During World War II, Cahun was also active as a resistance worker and propagandist.
Cahun was born in Nantes in 1894, into a provincial but prominent intellectual Jewish family. Avant-garde writer Marcel Schwob was her uncle and Orientalist David Léon Cahun was her great-uncle. When Cahun was four years old, her mother, Mary-Antoinette Courbebaisse, began suffering from mental illness, which ultimately led to her mother's permanent internment at a psychiatric facility. In her mother's absence, Cahun was brought up by her grandmother, Mathilde.
Cahun attended a private school (Parsons Mead School) in Surrey after experiences with antisemitism at high school in Nantes. She attended the University of Paris, Sorbonne. She began making photographic self-portraits as early as 1912 (aged 18), and continued taking images of herself throughout the 1930s.
Around 1914, she changed her name to Claude Cahun, after having previously used the names Claude Courlis (after the curlew) and Daniel Douglas (after Lord Alfred Douglas). During the early 1920s, she settled in Paris with lifelong partner Suzanne Malherbe, who adopted the pseudonym Marcel Moore.: 69 The two became step-siblings in 1917 after Cahun's divorced father and Moore's widowed mother married, eight years after Cahun and Moore's artistic and romantic partnership began. For the rest of their lives together, Cahun and Moore collaborated on various written works, sculptures, photomontages and collages. The two published articles and novels, notably in the periodical Mercure de France, and befriended Henri Michaux, Pierre Morhange, and Robert Desnos.
Around 1922 Cahun and Moore began holding artists' salons at their home. Among the regulars who would attend were artists Henri Michaux and André Breton and literary entrepreneurs Sylvia Beach and Adrienne Monnier.
Cahun's works encompassed writing, photography, and theatre. She is most remembered for her highly staged self-portraits and tableaux that incorporated the visual aesthetics of Surrealism. During the 1920s, Cahun produced an astonishing number of self-portraits in various guises such as aviator, dandy, doll, body builder, vamp and vampire, angel, and Japanese puppet.: 66
Some of Cahun's portraits feature the artist looking directly at the viewer, head shaved, often revealing only head and shoulders (eliminating body from the view), and a blurring of gender indicators and behaviors which serve to undermine the patriarchal gaze. Scholar Miranda Welby-Everard has written about the importance of theatre, performance, and costume that underlies Cahun's work, suggesting how this may have informed the artist's varying gender presentations.
Cahun's published writings include "Heroines," (1925) a series of monologues based upon female fairy tale characters intertwined with witty comparisons to the contemporary image of women; Aveux non avenus, (Carrefour, 1930) a book of essays and recorded dreams illustrated with photomontages; and several essays in magazines and journals.
In 1932, Cahun joined the Association des Écrivains et Artistes Révolutionnaires, where she met André Breton and René Crevel. Following this, she began associating with the surrealist group and later participated in a number of surrealist exhibitions, including the London International Surrealist Exhibition (New Burlington Gallery) and Exposition surréaliste d'Objets (Charles Ratton Gallery, Paris), both in 1936. Cahun's photograph from the London exhibition of Sheila Legge standing in the middle of Trafalgar Square, her head obscured by a flower arrangement and pigeons perching on her outstretched arms, appeared in numerous newspapers and was later reproduced in a number of books. In 1934, Cahun published a short polemic essay, Les Paris sont Ouverts, and in 1935 took part in the founding of the left-wing anti-fascist alliance Contre Attaque, alongside André Breton and Georges Bataille. Breton called Cahun "one of the most curious spirits of our time."
In 1994, the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London held an exhibition of Cahun's photographic self-portraits from 1927–47, alongside the work of two young contemporary British artists, Virginia Nimarkoh and Tacita Dean, entitled Mise en Scene. In the surrealist self-portraits, Cahun represented herself as an androgyne, nymph, model, and soldier.
