Claude Cahun famously said “Masculine? Feminine? It depends on the situation. Neuter is the only gender that always suits me.”
Photographer, writer and political activist, Claude Cahun was born in 1894 in Nantes, France into an intellectual Jewish family. Originally Lucy Renee Mathilde Schwob, they later adopted the unisex name Claude Cahun. Their mother was admitted to a psychiatric facility when they were just 4 years old, and they were raised by their grandmother.
Meeting a lifelong companion and artistic collaborator
At 15 years old they met Marcel Moore (previously known as Suzanne Alberte Malherbe) and they became lifelong companions. The romantic and creative collaboration lasted a lifetime. In fact Moore’s widowed mother married Cahun’s divorced father in 1917, so they were step-sisters as well as lovers.
Andre Breton and Man Ray
After attending the French University the Sorbonne, Cahun settled in Paris with Moore. Cahun started making staged self-portraits at just 18 years old, and this continued for many years. The portraits, feature the artist looking directly out at the viewer, wearing costumes and make-up, swapping and mixing genders. The couple held literary and artistic ‘salons’ in their Parisian home, and visitors included Andre Breton and Sylvia Beach. Man Ray was one of their most famous collaborators. Breton called Cahun “one of the most curious spirits of our time.”
Cindy Sherman and Gillian Wearing
Cahun’s work is clearly a very early predecessor of the self-portraits of Cindy Sherman. Before she became a Turner prize-winner, Gillian Wearing discovered Cahun’s photography. The use of masks, personas and fluid identities fascinated Wearing, and in 2017 she staged a show at the National Portrait Gallery using her own work alongside the work of Cahun.
Writer and Journalist
Although photography was clearly a much loved artistic outlet, Claude Cahun was also a writer, a journalist, an essayist, a poet, and a sculptor. They worked in theatre and participated in several surrealist exhibitions in London and Paris. Perhaps their most famous literary work was Disavowels, published in 1930. However, Heroines published earlier in 1925, has the unique setting of female fairy tale characters mixed with modern day women.
Both Cahun and Moore were politically active. As part of the Resistance they wrote and distributed anti-Nazi literature. In 1937, following the fall of France, and the rise of anti-semitism, they moved to the island of Jersey, just off the coast of France. Reverting to their original names, Lucy Schwob and Suzanne Malherbe, they declared themselves sisters, and continued their political efforts from Jersey.
However, Jersey was invaded by Germany in 1940, and the two were in pressing danger. Their distribution of anti-Nazi material was certainly political, and they were both vehemently anti-fascist. But in some ways their protest was also an artistic installation. They would throw crumpled leaflets into passing vehicles, hide them in cigarette boxes, and even slipped them into soldiers’ pockets!
But their efforts were brutally punished when four years later, in 1944, both Moore and Cahun were arrested and sentenced to death. They were imprisoned, their home was seized, and much of their art was destroyed.
Liberation and death
Jersey was liberated by the Allies in 1945, and the two were saved, but Cahun’s health had deteriorated badly in prison, and they died soon after. A devastated Moore moved into a small house in Jersey, living alone until they committed suicide in 1972. The two are buried together in St Brelade’s church on Jersey.
But this is not the end of the story. In the 1990s there was a sudden upsurge of interest in Cahun and Moore. Those amazing and carefully staged self-portraits in which they assumed different personas, achieved cultish status. Artists confounding binary stereotypes of male/female totally caught the zeitgeist of gender politics.
Art critic Alex Pilcher wrote: “Cahun offers our own age a foretaste of queer negotiations with the gender binary.”
In 1994 the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, held an exhibition of Cahun’s self portraits. And in 2007 David Bowie created a multi-media exhibition of Cahun’s work at the Highline Festival in New York. One image in particular, I am in training, don’t kiss me, became one of the most loved and copied images of queer iconography of the 20th century. In 2018, Dior released a fashion collection inspired by Cahun.
Cahun said: “My role was to embody my own revolt and to accept, at the proper moment, my destiny, whatever it may be.”
Cahun embraced gender fluidity decades before the term even came into mainstream use. But neither Cahun nor Moore wanted celebrity in the way we worship it now. Their work was personal and political, undermining the traditional concepts of gender, sexuality and beauty.
They may have been quite unconcerned by the way that they are now adored by art historians, and members of the gay, lesbian, transgender, bisexual, queer and gender questioning communities. Their art was their weapon, not their route to stardom. In that sense they are just as revolutionary now as they were 100 years ago.
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