French Photographer, Writer, and Political Activist
St Helier, Jersey, Great Britain
Summary of Claude Cahun
Claude Cahun's photographic self-portraits present a dizzying kaleidoscopic mix of mystery, exuberance, and sobriety. Born in France, she lived most of her life on the island of Jersey with her stepsister and long-term love, Marcel Moore. Also known as Lucy Schwob and Suzanne Malherbe, both women adopted their preferred gender-neutral pseudonyms during early adulthood. Moore, although often invisible, was always present - typically taking the photographs and also authoring collages - and in this sense was as much artist collaborator as she was Cahun's personal support. Described in her own words as a "hunt", through a combination of text and imagery, Cahun's exploration of self is relentless and at times unsettling. From circus performer, clothed in layers of artifice, to a stripped-down Buddhist monk grounded by integrity, Cahun is engaged in an ongoing dialogue with multiplicity. Tragically in line with the fragmentary nature of her outlook, much of the artist's work was destroyed following her arrest and subsequent imprisonment for resistance against the Nazis. What remains bares interesting parallel to the title of Cahun's diaristic publication Aveux Non Avenus, translated as Disavowels, which enigmatically suggests that for all that is revealed and given, much is still hidden or has been lost.
- Themes of melancholy, futility, and uncertainty run deep through Cahun's career. She does not make 'complete' artworks but rather all of her photographs and writings combine to become part of a bigger and yet still unfinished whole. She says herself that she does not have the answers to her questions, and as such unusually makes visible the rawness, torment, and distress of not knowing.
- The introductory question of André Breton's novel Nadja (1928), 'Who Am I?' repeats with intense scrutiny, whilst collages made with Moore reveal the same love of symmetry and prismatic vision found in the book's illustrations. In general, Cahun shares an interest in certain motifs such as hair, hands, and animal familiars (for instance, her cat) with other female Surrealists, and similarly uses techniques of doubling and reflection to call into question fixed notions of gender and identity.
- Cahun's work looks forward to that of Francesca Woodman, Cindy Sherman, and Gillian Wearing. Influenced by Cahun's theatrical works, Sherman and Wearing both later explore the assumption of multiple 'masked' personas, recalling together Joan Rivière's classic paper on women who employ "womanliness as masquerade" (1929). Woodman however, followed on from Cahun's later, more organic, outdoor photographs. Entwined by seaweed, enveloped in vegetation, and submerged in water, both artists exquisitely combine eros and thanatos in the grand setting of nature.
- There is an obscurity surrounding Cahun that has made her an isolated figure. In character she was an obsessive loner, and yet she was also inextricable from Moore. From 1937 onwards, moving away from the artistic circles of Paris to the remote island of Jersey, the couple became somewhat awkward, ostracized, and inaccessible. Furthermore, with much of Cahun's work destroyed in 1944, the overall body of her production became relatively small further heightening her mystery. The original works that survive are very small, as though they have been left as clues for a much bigger treasure hunt.
Biography of Claude Cahun
Claude Cahun was born as Lucy Schwob in Nantes, France, to a middle-class Jewish family in 1894. She later became Claude Cahun to appear gender neutral as an artist and as a writer. She had a brother, George, and her uncle, Marcel Schwob, was a well-known writer who was part of the Symbolist movement. Marcel Schwob was famous throughout Paris and became a good friend of Oscar Wilde. Cahun's grandfather, David Leon Cahun, was also an important intellectual figure from the Orientalist movement, and thus already in childhood the artist was immersed in a creative and intellectual environment.
Important Art by Claude Cahun
This photograph is one of the earliest known examples of a self-portrait by Cahun and displays an intense and penetrating outward stare. The artist's head is strikingly and disconcertedly disembodied, suggesting an imbalance, as though the head is disproportionately heavy and the body somehow redundant. Lying in bed with the sheets pulled up to her chin, Sarah Howgate, an art historian specializing in Cahun's work, argues that "she looks like an invalid in a hospital bed", and suggests that this may be a visual reference to the periods of acute depression from which both she and her mother suffered. Indeed, this line of enquiry can be taken further, for it appears that the woman lies dead in a morgue. Unusually though, apparently deathly, Cahun's eyes are wide open and she definitely lives, perhaps though constantly burdened by interior knowledge of the darker and more hidden aspects of life.
The artist's abundant flowing hair has a life of its own and immediately recalls Medusa, the Greek mythical and powerful woman/monster who had a head full of snakes, and whose gaze had the power to turn men to stone. It is clear from this interpretation that Cahun has no intention, as was typical of the time, to please men. Instead she challenges the viewer and asks questions of them, acknowledging the emotion of female rage that societies and individuals continue to struggle to express today. Although in bed, Cahun is not sleepy, convalescing, or sexually available as may be expected/accepted for a woman in 1914. Instead she is likely a combination of depressed, enraged and active artist, all of which were unheard of characteristics for a woman at the time and are still ones struggled with today. In resolute contrast to a painting such as Manet's Olympia (1863), Self Portrait As a Young Girl is quietly revolutionary, re-introducing the complex and staunch presence of an ancient female figurehead, long since silenced by patriarchal hierarchy.