In 2007, David Bowie created a multi-media exhibition of Cahun's work in the gardens of the General Theological Seminary in New York. It was part of a venue called the Highline Festival, which also included offerings by Air, Laurie Anderson, and Mike Garson. Bowie said of Cahun:
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.
Collaboration with Marcel Moore
Cahun's work was often a collaboration with Marcel Moore. Cahun and Moore collaborated frequently, though this often goes unrecognized. It is believed that Moore was often the person standing behind the camera during Cahun's portrait shoots and was an equal partner in Cahun's collages.
With the majority of the photographs attributed to Cahun coming from a personal collection, not one meant for public display, it has been proposed that these personal photographs allowed for Cahun to experiment with gender presentation and the role of the viewer to a greater degree.
World War II activism
In 1937 Cahun and Moore settled in Jersey. Following the fall of France and the German occupation of Jersey and the other Channel Islands, they became active as resistance workers and propagandists. Fervently against war, the two worked extensively in producing anti-German fliers. Many were snippets from English-to-German translations of BBC reports on the Nazis' crimes and insolence, which were pasted together to create rhythmic poems and harsh criticism. They created many of these messages under the German pseudonym Der Soldat Ohne Namen, or The Soldier With No Name, to deceive German soldiers that there was a conspiracy among the occupation troops. The couple then dressed up and attended many German military events in Jersey, strategically placing their pamphlets in soldier's pockets, on their chairs, and in cigarette boxes for soldiers to find. Additionally, they inconspicuously crumpled up and threw their fliers into cars and windows.
On one occasion, they hung a banner in a local church which read “Jesus is great, but Hitler is greater – because Jesus died for people, but people die for Hitler.” As with much of Cahun and Moore's artistic work in Paris, many of their notes also used this same style of dark humor. In many ways, Cahun and Moore's resistance efforts were not only political but artistic actions, using their creative talents to manipulate and undermine the authority which they despised. In many ways, Cahun's life's work was focused on undermining a certain authority; however, her activism posed a threat to her physical safety. As historian Jeffrey H. Jackson writes in his definitive study of her wartime resistance Paper Bullets, for Cahun and Moore, “fighting the German occupation of Jersey was the culmination of lifelong patterns of resistance, which had always borne a political edge in the cause of freedom as they carved out their own rebellious way of living in the world together. For them, the political was always deeply personal.”
In 1944, Cahun and Moore were arrested and sentenced to death, but the sentence was never carried out, as the island was liberated from German occupation in 1945. However, Cahun's health never recovered from her treatment in jail, and she died in 1954. Cahun is buried in St Brelade's Church with partner Marcel Moore. At the trial, Cahun said to the German judge (according to the documentary on the Occupation of the Channel Islands, by John Nettles) that the Germans would have to shoot her twice, as she was not only a Resister but a Jew. This apparently brought a peal of laughter from the court and is said to have been one reason the execution was not carried out (Martin Sugarman, AJEX Archivist).
Social critique and legacy
Cahun made work for herself and did not want to be famous. It wasn't until 40 years after her death that Cahun's work became recognized. In many ways, Cahun's life was marked by actions which revolted against convention and her public image has since become a commentary which challenges the public's notions of gender, beauty, and logic.
Her work was meant to unsettle the audience's understanding of photography as a documentation of reality. Furthermore, her poetry challenged gender roles of the time and attacked the increasingly modern world's social and economic boundaries.
Also, Cahun's participation with the Parisian Surrealist group brought an element of diversity to the group's output which ushered in new representations. Most Surrealist artists were men, whose primary images of women depicted them as isolated symbols of eroticism rather than as the chameleonic, gender non-conforming figure that Cahun presented. Cahun’s photographs, writings, and general life as an artistic and political revolutionary continues to influence artists.
Cahun's collected writings were published in 2002 as Claude Cahun – Écrits (ISBN 2-85893-616-1), edited by François Leperlier.
Cahun and Moore's WWII activism and heroism are documented by Jeffrey H. Jackson in the 2020 book, Paper Bullets: Two Artists Who Risked Their Lives to Defy the Nazis.
