Unique vision of neglected artists

Claude Cahun, 1928. Courtesy of the Jersey Heritage Collections
Claude Cahun, 1928. Courtesy of the Jersey Heritage Collections
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An exhibition at Leeds Art Gallery looks at the life and work of two little known 20th century women artists. Yvette Huddleston reports.

ONE OF the most poignant pieces in Leeds Art Gallery’s exhibition Parallel Lives – exploring the work of artists Claude Cahun and Marlow Moss – is not actually an artwork, but a letter.

Written by Moss to fellow abstract artist Ben Nicholson, a member of the St Ives group, in it she asks for advice and to request a meeting. She had recently moved to Cornwall and her friend and mentor, Piet Mondrian no less, had recommended that she get in touch with Nicholson. It is clear from two further letters, set alongside the first, that her attempts to engage with him were unsuccessful.

“Nicholson wasn’t very responsive,” says Dr Lucy Howarth, co-curator of the Marlow Moss display. “But it is important to recognise that Moss was at the heart of the avant-garde in Paris before the Second World War and worked alongside various artists who were all part of the Constructivist movement, including Mondrian. She ended up falling between two stools really – so she doesn’t easily fit into British art history or European art history.”

It wasn’t for lack of trying. “She made every effort to form connections,” says Howarth who wrote her PhD thesis on Moss. “It didn’t really happen, but that was more through misfortune and mistiming.”

In the exhibition there are examples of Moss’s clearly Mondrian-influenced abstract block colour paintings as well as some of her sculptures, one of which is part of the Leeds Art Gallery collection.

“We are one of the few public art galleries that have a Marlow Moss sculpture,” says Nigel Walsh, curator of contemporary art at the gallery. “She had real difficulty getting people interested in her work and that fits in well with our programme because one of the aspects of it is to look at neglected 20th century British art.”

In an adjacent room to the Moss display are the striking photographic self-portraits of French artist Claude Cahun. The images, which feature elaborate costumes and dramatic settings with Cahun centre stage in each, feel very fresh and contemporary.

“She has been compared with Cindy Sherman and that type of work, so she was very much ahead of her time,” says Louise Downie of Jersey Heritage Trust who curated the Claude Cahun element of the show, “but it is important to remember that she wasn’t creating these artworks for an exhibition, they were more about her own personal exploration. She was associated with the Surrealist movement and artists but they were notoriously anti-women. Women were allowed specific roles but not as creators. Andre Breton, the leader of the Surrealist movement didn’t like Cahun very much because she wasn’t doing what he thought women should be doing. She wasn’t accepted by the group she should have been accepted by. I think she was quite bitter about it and that may have been one of the reasons she ended up moving to Jersey.” Cahun considered herself to be more of a writer than a photographer. “She wrote an autobiography which is very profound and sometimes quite difficult to fathom,” says Downie. “She examines herself and her own motivations but it is often very funny too and some of that humour comes through in the photographs.”

Downie feels that despite the fact that the images were never intended to be displayed, Cahun would have approved. “She resented not getting any recognition in her lifetime,” she says. “I think she would have really appreciated the public attention.

Parallel Lives, Leeds Art Gallery, to September 7.