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, Cahun lived mostly on the island of Jersey with long-term love, Marcel Moore. Also known as Lucy Schwob and Suzanne Malherbe, they both 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 Cahun's personal support. Described in Cahun's 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 Cahun's outlook, much of the artist's work was destroyed following an 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. Cahun does not make 'complete' artworks but rather all of the photographs and writings combine to become part of a bigger and yet still unfinished whole. Cahun admits not having the answers, 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 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 the artist an isolated figure. In character Cahun was an obsessive loner, and yet 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 known oeuvre became relatively, small further heightening the mystery. The original works that survive are very small, as though they have been left as clues for a much bigger treasure hunt.
Progression of Art
Self Portrait as a Young Girl
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 the 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 Cahun and Cahun's 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 definitely alive, 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 the artist 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 the image is likely of 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.
Self Portrait, Head Between Hands
In this striking photograph, the artist has further transitioned from the childhood/teenage identity of Lucy Schwob to the gender-neutral persona of Claude Cahun. The 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 here has 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 a vacant face is done not only to recall the intensity of lived experience like The Scream, but also to create the illusion that Cahun holds a mask. Influenced by involvement in contemporary experimental theater, Dada performativity, and a general interest in African art, Cahun makes references to masks in many artworks. 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.
Photograph from the series "I am in training don't kiss me"
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 Cahun adopts the paradoxical representation of a feminized strongman and performs various poses as such. Using this persona, Cahun conflates masculine and feminine stereotypes: Cahum holds charmingly painted weights, psuedo-nipples are sewn onto the flat costume shirt, and even the traditional weight-lifter handlebar mustache has been displaced onto the curls of cropped hair. With coquettishly pursed lips, the English words across Cahun's chest humorously read: "I am in training don't kiss me." With a 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 set the prescient for 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 oneself simply as an active human rather than as a woman or man defined by their sex.
Plate no.1 from Aveux non Avenus
This is the first illustration found in Cahun's autobiographical text Aveux non Avenus (translated as "Disavowals"). It shows several different pairs of hands holding an eye, a globe, and a magnifying glass or hand mirror. There is also a pair of isolated lips where one pair of hands are severed and a double-headed bird at the pinnacle. There is a possible breast, a shell, and an abundance of folded fabric all pasted on top of a dark, star-filled sky. The overall effect is evocative, celestial, and dream-like. It demonstrates the phase when Cahun was most engaged with the ideas behind Surrealism and was open to outside influences. Indeed, the image is made using a popular Surrealist technique known as photomontage. The technique was pioneered by Hannah Hoch, Max Ernst, and Hans Arp, and it is possible that Cahun may have encountered this work whilst living in Paris. Ernst and Arp used lots of birds in their early collages whilst Hoch often used eyes, and like Cahun (in other photomontages), would transform a multitude of eyes into the petals of a flower. This work is actually signed "Moore", illustrating that although much of the re-appropriated photographs have been made by Cahun, that it may have been Marcel Moore who put them together to create a coherent composite work. The collage/photomontage was photographed upon completion to make it reproducible in Disavowels.
A short text accompanies the plate, which starts with a description of taking a photograph:
"The invisible adventure.
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."
In summary, this is a seminal work for Cahun for it not only connects writings to visual works, but also unites a clutch of recent photographs. The artist's 1928 portrait, What Do You Want From Me? is the image that we see through the hand-held mirror, whilst the hands encircling the globe are cut directly from the untitled self-portrait of 1927, in which Cahun has a bat-like hairline and holds a reflective silver ball. The eye at the centre of this photomontage recalls illustrations from André Breton's novel, Nadja (1928), and also Dali's film, Un chien andalou (1929). The repetition of the eye for many Surrealist artists points towards a shared interest in the unconscious and is also suggestive that through deep reflection that it is possible to 'see' more clearly. Following on from this initial plate, Disavowels continues to unite photographs, prose-poems, poem-essays, and photo-collages. Both the book format and the photomontage technique have the ability to successfully bring together what are otherwise quite disparate elements of scattered mind and a fragmented career.
Untitled (Self-Portrait with Mirror)
Here, Cahun is bold, androgynous, and doubled by a mirrored-reflection. The image is lush with textures and tones: the checkerboard jacket, highlighted hair, and smooth sun-kissed skin all make the image vivid with the abundance of life. Traditionally, the inclusion of a mirror in art was used as a convenient way to expose two enticing views of a female subject or, alternatively, as a way to emphasize a woman's vanity. In this case however, the 'real' Cahun looks away from the mirror and engages with and meets the viewer's gaze. Cahun rejects being typecast as a passive woman who is visually consumed by self-admiration. There is no sin of vanity at work here, and instead qualities of thoughtfulness, exploration, and self-assurance confront the viewer. Art historian Shelley Rice argues that "'refusing to be imprisoned in her[/their] own glass, Cahun decided to live the imaginary life within the jealously guarded walls of her[/their] own introverted mental theatre." As such, the 'false' Cahun, the one in the mirror, by virtue of the reflection, seems to look away and out of the frame, perhaps feeling a greater freedom in the world of imagination than in everyday society.