Bibliography (French language)
- Vues et Visions (Pseudonym Claude Courlis), Mercure de France, No. 406, 16 May 1914
- La 'Salomé' d'Oscar Wilde. Le procés Billing et les 47000 pervertis du Livre noir, Mercure de France, No. 481, 1 July 1918
- Le poteau frontière (Pseudonym Daniel Douglas), La Gerbe, No. 3, December 1918
- Au plus beau des anges (Pseudonym Daniel Douglas), La Gerbe, No. 3, December 1918
- Cigarettes (Pseudonym Daniel Douglas), La Gerbe, No. 3, December 1918
- Aux Amis des livres, La Gerbe, No. 5, February 1919
- La Sorbonne en robe de fête (Pseudonym Daniel Douglas), La Gerbe, No. 5, February 1919
- La possession du Monde, par Georges Duhamel, La Gerbe, No. 7, April 1919
- Les Gerbes (Pseudonym Daniel Douglas), La Gerbe, No. 7, April 1919
- L'amour aveugle (Pseudonym Daniel Douglas), La Gerbe, No. 12, September 1919
- La machine magique (Pseudonym Daniel Douglas), La Gerbe, No. 12, September 1919
- Mathilde Alanic. Les roses refleurissent, Le Phare de la Loire, 29 June 1919
- Le théâtre de mademoiselle, par Mathias Morhardt, Le Phare de la Loire, 20 July 1919
- Vues et Visions, with Illustrations by Marcel Moore, Paris: Georges Crès & Cie, 1919
- Paraboles (Pseudonym Daniel Douglas), La Gerbe, No. 17, February 1920
- Une conférence de Georges Duhamel (Pseudonym Daniel Douglas), La Gerbe, No. 19, April 1920
- Marcel Schwob, La Gerbe, No. 20, May 1920
- Boxe (Pseudonym Daniel Douglas), La Gerbe, No. 22, July 1920
- Old Scotch Whisky, La Gerbe, No. 27, December 1920
- A propos d'une conference and Méditations à la faveur d'un Jazz Band, La Gerbe, No. 27, December 1920
- Héroïnes: 'Eve la trop crédule', 'Dalila, femme entre les femmes', 'La Sadique Judith', 'Hélène la rebelle', 'Sapho l'incomprise', 'Marguerite, sœur incestueuse', 'Salomé la sceptique', Mercure de France, No. 639, 1 February 1925
- Héroïnes: 'Sophie la symboliste', 'la Belle', Le Journal littéraire, No. 45, 28 February 1925
- Méditation de Mademoiselle Lucie Schwob, Philosophies, No. 5/6, March 1925
- Récits de rêve, in the special edition Les rêves, Le Disque vert, Third year, Book 4, No. 2, 1925
- Carnaval en chambre, La Ligne de cœur, Book 4, March 1926
- Ephémérides, Mercure de France, No. 685, 1 January 1927
- Au Diable, Le Plateau, No. 2, May–June 1929
- Ellis, Havelock: La Femme dans la société – I. L'Hygiene sociale, translated by Lucy Schwob, Mercure de France, 1929
- Aveux non avenus, illustrated by Marcel Moore, Paris: Editions du Carrefour, 30 May 1930
- Review on Bibliothèque Nationale Gallica
- Frontière Humaine, self-portrait, Bifur, No. 5, April 1930
- Protestez (AEAR), Feuille rouge, No. 2, March 1933
- Contre le fascisme Mays aussi contre l'impérialisme francais (AEAR), Feuille rouge, No. 4, May 1933
- Les Paris sont ouvert, Paris: José Corti, May 1934
- Union de lutte des intellectuels révolutionnaires, Contre-Attaque, 7 October 1935
- Prenez garde aux objets domestique, Cahier d'Art I-II, 1936
- Sous le feu des canons francais ... et alliés, Contre-Attaque, March 1936
- Dissolution de Contre-Attaque, L'Œuvre, 24 March 1936
- Exposition surréaliste d'objets, Exhibition at the Charles Ratton Gallery, Paris, 22–29 May 1936. Items listed by Claude Cahun are Un air de famille and Souris valseuses