In this striking photograph, the artist has further transitioned from her childhood/teenage identity of Lucy Schwob to the gender-neutral persona of Claude Cahun. Her long hair is gone, and is replaced by a shaved scalp, stripping away traditional associations of allure made between women and their flowing locks. The bald-headed portrait is one of a number made in the same year. This version bears reference to Edvard Munch's existential image of The Scream (1893), whilst another depicts Cahun hand on hip dressed in a man's suit, and a further hairless picture shows the artist cross-legged in profile meditating in a monk-like pose. All three of the images present a vision of gender-neutrality, which - produced whilst immersed within a flourishing Parisian lesbian avant-garde community - well illustrate Cahun's personal journey at the time. Indeed, it is noteworthy that throughout post-war Europe, an overall questioning of gender constructions becomes significant. This was definitely the case for Frida Kahlo, who typically wore a man's suit in family photographs during the 1920s and then later, in 1940, painted Self Portrait with Cropped Hair.
By contrast to the highly expressive face repeatedly painted by Munch, Cahun photographs herself with an air of detachment and general lack of feeling. Thus most likely, the way in which the artist's hands are placed on either side of her vacant face is done not only to recall the intensity of lived experience like The Scream, but also to create the illusion that they hold a mask. Influenced by her involvement in contemporary experimental theater, Dada performativity, and a general interest in African art, Cahun makes references to mask in much of her oeuvre. The mask motif is explored as early as 1905 when Picasso portrays Gertrude Stein, the lesbian poet at the center of early-20th-century Parisian salon culture, imbuing her presence with timeless weight and androgyny. The mask, as such, alludes to the hidden depths of identity that societal conformity regularly denies. Cahun embraces this metaphor and seems to touch upon contemporary theoretical discussions that associate masks with one's daily acceptance/rejection of identity and gender performances.
The photograph, however, is not only a comment on shifting gender politics. As a Jewish person, with a physically stripped-down identity made sexless by hair removal, the image hauntingly looks forward to the heinous crimes of the holocaust. Furthermore, it universally mourns past, present, and future abuse suffered/to be suffered by women who stood/stand out as 'different'. For example, those labeled as 'witches' in the 16th century or women who took German lovers during World War II, as 'punishment' for what in reality was free living, they were all required to remove their offending hair.
Unlike in earlier works, in this image and others made in the latter years of the 1920s, Cahun presents an obviously constructed identity using props, highly stylized clothing, and make-up. The photograph comes from a series of images in which she adopts the paradoxical representation of a feminized strongman and performs various poses as such. Using this persona, Cahun conflates masculine and feminine stereotypes: she holds charmingly painted weights on her lap, psuedo-nipples are sewn onto her flat costume shirt, and even the traditional weight-lifter handlebar mustache has been displaced onto the curls of her cropped hair. With coquettishly pursed lips, the English words across her chest humorously read: "I am in training don't kiss me." With her gaze coy and inviting, it is at the same time contemptuous and mocking, ridiculing the viewer for being attracted to what is blatantly not on offer. The theatrical nature of the strongman series combines contradictory notions of gender to highlight the interesting space of slippage between opposite poles of identity. Indeed, it was not long after this photograph was taken, in 1929, that Cahun published articles in journals stating controversial theories that introduced the possibility of a third sex, uniting masculine and feminine traits but existing as neither one nor the other.
Once rediscovered and subsequently written about by art historian, François Leperlier, from 1994 onwards it was Cahun's experiments with constructed identity that lead her work to be read as setting the prescient of a post-modern performative sentiment. The highly staged photographs look forward to Cindy Sherman's identity-shifting self-portrait photographs (e.g. Untitled Film Series, 1977-80), and Gillian Wearing's more recent 'mask' work. Cahun's images are a product of their artistic and social milieu, but also paradoxically deal with issues of identity that recur through all ages. I am in training, don't kiss me can be viewed in context with Coco Chanel's fashion forward boyish look, Josephine Baker's provocative performances, Romaine Brook's androgynous self-portrait (1923), and the many unruly flappers who bobbed their hair, shortened their skirts and started enjoying a newly found sexual freedom. As feminism was making headway, including suffrage, which was sweeping across the USA and most of Europe, the concept of the "New Woman" emerged with vigor during the Roaring Twenties. As a part of this moment in history but also apart from it, Cahun breaks through gender boundaries and represents herself simply as an active human rather than as a woman or man defined by their sex.
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Claude Cahun
- Claude Cahun: L'écart et la métamorphoseBy François Leperlier
- Gillian Wearing and Claude Cahun: Behind the Mask, Another MaskBy Sarah Howgate
- Exist Otherwise: The Life and Works of Claude CahunBy Jennifer Shaw
- Don't Kiss Me: The Art of Claude Cahun & Marcel MooreBy Claude Cahun, Marcel Moore
- DisavowalsBy Claude Cahun
- Claude Cahun: The Trans Artist Years Ahead of Her TimeBy Aindrea Emelife / BBC Culture / June 29, 2016
- Gillian Wearing and Claude Cahun: Behind the Mask Another MaskBy Mark Hudson / The Telegraph / March 8, 2016
- Claude Cahun: A Very Curious SpiritBy Sam Johnson / Another Mag / April 28, 2015
- How Gillain Wearing and Claude Cahun Share a MaskBy Adrian Searle / The Guardian / January 8, 2016
- The Early 1900s Artist who Rejected Gender ConstructsBy Alice Mosey / Dazed Digital / April 14, 2015
- Me, Myself and I: Exploring Identity Through Self-PortraitsBy Kerry Manders / New York Times / July 21, 2014