Claude Cahun: Surviving Incarceration

The fragmented writings of Claude Cahun, writer and artist, from her time in prison awaiting execution during the Nazi occupation of Jersey, provide a chilling insight into the starvation, the freezing cells, the cuts to the body from the sharp straw stuffing of the mattress and the emotional turmoil resulting from fellow prisoners regularly disappearing to be executed.  Many of the episodes she recalls have elements of dark humour, particularly those which allude to the ridiculous logic of the authoritarian power where rules must be followed and reflection or an alternative point of view is forbidden.  When sentenced to six months for possessing a camera, and death by execution for treason, she responded by asking “which sentence must be served first (execution or six months)?”  The irony went unnoticed by the German lawyers, who responded with a factual, legal response.  As if drawing attention to the two cultures at play, through characterisation and narrative she achieves a neat juxtaposition between the ironic farcical attitude of the condemned prisoner and the ideologically driven process of the Nazis, oblivious to her mockery.

Deprived of her camera, her writing in prison assumes a cinematic quality, as if the prison environment is the set and she is directing the camera and the  cast.  A Russian work camp deserter is caught and brought to the prison. He looks like Gary Cooper in “Mr Deeds” , like an “American Aviator”, the “costume in rags”.[1] She fancies him (or is perhaps thinking of herself in a 1927 self-portrait, Beaux Arts, Nantes, cross-dressed as an aviator with camera lens goggles and wearing lipstick).

cahun aviator 1927 235 180 Beaux Arts Nantes

While other work camp deserters are long term imprisoned, “Gary Cooper”  is executed immediately. Cahun seems to ridiculously imply that he is executed because of his film star good looks and as a punishment for her desire for him.

She recounts her horror at the screams of a prisoner who has deliberately eaten rusty nails in a desperate attempt to delay his trial.  The Nazi authorities show no mercy and despite his agony, his trial proceeds and he is executed.  Cahun records her incomprehension at such optimistic yet astonishing self-mutilation.


She and her incarcerated partner, Suzanne Malherbe, (also known as Marcel Moore), would meet by the prison well in front of a horizontal wall at the end of a corridor.  They would continue their creative collaborative practice  by conjuring up  the set of a “Utrillo Ballet” (designed for the Ballet Russe). They imagine that the ballet is taking place not in a Nazi detention camp, but in “paradise, the Champs Elysee Theatre in Paris”[2]. The prisoners, with skin and rags… dusting the iron bars in the yard, watched carefully by the motionless, quiet, ornamental guard, Otto, crammed into his shorts, with his face like a “small apple”, ruminating the “work for works sake” of authoritarianism.


Utrillo, M. 1925, Design from the Ballet, “Barabau”

Cahun writes, “No date, it was a premiere! I was humming away at the good adventure looking for the musician. But the decorator’s name, no doubt it. [Utrillo]  Suzanne and I pronounced it without consulting the programme”[3]

While the imagination and circumstances failed to provide this entertainment every day, Cahun fixated on the prison wall. “The programme was not distributed every day but every day we had the wall,…[ the] incontestable low relief sculpture, the sad daylight…lent solidarity to my dreams.  That is the magical for us, these familiar horizons” which provided confidence and optimism that in the future the horizon would be “a blade of grass or into cat’s eyes. “[4]


Utrillo, M. 1911, Le café de la Tourelle à Montmartre

Gloucester Street prison, St Helier 111-f129a046ca

Sanders, P., @ 1944, Gloucester Road Prison, Jersey, Unknown photographer

Cahun’s extraordinary sense of plane and perspective, which in her photographs is used to create instability and intrigue, condenses the prison corridors and prison walls into a stage on which the prisoners and guards dance. The prison’s empty architecture and the palette of dust, rags and stone evoke the street paintings of Utrillo and the Boiffard photographs of desolate scenes in Nadja, by the founder of Surrealism, Andre Breton.

Boiffard Paris Nadja We are going to be servied outside the wine shop

Boiffard, J.A., 1928, Nadja, We went to be served outside the wine shop

While any artist deprived of materials and tools and incarcerated in austere circumstances might indulge in imaginative play and black humour in an effort to survive in an environment they cannot control, Cahun’s particular distortions of the visual plane and perspective alongside her insistence on conjuring up theatrical stages from the landscape, buildings or backdrops, is a consistent practice which interrogates the blurring of reality with artifice and contributes to the indeterminacy of her work.


[1] Cahun, C, 1944, Prison writings on toilet paper, Jersey Heritage Trust,  JHT/1995/00045/2/4, n.p.

[2] Cahun, C.,1944, opcit, n.p.

[3] ibid, n.p.

[4] ibid, n.p.

Is suicide a voluntary act?

IMG_2818I recently presented this work to a group of artists and asked for responses. Broadly speaking, half responded that mental illness was the cause of suicide; that an individual driven by mental torment is unable to control their suicidal actions; and therefore suicide is not a voluntary act. Other participants were angered that such an insensitive question should be asked about a taboo subject. One person declared the work to be “shit” and that they would walk out of a gallery that displayed such a work.  Nobody seemed to think that suicide might result from societal malaise.

The question was first put to me in an essay title, Is suicide a voluntary act?,  set in 1977 when I was studying Cultural Studies at Portsmouth Polytechnic in the days before Thatcherism obliterated such hotbeds of left wing radicalism from university education. I remember an acceptable answer needed to include references to the sociologist, Emile Durkheim, who proposed that the decline of religion and community due to industrialisation resulted in alienation of the individual and increased the rate of suicides. Is this still relevant today?