- Il n'y a pas de liberté pour les ennemis de la liberté, 20 July 1936
- Deharme, Lise: Le Cœur de Pic, 32 illustrated with 20 photos by Claude Cahun, Paris: José Cortis, 1937
- Adhésion à la Fédération Internationale de l'Art Révolutionnaire Indépendant, Clé, No. 1, January 1939
- À bas les lettres de cachets! À bas la terreur grise! (FIARI), June 1939
Bibliography (English language)
- Cahun, Claude, Tacinta Dean and Virginia Nimarkoh: Mise-En-Scene: Institute for Contemporary Arts: London: 1996:
- Julie Cole: "Claude Cahun, Marcel Moore and the Collaborative Construction of a Lesbian Subjectivity." In: Norma Broude and Mary D. Garrard (eds.), Reclaiming Female Agency: Feminist Art History after Postmodernism, Berkeley, University of California Press, 2005.ISBN 0-905263-59-6
- Conley, Katharine. "Claude Cahun's Iconic Heads," Papers of Surrealism 2 (Summer 2004): 1-23.
- Colvile, Georgiana M.M., "Self-Representation as Symptom: The Case of Claude Cahun." Interfaces: Women, Autobiography, Image, Performance. The University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 2005. p. 263-288.
- Downie, Louise, Don't Kiss Me: The Art of Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore: London: Aperture: 2006: ISBN 1-85437-679-9
- Jackson, Jeffrey H., Paper Bullets: Two Artists Who Risked Their Lives to Defy the Nazis. New York: Algonquin Books, 2020. ISBN 978-1616209162.
- Tirza True Latimer, "Narcissus and Narcissus: Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore," in Women Together/Women Apart: Portraits of Lesbian Paris. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2005. ISBN 0-8135-3595-6
- Monahan, Laurie J., "Radical Transformations: Claude Cahun and the Masquerade of Womanliness". In: Catherine de Zegher (ed.), Inside the Visible, Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston & MIT Press, 1996.
- Rice, Shelley, Inverted Odysseys: Claude Cahun, Maya Deren and Cindy Sherman: Cambridge: Massachusetts: MIT Press: 1999: ISBN 0-262-68106-4
- Shaw, Jennifer L., "Narcissus and the Magic Mirror" in Don’t Kiss Me: The Art of Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore, ed. Louise Downie, Tate Publishing, 2006.
- ———, "Deconstructing Girlhood: Claude Cahun’s ‘Sophie la Symboliste,’ in Working Girls: Women’s Cultural Production During the Interwar Years, ed. Paula Birnbaum and Edwin Mellen Press, 2009.
- ———, "Neonarcissism" in *Nierika* (Mexico City: Universidad Iberoamericana), "La Política Visual del Narcisismo: estudios de casos," Vol. 2, no. 2, 31 May 2013, 19–26.
- ———, Reading Claude Cahun's Disavowals, Ashgate, 2013.
- ———, "From Cabanel to Claude Cahun: More Manifestations of Venus" in Venus as Muse: Figurations of the Creative ed. Sebastian Goth, Rodopi, 2015.
- ———, Exist Otherwise: The Life and Works of Claude Cahun, Reaktion Books, 2017.
- Thynne, Lizzie, 'Playing a Part: The Story of Claude Cahun,' drama documentary film, Brighton: Sussex University, 2004. Available from [email protected]
- Wampole, Christy. "The Impudence of Claude Cahun." L'Esprit Créateur, 2013, 53 (1), 101-113.
- Weaver, M. and Hammond, A. "Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore: Surrealist Sisters." History of Photography, Summer 1993, 17 (2), 217.
