: Physical Stuff Made Strange; and has been amended for publication in Vertigo.
Sarah Pucill lives and works in London and is senior lecturer at University of Westminster since 2000. Her films are distributed through LUX, The British Film Institute (BFI), British Council, The Film-Makers' Cooperative, and Canyon Cinema.