The late contemporary art theorist, Mark Fisher, committed suicide in 2016 after a long battle with depression exacerbated by institutional, work-related stress. “We cower in our offices, experiencing our inability to cope with the impossible workload, as our personal failure and shame, telling each other that there is no time to talk.” (2015, Goldsmiths’ People’s Tribune)  As educationalists fixate on data and measurement, jumping through hoops to meet regulatory standards, education takes a back seat. He argued that mental stress is not a private issue but a direct consequence of the social dysfunction of capitalism which not only causes the illness, but then charges you for the means to keep well, by going to the gym, eating better, or paying for therapy. Is this capitalism’s inadequate, half-hearted attempt to make amends or a more cynical and simplistic exercise in maintaining the flow of labour?

The description by the media of an  “epidemic” of suicides in U.K. prisons; the daily disruption of trains by “a person on the line”; the rapid increase of suicides, particularly in young males; implies some more underlying root cause other than mental illness. A strategy of merely treating the symptoms of stress is high risk and irrational. If individuals with no previous history of mental illness are committing suicide, it makes better sense to identify the causes of distress and remove them. For those that feel helpless and hopeless but do not have access to therapy or the means to get well, then suicide will continue to present a compelling option.

Printed Fan

I have entered this in the Recycle, Re-purpose and Re-invent challenge, please see links below.

Here is my fan.  I made it from a collagraph print on Japanese paper.  I made the printing plate from recycled card and plastic netting bags that citrus fruit is sold in.  I bought the pear wood fan spokes from a Spanish website.

To make the printing plate, I cut and stuck pieces of the bags to a piece of card along with some card and paper to create a flowing, lacy texture.

Then I inked up the plate and took a print by pressing the paper onto the plate using the back of a spoon.  I used oil-based, sienna brown and black printing inks on Japanese paper which is very thin and easily takes up the ink, looks good torn rather than cut and is also very strong like a fabric.

Then I set out the fan spokes to the exact position.  To do this, I counted the spokes, calculated the degrees between each spoke and used a protractor to draw a template.  I blu-tacked each spoke to the template to keep them steady but keep one fan end free (so that the fan closes correctly).  I then marked up and tore the print to fit the fan spokes.

Next, I applied gold leaf very sparsely to  a few small areas of the print.  Then I applied glue to the spokes (except one fan end) and pressed the paper firmly and gently to the spokes.

Then I turned it over and glued the remaining fan end to the right side of the print.  When dry, I carefully folded it up ensuring the folds of each spoke were aligned with the fan end and then creased each fold firmly.  I rather like the torn edges but they could be cut to fit.

Flora and Fauna Assemblage: Recycled Plastic

Flora and Fauna Assemblage
The challenge was to recycle plastic packaging.  The trouble with projects like this is that the result can end up looking like badly adapted household junk. So for me, the challenge was to create an illusion of elegance and grace (at least from a distance).

I have entered this in the Re-cycle, re-purpose and re-invent challenge. Please see link below.

The Boat Project

A friend saw my junk modelling boat and suggested we go to visit this real boat made from old donated wooden items about to be launched on the sea!  I had to go and this is what I saw!  It has made me wonder if I could make Odysseus sea-worthy?

The Boat Project is a living archive of people’s stories and lives, a 30ft vessel made from donated wooden items. From February to July 2011 the public donated their wood to the project but not just any old wood. Pencil or piano – exotic as Zebrawood or as familiar as pine every piece had a story behind it. Donations arrived in their thousands, from the highly personal to pieces of national importance. All of these donations are now being used to build a state-of-the-art seafaring yacht.

Visit the website for more information on this stunning project:

Junk Modelling Boat

Here is my junk modelling project.  It started when I bought something at an auction and with it came an old rickety chair which was not safe to sit on.

So I decided to re-purpose it into a sculpture of “Odysseus Resisting the Sirens”.

First I collected African carvings I had bought at a charity store, some old rope collected from the sea shore, old copper wire, old pewter repousse sheeting.

Then I cut the chair up, keeping the springs.  I used various parts of the chair to make Odysseus’s boat – the leg became the prow of the boat, that chair back became the past and beam for the sail, you can see the springs also form part of the mast and sail.  I screwed and glued it all together and then used a blow torch to blacken the wood taking care not to set it on fire!  the figure head on the prow is a small carved face from a charity store attached to a curved chair leg.  The boat sits at an angle – to look as if it is turning.  This was achieved by stick a wedge of wood under one side of the boat.

Odysseus is a carved figures from the charity store and is “tied to the mast to resist being tempted by the sirens” with copper wire of varying thicknesses which also forms the rigging.  He is burnished in gold acrylic paint.

The sirens are carved heads from the charity store burnished in gold acrylic paint attached to bodies made from a small piece of chair leg.  Their bird wings, tails and feet are made from pewter which I impressed with feather patterns.  This was then aged using a patina fluid.  Once all the pieces were stuck together, I then wound copper wire in spirals around each siren to repeat the pattern of the chair springs on the mast.

One siren is attached to the back of the boat – as if landing on it – the other is attached to a piece of drift wood (which is then attached to the boat) and supposed to look like the rocks.

The boat is then placed on an old leather book which in turn is on an old carved pedestal – both charity store finds.

I did plan to have a torn page with the story of Odysseus or a book mark hanging out of the side of the book.  I think this might be too distracting.