- Williamson, Marcus. "Claude Cahun at School in England", Lulu, 2011. ISBN 978-1-257-63952-6
- Playing a Part, by Lizzie Thynne, 2004
- Magic Mirror, by Sarah Pucill, 2013
- Confessions to the Mirror, by Sarah Pucill, 2016
- International Surrealist Exhibition, London, United Kingdom – June–July 1936
- Surrealist Sisters – Jersey Museum in Jersey, United Kingdom – 1993
- Mise en Scene – Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA), London, United Kingdom – 13 October to 27 November 1994
- Claude Cahun : photographe : Claude Cahun 1894–1954 – Musée d'Art Moderne, Paris, France – 23 June to 17 September 1995
- Neue Museum, Graz, Austria – 4 October to 3 December 1997
- Fotografische Sammlung, Museum Folkwang Essen, Germany – 18 January to 8 March 1998
- Don't Kiss Me – Disruptions of the Self in the Work of Claude Cahun – Presentation House Gallery, North Vancouver, Canada – 7 November to 20 December 1998
- Don't Kiss Me – Disruptions of the Self in the Work of Claude Cahun – Art Gallery of Ontario, Ontario, Canada – 8 May to 18 July 1999
- Inverted Odysseys – Grey Art Gallery, New York City, New York – 16 November 1999 to 29 January 2000
- Surrealism: Desire Unbound – Tate Modern, London, United Kingdom – 20 September 2001 to 1 January 2002
- Claude Cahun – Retrospective – IVAM, Valencia, Spain – 8 November 2001 to 20 January 2002
- I am in training – don't kiss me – New York City, New York – May 2004
- Acting Out: Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore – The Judah L. Magnes Museum in Berkeley, California – 4 April to July 2005
- Colby College Museum of Art, Waterville, Maine – September to October 2005
- Jersey Museum in Jersey, United Kingdom– November 2005 to January 2006
- Cahun Exhibition – Jeu de Paume, Place de la Concorde, Paris – 24 May to 25 September 2011.
- Enter Nous: The Art of Claude Cahun – Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois – 25 February to 3 June 2012.
- March 2012 in Cahun's home town of Nantes, as part of two seasons on 'Le film et l'acte de création: Entre documentaire et oeuvre d'art' ('Film and the creative act: Between documentary and the work of art').
- Show Me as I Want to Be Seen at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, California – 7 February 2019 to 7 July 2019.
- Facing Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore – Ottawa Art Gallery – Ottawa – Canada 14 September 2019 to 9 February 2020.
- Latimer, Tirza True. "Acting Out: Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore". QueerCulturalCenter.org. Queer Cultural Center. Archived from the original on 2 April 2015. Retrieved 7 March 2015.
- "MoMA | Claude Cahun. Untitled c. 1921". www.moma.org. Retrieved 8 January 2018.
- "Claude Cahun – Chronology". Retrieved 18 October 2007.
- Sarah Howgate, Dawn Ades, National Portrait Gallery (Great Britain), Gillian Wearing and Claude Cahun Behind the Mask, Another Mask (Princeton University Press, 2017), p. 189.
- Cahun, Claude (2008). Disavowals: or cancelled confessions. The MIT Press. p. 151. ISBN 9780262533034. OCLC 922878515.
- Phaidon Editors (2019). Great women artists. Phaidon Press. p. 81. ISBN 978-0714878775.
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- Kline, Katy (1998). "In or Out of the Picture: Claude Cahun and Cindy Sherman". In Chadwick (ed.). Mirror Images: Women, Surrealism, and Self-Representation. MIT Press. p. 69.
- Colvile, Georgiana M.M. (2005). "Self-Representation as Symposium: The Case of Claude Cahun". Interfaces: Women, Autobiography, Image, Performance: 265. Retrieved 5 March 2016.
- Doy, Gen (2007). Claude Cahun: A Sensual Politics of Photography. London/New York: I.B. Tauris. pp. xv–xvi. ISBN 9781845115517.
