Lucy Renee Mathilde Schwob was a French photographer, sculptor and writer born in Nantes in a prominent intellectual Jewish family, who considered herself as genderqueer, what explains the adoption of the gender-ambiguous pseudonym of Claude Cahun by 1919.
Cahun’s work was political and very personal. Often her work undermined traditional concepts of static gender roles, what she once explained “under this ask, another mask; I will never finish removing all these faces”.
Cahun began working with photography, making self-portraits in 1912, with only 18 years old, continued with this practice through the 1930s.
During the 1920s, Cahun settled in Paris with Suzanne Malherbe, who was her lifelong partner and step-sibling. Suzanne adopted the pseudonym of Marcel Moore, both collaborated on various written works, sculptures, photomontages and collages; but this collaboration was often unrecognised. As well as they published articles and novels in the periodical Mercure de France. By the year 1922, the two artists began to hold artists’ salon at their home. It’s believed that Moore was the person behind the camera in some of Cahun’s portrait shoots.
As the majority of the photographs attributed to Cahun come from a personal collection, not one meant for display/exhibition, allowed Cahun to experiment with gender presentation and with the role played by the viewer.
Cahun is best known for the highly staged self-portraits and the tableaux that incorporated Surrealist visual aesthetic. Some of them were produced during the 1920s in various guises as aviator, dandy, doll, body builder, vamp and vampire, angel or Japanese puppet. Many of Caun’s portraits feature her look direct to the viewer. Often revealing only her shaved head and shoulders. The objective was to blur gender indicators and behaviours to undermine the patriarchal gaze.
During the World War II, Cahun and Moore settled in Jersey. Following the German occupation of Jersey and the other Channel Islands, both artists became active as resistance workers and propagandists. They worked in the production of anti-German fliers. The couple then dressed up and attended a German military events, placing the fliers strategically in the soldier’s pockets, chairs and cigarette boxes for soldiers to find. These fliers contained translations from English to German of BBC reports on the Nazi’s crimes and insolence.
In many ways their resistance was not political but artistic too, by using their creative talents to manipulate and run down the authority which they despised. We can say that Cahun’s work was focused on wreck authorities. However, her activism was a threat to her physical safety.
In 1944, Cahun and Moore were arrested and sentenced to death, although the sentence was never carried out as the island was liberated from German occupation in 1945. But Cahun’s health never recovered from the treatment received in jail and she died in 1954.
- Within her published writings are: Heroines (1925): it’s a series of monologues based upon female fairy tale characters and intertwining them with witty comparisons to the contemporary image of women; Aveux non avenus (1930) a book of essays and recorded dreams illustrated with photomontages.
- In 2007, David Bowie created a multi-media exhibition of Cahun’s work in the gardens of the General Theological Seminary in New York as part of a venue called the Highline Festival.
- Cahun didn’t want to be famous, her work was only recognised 40 years after her death.