Claude Cahun was born in 1892 in Nantes, France to a wealthy family of literary intellectuals (Bower). Her father Maurice Schwob edited a French republican newspaper for which Cahun would later write, and her mother suffered psychological issues and was eventually admitted to an insane asylum (Gen). This meant that Cahun was mothered by her Grandmother, Mathilde Cahun, as a child (Gen). Claude Cahun was surrounded by well-known journalists and writers who encouraged her to write growing up; namely her father and her uncle Marcel Schwob were particularly influential. Marcel Schwob was a distinguished figure of the literary himself during his time and Cahun’s own writings clearly parallel his literary style. Her education was also formally overseen at the Parsons Meade School in England when she attended from 1906 to 1909 as a result of her family sending her away due to political turmoil in France surrounding the Dreyfus Affair (Bower). Though the Parsons Meade School was originally established as an arts and domestic school for young mid-19th century house-wives to be, by the time that Cahun attended in 1906, the school offered a range of subjects including the arts and composition (Zachmann). Upon moving back to France in 1909, Cahun met an illustrator, Suzanne Malherbe who would become her life-partner and by a curious step of fate, step sister (Gen). Malherbe worked under the name Marcel Moore, and she and Cahun shared an intimate collaboration throughout the rest of their careers.
Born Lucy Renee Mathilde Schwob, Claude Cahun tried on several pseudonyms including Claude Courlis, referencing the Curlew bird, and Daniel Douglas, after the British literary Lord Alfred Douglas (Elkin). Cahun purposefully chose sexually ambiguous names for herself which further complicated the projection of her image to not only the public as they viewed her art but to her peers and colleagues as well. So perplexing was her sexuality and gender that she is even referred to as a man in some literature (Bower).
In 1937, Cahun and Moore retired to the island of Jersey and bought a house where they planned on peacefully continuing their writing and self-portrait making. However, in 1940, the island became invaded by Nazi troops and as if Cahun’s Jewish roots didn’t put her in danger as it were, both she and Moore became intensely politically active in a self instigated anti-German movement (The Guerilla Girls 63). Cahun created surrealist flyers, often interpreted as works of art themselves, which she then distributed in mass amounts into bystanders’ coat pockets, open car windows, discreetly left on tabletops and crumpled and thrown into buildings (Zachmann). Her actions were not only political but artistic as well. Cahun and Moore’s operation was so successful and on such a large scale that troops were actually convinced of a secret resistance group operating on the island (Elkin). When the two were eventually found out, they were imprisoned and though it was never actually carried out, sentenced to death (The Guerilla Girls 63). Much of their material property in their island home, including their art, was destroyed (Gen).
-German Soldier’s report on finding Cahun and Moore, 1944 (The Guerilla Girls 63)
There is no question that Cahun’s identity was and remains an enigma in itself. She understood herself as an ever changing collection of identities, flowing from one to the next, rather than a single or linear identity. She rejected all conventions of her culture and time, especially those regarding sexuality and the performance of it, while battling social norms and tendencies with her decisively eccentric lifestyle. Though founder of the surrealist movement himself, Andre Breton, took interest in Cahun and her work, she never directly associated herself with his movement (Gen). In fact, she was wary of any direct association with any label or group. Writes Cahun, “Individualism? Narcissism? Of course. It is my strongest tendency, the only intentional constancy I am capable of” (Bower). She refused to be limited by the labels female, lesbian, writer, photographer, Jew, and even “artist.” In particular, she struggled with her own lineage and the legacy she was born into (Gen). The pseudonyms she chose for herself are in effect a departing from her origins and herself; they are mechanisms of self-creating through detachment from the family to which she owed her existence in the first place. Cahun rejected the conventional route handed to her by familial tie, longing to carve out a unique pathway for herself (Elkin).
Cahun’s art is, on one level, a reflection of her self-perception. She chose to show herself in many ways: female and coquettish, male with shaved-head, masculine and donning barbells, feminine and sexualized, curled up in a cupboard and child-like, androgynous, stereotypically male homosexual, comedic. Her work is deeply personal and liberating—Cahun experienced no boundaries in her self-portraits that society would have placed upon her outside her photos. She slips from one gender to another, creating mutating personalities with surreal photographic collages (Gen). The complexity of her art lays in its non-genre. Cahun’s creations are all at once surrealist, self portrait, photo-collage, political, non-traditional.
Why does Claude Cahun remain an understudied artist? Cahun did her best to reject all labels, refusing to align her work with any one genre or group of people; even the most unconventional “surrealist” would have confined her free-spirit. She rejected the label “surrealist”—she was far too obscure for even the most obscure. In other words, Cahun was the original hipster. As for her material works, much of it was destroyed by the Nazi’s upon their discovery of the couple’s residence in Jersey, and only a portion of her photos remain (Zachmann). Not only did society marginalize her as a woman, as a Jew, and as a lesbian and surrealist, but she herself dedicated her life and work to being a master in the calmer, neutral shadows of the sidelines.
