Cahun's work was both political and personal, and often undermined traditional concepts of static gender roles. In her autobiography, Disavowals, she explains her rejection of gender, "Masculine? Feminine? It depends on the situation. Neuter is the only gender that always suits me." This declaration is an important consideration when analysing Cahun's photography as she intentionally plays with and subverts the viewers' understanding of gender.
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 anti-Semitism 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 through 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 and step-sibling 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, this being 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, , and Robert Desnos.
Around 1922 Claude 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 they 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 ( 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 they have not had the kind of recognition that, as a founding follower, friend and worker of the original surrealist movement, they surely deserve."
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. 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 their 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 their treatment in jail, and she died in 1954. Cahun is buried in St Brelade's Church with partner Marcel Moore.
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 sexuality, gender, beauty, and logic. Her work displays a revolutionary way of thinking and creating which unsettles the audience's understanding of photography as a documentation of reality. Her poetry challenges gender roles and attacks 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, and their 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)
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