Who was Claude Cahun?
Ten things you need to know about this extraordinary artist.
1. Her real name was Lucy Schwob.
She was born 25 October 1894 in Nantes, daughter of newspaper owner Maurice Schwob and Victorine Marie Courbebaisse; her uncle was the Symbolist writer Marcel Schwob. Subjected to anti-Semitic acts following the Dreyfus Affair, she was removed to a boarding school in Surrey, where she studied for two years.
2. Cahun’s lover was also her stepsister.
In 1909, she met her lifelong partner and collaborator Suzanne Malherbe while studying in Nantes, in what she described as a ‘thunderbolt encounter’. Eight years later, Cahun’s father married Suzanne’s widowed mother.
3. The couple adopted gender-neutral names.
Schwob first used the name Claude Cahun in the semi-biographical text ‘Les Jeux uraniens’, Cahun being a surname from her father’s side. Malherbe changed her name to Marcel Moore and the pair moved to Paris in 1914, where they began their artistic collaborations and Cahun studied literature and philosophy at the Sorbonne.
4. Cahun was one of the few female Surrealists.
In 1932 she was introduced to André Breton, who called her ‘one of the most curious spirits of our time.’ Four years later, Cahun participated in the Surrealist exhibition at the Galerie Charles Ratton, Paris, and visited the International Surrealist Exhibition at the New Burlington Galleries, London. Whereas in the works of male Surrealists women often appear as eroticised objects, Cahun’s self-portraits explore female identity as constructed and multifaceted.
5. She was first and foremost a writer.
Now best known for her striking self-portraits, Cahun saw herself primarily as a writer. In 1930 she published Aveux non avenus (translated into English as Disavowals or Cancelled Confessions), an ‘anti-memoir’ including ten photomontages created in collaboration with Moore.
6. In 1937 the couple swapped Paris for Jersey.
Cahun and Moore moved to La Rocquaise, a house in St Brelade’s Bay, Jersey, where they led a secluded life. The couple reverted to their given names, Lucy Schwob and Suzanne Malherbe, and were known by the islanders as ‘les mesdames’.
7. They were actively involved in the resistance against Nazi Occupation.
When the Germans invaded Jersey in 1940 they decided to stay and produced counter-propaganda tracts. In July 1944 they were found out, arrested, stood trial, and were, briefly, sentenced to death (though these sentences were commuted). The couple were imprisoned in separate cells for almost a year before Liberation in May 1945.
8. In 1951 Cahun received the Medal of French Gratitude for her acts of resistance during the Second World War. Suffering increasingly from ill health, she died in 1954 at the age of sixty. Moore died eighteen years later, in 1972.
9. She remained forgotten for half a century
Following her move to Jersey, Cahun slipped from critical attention. After the death of Marcel Moore, much of Cahun’s work was put up for auction and acquired by collector John Wakeham, who then sold it to the Jersey Heritage Trust in 1995. The publication in 1992 of the definitive biography by Francois Leperlier, Claude Cahun: l’ecart et la metamorphose, and subsequent exhibition, Claude Cahun: Photographe, at the Musee d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris in 1995 encouraged a growing interest in the artist’s work. It was during this time that Gillian Wearing discovered Claude Cahun.
10. She was an artist ahead of her time
Wearing speaks of a ‘camaraderie’ between her and Cahun but she is not the only contemporary artist to have been influenced by her work. Cahun has a dedicated following among artists and art historians working from postmodern, feminist and queer theoretical perspectives; the American art critic Hal Foster described Cahun as ‘a Cindy Sherman avant la lettre’.