By nature of the angle of the reflection, Cahun in the mirror looks different to the one we see in the foreground. The closer image has the collar raised to hide the neck, whilst the reflected Cahun knowingly reveals a beautiful and erotic neck. Cahun presents two different opposing personalities - one more confident and carefree and the other coy and somehow caged - and suggests that themes of both femininity and selfhood must be considered through a multi-faceted lens. The illusion of the mirror, and of photography itself, suggests an exploration of the 'real' versus the artificial. There is a parallel to this photograph; an exact replica in composition but the woman visible is Moore rather than Cahun. Indeed it is not only a division within oneself that Cahun explores, but also our reflections when compared to those of 'others'. Noting that we also know of Moore in this pose is to further emphasise the importance of Moore's role in Cahun's career, a sure artistic collaborator rather than straightforward love interest.
Self-Portrait with Masked Face and Graveyard
Interested in the constant oscillation between life instinct and the death drive, Cahun explores a cemetery in this relatively late work. Sadly, it is in fact the church yard where the artist would be buried seven years later, when Cahun died at age 60. Prior to this image being made, Cahun had spent a horrific year in a Nazi prison, only to be freed in 1945 with health irrevocably damaged by the experience. While imprisoned, thoughts of mortality likely plagued Cahun, especially as health deteriorated and loneliness increased. Cahun's face is hidden behind a soft, blank mask - features only vaguely suggested through the fabric-like covering. Hands are raised; holding the mask on either side, echoing the earlier pose of Self Portrait, Head Between Hands (1920), making Cahun's work, life, and worldview, all cyclical.
Indeed, the place of the individual in the grand scheme of nature becomes Cahun's main focus in the artist's last decade. In this photograph, the artist's legs are obscured by thick foliage conveying the idea that Cahun has sprouted from the leaves. In other works Cahun is even more enveloped by plants, or can be found submerged in water wrapped in umbilical-looking seaweed. A wonderful parallel between Cahun's later works and that of the career of Francesca Woodman grows before our eyes. Suddenly, we observe that both artists use the setting of the graveyard, both present themselves as angels, as becoming nature, and even as parts of furniture and walls. Enigmas for Feminist art historians, who would like to neatly propose that Cahun and Woodman fight with the constructs of gendered identity, such an argument does not work well for the artists' outdoor works. For here, Cahun and Woodman display a typical, stereotypical, and feminine 'knowing' due to their intuitive connection with the earth. Ever subversive however, as active artists they reveal that such insight does not come without trauma as well as peace. For in becoming so involved with nature, Cahun and Woodman enter into an ongoing dialogue with death as well as with life.
Biography of Claude Cahun
Claude Cahun was born as Lucy Schwob in Nantes, France, to a middle-class Jewish family in 1894. Lucy Schwob later became Claude Cahun to be gender neutral as an artist and as a writer. Lucy had a brother George, and uncle Marcel Schwob, who 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 their blind grandmother. Due in part to a mother's illness, and also to an anti-semitic incident at 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 their mother. Luckily, it was also at this time that Cahun met 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 Cahun's life and art. Cahun's father later married Malherbe's mother, making Malherbe Cahun's 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 Cahun had been interested in photography and self-portraiture from around the age 12, it was not until the 1920s that Cahun began to experiment seriously with the medium, creating some of charismatic and famous images. During this time Cahun was on the fringes of the Surrealist movement, although not 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 designed stage sets and costumes. As well as photography, Cahun also focused on writing in the 1920s. Cahun published the novel Heroines in 1925, and an important collection of writings and photo-collages Aveux Non Avenus (1930) - in 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 Cahun met Andre Breton, one of the founders of the Surrealist movement. On their first meeting, Cahun presented Breton with a copy 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." Cahun's 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 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" Cahun 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 being part of the resistance. Cahun died in 1954 after struggling with poor health for some time, probably compounded by the time spent in prison.
The Legacy of Claude Cahun
Cahun's artistic work, diverse personae, and unusual personal life have made Cahun a figure of inspiration and interest for many later artists. The gender-shifting self-presentation, and non-heterosexual relationship make Cahun important to homosexual activists and Feminism-lovers alike. Furthermore, Cahun's use of photography in self-portraiture sees the beginnings of an important emerging tradition among non-male artists. Cahun's 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 Cahun, "You could call her[/they] transgressive or you could call[/they] 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."