Claude Cahun

1894Nantes, France | 1954Saint Helier, Jersey
Claude Cahun — AWARE Women artists / Femmes artistes

Claude Cahun, Self Portrait (Reflected in Mirror), ca. 1928, silver print, 18 x 24 cm, © Jersey Heritage Trust

— Jersey Heritage

French photographer and writer.

The queen of the photographic self-portrait, Claude Cahun was also a poet, essayist, critic, translator, actor, and political activist. She used a wide variety of means of expression to convey her obsession for the themes of identity and self-image. Although she was forgotten after World War II, her work was rediscovered and widely circulated in the 1990s. The cross-dressing experiments she documented in her self-portraits have since become of considerable interest beyond the history of photography, in the field of Gender Studies and post-modernist theory. She was, along with Lee Miller and Dora Maar, one of the great surrealist photographers. Lucy Schwob – she changed her name in 1917 – was the niece of the writer Marcel Schwob, author of Vies imaginaires [Imaginary Lives] (1896). Born in the intellectual upper bourgeoisie, she was educated in England. Around 1915, she cut her hair very short and began to take photographs of herself on a neutral background, dressed either as a sailor, a sportsman, a dandy, or in men’s suit. Her childhood friend Suzanne Malherbe (a. k. a. Marcel Moore) became her partner and assistant. The couple settled in Paris in the early 1920s.

Cahun wrote articles in Le Mercure de France and in 1919 published Vues et visions, a collection of prose poems inspired by Symbolism and illustrated by her partner. Marked by Nietzsche’s philosophy and decadent literature, she used writing and photography to explore the other facet of her personality. Her most famous works are her many self-portraits, known for the way they play on gender ambivalence by revisiting major lesbian themes – androgyny, extravagant femininity, and dandyism. The artist exposes her whole personal mythology by portraying herself as the Virgin, as a monster, a fairy, a doll, or a hard-looking tomboy.

For over forty years, she multiplied pictures of herself in order to reach what she called sexual “undefinition”, a “neutral” state. She often used the double exposure technique (Que me veux-tu? [What do you want from me?], double self-portrait, 1928). Split images, symmetries, and mirror effects show the duality of the being in the portraits she took of her partner or of her friends Sylvia Beach and Robert Desnos. In 1929, she joined the Plateau, an experimental theatre, where she staged baroque shows. She gradually became closer to the Surrealists, and signed most of their collective declarations until the War. In 1934, she published a polemical essay against the cultural policy of the French communist party, Les Paris sont ouverts, specifically targeting Louis Aragon, then joined André Breton and Georges Bataille in the creation of the independent revolutionary movement Contre-Attaque in 1935. Aveux non avenus (1930), her most famous book, is a comprehensive autobiographical volume of dreams, poems, and aphorisms collected over the course of ten years and illustrated with remarkable photomontages. These collages, put together with the help of Marcel Moore, use a variety of material, particularly her old self-portraits. Some of the plates of this experimental book show great formal richness, combining distortions, mirror effects, overlapping and overexposure. The same enhancement of fantasy and vacillation of reality can be found in her photographic “paintings” – small miniature theatres made out of objects and figures, similar to Hans Bellmer’s Doll (1934-1939).

The artist also used photographs of her installations to illustrate Lise Deharne’s  collection of poems Le Cœur de pic in 1937. In 1939, she and her partner went into exile on Jersey, where they both composed political photomontages inspired by those of the German artist John Heartfield. As a Jewish member of the Resistance, Cahun was arrested and sentenced to death in 1944, but narrowly escaped execution. Many of her pictures – the “best” according to her – were destroyed by the Gestapo. Her eclectic work was rediscovered by François Leperlier and widely exhibited in the 1990s. A large number of publications have since been released in the wake of the retrospectives in London, Tokyo, Munich, and Paris, among which the Jeu de Paume exhibition in 2011.

Anne Reverseau

From the Dictionnaire universel des créatrices
© 2013 Des femmes – Antoinette Fouque
© Archives of Women Artists, Research and Exhibitions
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