Claude Cahun, born as Lucy Schwob in 1894, was known by many labels. Among them, she was a photographer, a writer, Jewish, queer, an active surrealist, a performer, and a radical activist working to play with and expand upon our way of thinking about gender and sexuality.
The artist took on the name Claude Cahun in 1919. Formerly known as Claude Courlis and Daniel Douglas (and the aforementioned Lucy Schwob), Cahun settled upon her name due to its sexual ambiguity. The same can be said of Cahun’s step-sister and partner Marcel Moore, who preferred the names ambiguity to her birth name, Suzanne Malherbe.
While Cahun’s work is generally deemed to be self-portraiture, much of the work should be attributed to Moore, as capturing these self portraits would require assistance (In the vein of Cindy Sherman and Nan Goldin having assistance). In fact, Moore switched places with Cahun both in front of and behind the camera. It’s interesting to note that Moore has remained somewhat in the dark in a way that Cahun has not. Although both Cahun and Moore were active in creating written works, sculptures, photographs, collages, and so on, Cahun’s work has been recorded and recognized while Moore is remembered as Cahun’s partner (although Moore did follow the illustration path more closely than that of fine arts, which may account for some of our lack of knowledge about her).
This seems to be a pattern in the art world when two artists become partners. It seems like one of them generally ends up adjusting their own schedule, their own identity, to accommodate the others’, and if not their actions are portrayed as such. We see this in the work of, say, Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner, in which Krasner’s work fell to the wayside as she began taking on more duties as a manager for Pollock. Even though she still created work and was very innovative in her techniques, her body of work was seen as derivative of Pollock’s and often not worth mentioning for its own merit. We see this again in Elaine de Kooning’s relationship with Willem de Kooning, where Elaine’s own work, her own life, is written about and portrayed as a reflection of Willem’s career. (Here’s an incredibly interesting article about artist couples and how they’re portrayed in the media. It’s pretty short, but it packs a punch. Read it if you have time!)
I actually started this post as a little biography on Claude Cahun. I had seen a presentation on her work in my women/gender/art class last winter, and I only remembered her name and a few of her photographs. I don’t recall anything about Marcel Moore, although I think that may speak more towards my ability to pay attention in class and my memory span than the presenter’s coverage of his subject!
But back to the work. One of the things I really admire about Cahun and Moore is that they were active in a variety of fields, not just photography. Now, I know that one doesn’t have to be a writer, or a performer, or an activist to be an artist, but I personally feel that experience in another field only enriches one’s visual artwork. In Cahun’s case, she was a prolific writer (and performer and activist, but right now I’m focusing on the writing!) most well-known for a series of monologues titled, “Heroines”. The work is based upon female fairy tale characters and are intertwined with ties between their stories and contemporary images of women. This series is one of her two works currently available in English. Her work is apparently cobbled together from a variety of styles, dancing around the notion of a journal, touching upon the short story model, reading somewhat like a confession. Apparently during Cahun’s lifetime her writing was widely published but her photographs remained somewhat private. It’s interesting to see how now her photographs are her most talked about work while her writing remains elusive to many. Maybe it’s because visual arts are universally understood (well, there are at least many aspects of visual language that are universal) while written and spoken language requires translation that may lessen the original prose.
I feel as though I’ve rambled on a bit. Here’s some more of her work! It’s good to get a sense of what we’re talking about!
Note how her work features her crossing a variety of gender borders. She’s pictures as feminine, masculine, androgynous. She’s posing seductively, aggressively, and demurely. She’s defying all attempts to categorize her according to gender binary. Rather, she creates her own category, where she’s free to express herself according to her own desires.
I’ve found a few articles online which mention that Cahun and Moore are held up in a few different ways. They’re championed as lesbian icons, celebrated as some of the most influential genderqueer artists, and acknowledged for their influence in the realm of surrealist photography. They’re all of these things. And on top of all that, Cahun and Moore were activists fighting against World War II.
Cahun and Moore used their artwork to protest Nazi crimes. The two would create anti-German fliers, creating rhythmic poems criticizing German actions in the war. The two even went so far as to attend German military events in Jersey and to place these fliers, snippets, and anti-german propoganda in the pockets of soldiers, on their chairs, thrown as crumpled balls into the windows of their cars and homes. They used their artwork as a tool to target Nazi actions in WWII.
These two were so brave. They stood up proudly for what they believe in, defending gender equality, speaking up for freedom of sexual orientation, protesting Nazi actions! They’re complete badasses! Of course, speaking up for what you believe in can lead to life-threatening ordeals. In this case, Cahun and Moore were arrested and sentenced to death (due to their anti-war actions). The sentences may not have been carried out, yet Cahun’s health had deteriorated and she never recovered from her time in jail, passing away in 1954. Moore lived for eighteen more years, passing away in 1972.
These two artists are inspirations to us all to refuse to conform to societal expectations, and to actively defy the norms pressed upon us. Not only did they create amazing work, they led amazing lives.