- Williamson, Marcus (2011). Claude Cahun at School in England. Marcus Williamson. ISBN 978-1257639526.
- Latimer, Tirza True (2005). Women Together/Women Apart: Portraits of Lesbian Paris. Rutgers University Press. p. 74.
- Schirmer, Lothar (2001). Women Seeing Women, A Pictorial History of Women's Photography. NY: Norton. p. 208.
- Cole, Julie, ‘Claude Cahun, Marcel Moore and the Collaborative Construction of a Lesbian Subjectivity’, in Norma Broude and Mary D. Garrard (eds.), Reclaiming Female Agency: Feminist Art History after Postmodernism (California: University of California Press, 2005), 343–60.
- Hutchison, Sharla (2003). "Convulsive Beauty: Images of Hysteria and Transgressive Sexuality Claude Cahun and Djuna Barnes". Symplokē. 11 (1/2): 212–226. doi:10.1353/sym.2003.0012. JSTOR 40536944. S2CID 144901290.
- Welby-Everard, Miranda (2006). "Imaging the Actor: The Theatre of Claude Cahun". Oxford Art Journal. 29 (1): 3–24. doi:10.1093/oxartj/kci044. ISSN 0142-6540. JSTOR 3600491.
- Penelope Rosemont, Surrealist Women 1998, University of Texas Press
- Rosemont, Penelope (1 December 2000). Surrealist Women. A&C Black. pp. 88–90. ISBN 9780567171283.
- O'Neill, Alistair (2007). London: After a Fashion. London, England: Cambridge University Press. p. 77. ISBN 9781861893154. Retrieved 19 February 2017.
- Andersen, Corinne (2005). "Que me veux-tu?/ What do you want of me?: Claude Cahun's Autoportraits and the Process of Gender Identification". Women in French Studies. 13: 37–50. doi:10.1353/wfs.2005.0002. S2CID 192559981.
- Bower, Gavin James (14 February 2012). "Claude Cahun: Finding a lost great". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 8 January 2018.
- Katy Deepwell ' Uncanny Resemblances: Restaging Claude Cahun in 'Mise en Scene issue 1 Dec 1996 n.paradoxa: international feminist art journal online pp. 46–51
- "The Art Story - Claude Cahun: French Photographer, Writer and Political Activist". Retrieved 27 March 2019.
- Jeffrey, Jackson (2020). Paper Bullets: Two Artists Who Risked Their Lives to Defy the Nazis. New York: Algonquin Books. pp. 122–23. ISBN 978-1616209162.
- Jackson, Jeffrey (2020). Paper Bullets. New York: Algonquin Books. pp. 267–68. ISBN 978-1616209162.
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- "Conseil de Paris". Retrieved 25 October 2021.
- Mars-Jones, Adam (2 August 2018). "I'm a Cahunian". London Review of Books. 40 (15) – via www.lrb.co.uk.
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- Anderson, Jack (30 March 2002). "In Performance". The New York Times.
- Claude Cahun info page
- Claude Cahun tribute and biography page
- The Daily Beast, 2015-04-21, "Claude Cahun: The Lesbian Surrealist Who Defied the Nazis"
- Feminist Art Archive, University of Washington, 2012, "Claude Cahun"
- Bower, Gavin James. "Claude Cahun: Finding a Lost Great." The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 14 Feb. 2012. Web. 11 Dec. 2012
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- 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.
- Jackson, Jeffrey H., Paper Bullets: Two Artists Who Risked Their Lives to Defy the Nazis. New York: Algonquin Books, 2020. ISBN 978-1616209162 .
- Media related to Claude Cahun at Wikimedia Commons
- Claude Cahun at Tate
- De l'Éros des femmes surréalistes et de Claude Cahun en particulier by Georgina M.M. Colvile (in French)
- Prof. Gen Doy on Claude Cahun
- Claude Cahun in American public collections, on the French Sculpture Census website