Claude Cahun - Biography and Legacy
French Photographer, Writer, and Political Activist
St Helier, Jersey, Great Britain
The hand-held mirror reappears, and the rouge and the eye shadow. A beat. Full stop. New paragraph.
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.
Cahun's mother suffered from acute mental illness, to such a degree that she was institutionalized and Cahun was brought up mainly by her blind grandmother. Due in part to her mother's illness, and also to an anti-semitic incident at her school in France, Cahun was sent to boarding school in Surrey, England for a short period. As a teenager, Cahun suffered from anorexia, suicidal thoughts, and the same bouts of debilitating depression as her mother. Luckily, it was also at this time that she met her love and future lifelong partner Suzanne Malherbe. Cahun later described this meeting as a "thunderbolt encounter", and their relationship became one of the key formational factors in her life and art. Cahun's father later married Malherbe's mother, making Malherbe her stepsister. Despite this, Cahun and Malherbe became lovers and moved to Paris in around 1919, when Dada was at its height and where they adopted the gender-neutral names: Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore.
Early Training and Work
The couple's attempt at gender-neutrality was of course highly controversial, but Cahun and Moore began to associate themselves with the small group of members of the Parisian avant-garde who were also experimenting with gender at this time. Around 1920, Marcel Duchamp introduced the artistic persona of Rrose Selavy, his female alter-ego. For Cahun and Moore though, their adoption of new names was not about changing gender, but about escaping such oppositional constructed ties altogether.
In Paris, Cahun studied literature and philosophy at the Sorbonne. From around 1922, Cahun and Moore began hosting salons and events in their home, inviting avant-garde writers and artists. Although she had been interested in photography and self-portraiture since she was around age 12, it was not until the 1920s that Cahun began to experiment seriously with the medium, creating some of her most famous images. During this time she was on the fringes of the Surrealist movement, although she wasn't closely tied to the group. Cahun and Moore also became familiar with Pierre Albert-Birot, the director of the experimental theatre, Le Plateau, where Cahun acted and Moore used her skills as a graphic artist to design stage sets and costumes. As well as her photography, Cahun also focused on her writing in the 1920s. She published her novel Heroines in 1925, and in 1930 her important collection of writings and photo-collages Aveux Non Avenus was published as a limited edition of 500 copies.
Alongside Moore, Cahun became more interested in politics throughout the 1930s, and together they protested against the rise of fascism in Europe. In 1932, Cahun joined the 'Association des Ecrivains et Artistes Revolutionnaires', where she met Andre Breton, one of the founders of the Surrealist movement. On their first meeting, Cahun presented Breton with a copy of her book, Aveux Non Avenus, and the experimental text impressed him. They became friends and Breton once called Cahun "one of the most curious spirits of our time." Her literary work, made in collaboration with Moore, also impressed other key members of the Surrealist group, including René Crevel, Robert Desnos, and the poet and painter Henri Michaux, with whom Cahun made visits to a psychiatric hospital. These meetings instigated a closer association with the Surrealist group, and Cahun began to exhibit her work with them, including in the important Surrealist exhibitions held in London and Paris in 1936.
In political terms, 1935 saw a major split between the Surrealists and the French Communist Party, and Cahun and Moore remained on the side of Breton and Georges Bataille as they attempted to use art to stem the tide of war. In particular, Breton encouraged Cahun to pen a rebuttal against Louis Aragon, who had turned to Communism at the expense of Surrealism. Cahun's text, called "The Bets are Open", critiques Aragon's ideas and promotes a type of art that uses poetry rather than propaganda to spread its message through "indirect action".
In 1937, Cahun and Moore moved to a house called La Rocquaise on Jersey, a British island between England and France. Although Cahun and Moore continued to create art (both photographic and literary), they had very little contact with the wider world from this point on, which effectively ended Cahun's participation in the Surrealist movement. At this time, Cahun and Moore started to use their original names again and they became known as "les mesdames" to the other local inhabitants of Jersey and gained a reputation for strange behaviors, such as taking their cat for a walk on a lead and wearing trousers.
The pair observed the spread of Nazism through Europe, and in 1940 the Germans invaded Jersey - the closest they ever got to mainland British soil. Cahun and Moore decided not to flee, but instead to stay and take part in the resistance, producing anti-Nazi propaganda. As two older women they were not initially suspected of subversive interventions. This gave them ample opportunities to attend events where they would slip their homemade leaflets into the pockets of the German soldiers intending to demoralize the troops and encourage them to desert. Cahun saw their activities as an extension of the "indirect action" she had advocated as part of the Surrealist group, describing their resistance as "a militant surrealist activity". Some art historians, such as Lizzie Thynne, have argued that Cahun and Moore's acts of resistance should be seen as an extension of their radical artistic practice.
In July 1944, however, the couple were arrested, charged with listening to the BBC and inciting the troops to rebellion, and sentenced to death. They were kept in separate cells for almost a year, being freed only with the liberation of the island in May 1945. Upon returning home they discovered that much of their art had been destroyed by the Nazis.
In 1951, Cahun was awarded the Medal of French Gratitude for her role as part of the resistance. In 1953, she briefly visited Paris again where she met Andre Breton once more. She died in 1954 after struggling with poor health for some time, probably compounded by her time in prison.
The Legacy of Claude Cahun
Cahun's artistic work, her diverse personae, and her unusual personal life have made her a figure of inspiration and interest for many later artists. Her gender-shifting self-presentation and her relationship with a woman make her important to homosexual activists and Feminist art-lovers alike. Furthermore, her use of photography in self-portraiture sees the beginnings of an important emerging tradition among women artists. Her approach taps into the tandem desire of an artist who wishes to explore the combined issues of gender, sexuality, and power. For example, Gillian Wearing has recently made a number of works in direct response to Cahun's oeuvre, including Me as Cahun Holding a Mask of My Face (2012). In this photographic self-portrait, Wearing recreates Cahun's iconic self-portrait from the I Am In Training Don't Kiss Me series (c.1927). Wearing photographs herself donning a mask of Cahun's face, whilst holding another mask which is a perfect replica of her own features.
Cahun's work has also been influential for celebrity figures breaking down gender binaries such as David Bowie. In 2007, Bowie produced an exhibition of Cahun's work in New York. He said of her, "You could call her transgressive or you could call her a cross dressing Man Ray with surrealist tendencies. I find this work really quite mad, in the nicest way. Outside of France and now the UK she has not had the kind of recognition that, as a founding follower, friend and worker of the original Surrealist movement, she surely deserves."