Though they interest the social and political, Cahun’s photography is not technically adventurous (Zachmann). She did not explore a wide range of photographic technique and used simple composition and technique in most of her self portraits. They feature a focal Cahun at center, photographed from either a slight left or right angle, or are forward facing. Rather than rely on the photographic techniques to convey her message, Cahun used the camera instead as a means to capture an image of the concept she displayed on her body through dress, expression, emotion, and the occasional mirror or other prop.
Claude Cahun’s portraits, such as in especially the one below, are not revealing of her identity or persona. Here we are presented a jacketed man and his reflection. He appears masculine. The gaze could be implicative of differing sentiments—perhaps the subject was caught off guard, or more severely, the look is one of subtle anger at the photographic intrusion. The look may also hint a suggestive longing and sexual undertone with a distinctly feminine connotation.
Juxtaposed with the below image, we are presented an entirely different Cahun. It is impossible to tell immediately the gender of the subject. “Is that a woman dressed as a man dressed as a woman?” we wonder. It would appear to be a stereotypically homosexual 1920’s French man, with plaited hair, exaggerated rouge, white face powder and overly done up eyes. Cahun challenges an idea of sexuality and gender by posing as a male doing homosexual femininity.
Cahun’s self portraits call the viewer into an uncomfortable relationship with the photos. We are stumped, struggling with our inner desire to know the gender of the subject whom we are uncertain about and to define the image with familiar labels. Cahun’s changing personalities as shown especially by the above two self portraits are unsettling and disruptive to the order that society demands. The photos are an overwhelming attack on the clichés of Cahun’s time, overriding the passive, sexualized female body as photographed by the male artist with Cahun’s own intellectually engaging images. They unrelentingly challenge conventions through a disruption of visual boundaries, presenting an underlying political discourse about the function and rules of society (Gen).
Claude Cahun was not regarded widely as an accomplished artist during her time, or even regarded widely at all (Gen). The little recognition she did receive from the public regarded her as radical, confusing, and most all, bizarre (Gen). Even those who were familiar with the art and emerging surrealism of the time were struck by Cahun as odd and extremely irregular. Her genius, though it may have been posthumously discovered, lay in the fact that she was a mentally sane and completely competent artist whose intellectual curiosity far exceeded her era and resulted in brilliant works of art. She possessed a literary eloquence as well that was quite overshadowed by her striking photographs (Elkin). Cahun produced obscure, terrifying, and politically engaging images that would seem to reflect the mind of a mad radical. These images were not concurrent with her actually stable state of mind, and the contradiction is so pronounced that it is almost deceptive. As Andre Breton put it himself, Cahun “ [is] one of the most curious spirits of our time” (Bower).
Such was the response many feminist female artists received then and still—one which regards them as unstable, angry, delusional, or insane. In fact, my reaction to Cahun’s photographs upon first viewing them was exactly that. My immediate response to the photos was fear; the images were disturbing and caused me to actually avert my eyes. The portraits depicting a bald Cahun with ghostly complexion and terrifying stare were enough to make me turn away. My second impulse was to ponder her level of sanity. I thought that to have produced such images one would surely have been mentally unstable. But she was not.
It is all together too easy to write off feminist art as the product of “crazy feminist women.” It has become a familiar excuse to undermine feminists and feminism as being crazy, overly liberal, and insane. But the women who challenge us with their radical ideas and unconventional art are perhaps the sanest among all of us. They strive to break down the stereotypes which weaken female artists, and the patriarchicical system discredits them in the first place. They strive, quite simply, for a deserved equality and a long overdue balance in our society.
Bower, Gavin James. “Claude Cahun: Finding a Lost Great.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 14 Feb. 2012. Web. 11 Dec. 2012. <http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/feb/14/claude-cahun-finding-great>.Gen,
Elkin, Lauren. “Reading Claude Cahun.” Quarterly Conversation RSS. Quarterly Conversation RSS, n.d. Web. 11 Dec. 2012. <http://quarterlyconversation.com/claude-cahun-disavowals>.
Gen, Doy. “META: Claude Cahun-A Sensual Politics of Photography.” META-Magazine.com. MEGA, n.d. Web. 11 Dec. 2012. <http://www.meta-magazine.com/articles/claude-cahun-a-sensual-politics-of-photography>.
Guerilla Girls, The. “The 20th Century: Women of Isms.” The Guerrilla Girls’ Bedside Companion to the History of Western Art. New York: Penguin Group, 1998. 62-63. Print.
Zachmann, Gayle. The Photographic Intertext: Invisible Adventures in the Work of Claude Cahun. 3rd ed. Vol. 10. N.p.: Taylor and Francis Group, 2006. CrossRef. Web. 11 Dec. 2012.