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Artists Claude Cahun
Claude Cahun Photo

Claude Cahun

French Photographer, Writer, and Political Activist

Movements and Styles: Modern Photography, Dada, Surrealism, Proto-Feminist Artists

Born: October 25, 1894 - Nantes, France

Died: December 8, 1954 - St Helier, Jersey, Great Britain

Claude Cahun Timeline

Quotes

"Realities disguised as symbols are, for me, new realities that are immeasurably preferable. I make an effort to take them at their word. To grasp, to carry out the diktat of images to the letter."
Claude Cahun
"If there is horror, it is for those who speak indifferently of the next war. If there is hate, it is for hateful qualities, not nations. If there is love, it is because this alone kept me alive."
Claude Cahun
"If I vibrate with vibrations other than yours, must you conclude that my flesh is insensitive?"
Claude Cahun
"Individualism? Narcissism? Of course. It is my strongest tendency, the only intentional constancy [fidelity] I am capable of.... Besides, I am lying; I scatter myself too much for that."
Claude Cahun
"Shuffle the cards. Masculine? Feminine? It depends on the situation. Neuter is the only gender that always suits me."
Claude Cahun
"Until I see everything clearly I want to hunt myself down, struggle with myself."
Claude Cahun
"Permit me to warn reckless young women: seeing the trap doesn't prevent you from getting caught in it and that doubles the pleasure."
Claude Cahun
"It is only after many attempts . . . that we can firm up the moulds of our masks."
Claude Cahun
"I is another - and always multiple."
Claude Cahun
"The lens tracks the eyes, the mouth, the wrinkles skin deep... the expression on the face is fierce, sometimes tragic. And then calm - a knowing calm, worked on, flashy. A professional smile - and voilà!
The hand-held mirror reappears, and the rouge and the eye shadow. A beat. Full stop. New paragraph."
Claude Cahun

"Under this mask, another mask. I will never be finished removing all these faces."

Synopsis

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.

Key Ideas

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.

Most Important Art

Claude Cahun Famous Art

Self Portrait as a Young Girl (1914)

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.
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Claude Cahun Artworks in Focus:

Biography

Childhood

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.

A self-portrait of Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore (c.1920)
A self-portrait of Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore (c.1920)

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.

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Claude Cahun Biography Continues

Mature Period

Front cover of Cahun's <i>Aveux Non Avenus</i>, published in 1930
Front cover of Cahun's Aveux Non Avenus, published in 1930

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".

Claude Cahun's UK Registration card from her arrival in Jersey, showing her birth name, Lucie Schwob
Claude Cahun's UK Registration card from her arrival in Jersey, showing her birth name, Lucie Schwob

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.

Late Period

Claude Cahun as an older woman, standing at the door of her home during the liberation of Jersey, defiantly holding a Nazi badge between her teeth
Claude Cahun as an older woman, standing at the door of her home during the liberation of Jersey, defiantly holding a Nazi badge between her teeth

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.


Legacy

Claude Cahun's grave on Jersey, where she is buried under her birth name alongside her lifelong partner Suzanne Malherbe/Marcel Moore
Claude Cahun's grave on Jersey, where she is buried under her birth name alongside her lifelong partner Suzanne Malherbe/Marcel Moore

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."

Influences and Connections

Influences on artist

Artists, Friends, Movements

Influenced by artist

Artists, Friends, Movements

Claude Cahun
Interactive chart with Claude Cahun's main influences, and the people and ideas that the artist influenced in turn.
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View Influences Chart

Artists

André BretonAndré Breton
Marcel DuchampMarcel Duchamp
Hannah HöchHannah Höch
Max ErnstMax Ernst
Hans ArpHans Arp

Friends

Marcel Moore
Henri Michaux

Movements

DadaDada
SurrealismSurrealism
Claude Cahun
Claude Cahun
Years Worked: 1920 - 1954

Artists

Gillian Wearing
Cindy ShermanCindy Sherman
Nan GoldinNan Goldin
Tacita Dean
Francesca WoodmanFrancesca Woodman

Friends

Marcel Moore

Movements

SurrealismSurrealism
Feminist ArtFeminist Art

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Cite this page

Content compiled and written by Anna Souter

Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Dr Rebecca Baillie

" Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Anna Souter
Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Dr Rebecca Baillie
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Useful Resources on Claude Cahun

Books

Articles

Videos

The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing of this page. These also suggest some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.
Claude Cahun: L'écart et la métamorphose

By François Leperlier

biography

Gillian Wearing and Claude Cahun: Behind the Mask, Another Mask

By Sarah Howgate

Exist Otherwise: The Life and Works of Claude Cahun

By Jennifer Shaw

More Interesting Books about Claude Cahun
Claude Cahun: The Trans Artist Years Ahead of Her Time

By Aindrea Emelife
BBC Culture
June 29, 2016

Gillian Wearing and Claude Cahun: Behind the Mask Another Mask

By Mark Hudson
The Telegraph
March 8, 2016

Claude Cahun: A Very Curious Spirit

By Sam Johnson
Another Mag
April 28, 2015

How Gillain Wearing and Claude Cahun Share a Mask

By Adrian Searle
The Guardian
January 8, 2016

More Interesting Articles about Claude Cahun
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