General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 12 Dec 2018/2 Wind
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Claude Cahun’s photo of her face beside Aztec masks in the British Museum

Surrealism and Claude Cahun

Surrealist artists have long been influenced by Mexican art, and by ancient Mexican art in particular. Henry Moore, our most famous sculptor, created iconic ‘reclining figures’ based heavily on pre-Hispanic chac mool sculptures - he exhibited work at the London International Surrealist Exhibition in 1936. So did the French photographer and sculptor Claude Cahun (real name Lucy Renee Mathilde Schwob). Famous for her self-portraits, her gender politics and the phrase ‘Under this mask, another mask; I will never finish removing all these faces’, she was fascinated by the turquoise mosaic and other ancient Mexican masks that she discovered on display in the British Museum in 1936... (Compiled by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

The notorious ‘Aztec’ crystal skull, below which stands a genuine Aztec turquoise mosaic mask - and the top of Claude Cahun’s face...
The notorious ‘Aztec’ crystal skull, below which stands a genuine Aztec turquoise mosaic mask - and the top of Claude Cahun’s face... (Click on image to enlarge)

Cahun titled the photograph ‘Crystal Heads, British Museum, London, June-July 1936’. Significantly, at that time, the famous crystal skull mask in the BM was thought to be genuinely Aztec, and so was on display alongside the other world-famous Mexican mosaic masks in the BM’s collection. It has since been shown to be fake (follow link below to learn more). Between two of the authentic Mexica masks, ‘a face peers between the plinth and a caption card through the glass at the viewer. Only the upper part of the face and some wispy blonde hair are visible; this is sufficient information to identify the subject as the artist, Claude Cahun...

‘Cahun’s head is readable as the same form and size as the skull...’
‘Cahun’s head is readable as the same form and size as the skull...’ (Click on image to enlarge)

‘... The double-headed serpent sculpture in Cahun’s Crystal Heads photograph embodies the notions of doubling, reflection and narcissism that run through the artist’s photographic oeuvre, echoed in the photograph by the double-sided vitrine and the doubled masks. Although partially concealed and at a further distance from the camera than the crystal skull, Cahun’s head is readable as the same form and size as the skull, and is similarly pale against the darker tones of all the other artefacts. The artist’s use of the plural in the title suggests that she intended the viewer to read her face as a second crystal head. Her self-equation with masks and a clear, mystical and mysterious skull, emphasises the ultimate inability of the masquerade (or donning of masks) to reveal her subjectivity which instead becomes a transcendant identification with death.’
- Elizabeth Manchester, Tate Modern website.

Image © The estate of Claude Cahun
Photo courtesy of and thanks to Tate Images.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Dec 02nd 2018

‘Crystal skulls’

‘Henry Moore’s reclining figures’

‘The properties of conch shell in making turquoise mosaics’

‘Aztec Masks’

Mexican masks gallery

Read the full article by Elizabeth Manchester, Tate Modern website
Claude Cahun (Wikipedia)
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