On Monday, the Google home page paid tribute to Claude Cahun, born that day in 1894. Until recently, Cahun was considered a secondary figure in the surrealist movement. Born under Lucy Schwob, Cahun rejected gender constructions and imploded the division between male and female in her photographs. A Jewish refugee, she was also a political dissident and opposed the German occupation during World War II.
Cahun existed beyond the gender binary. âNeutral is the only genre that always works for me,â she once remarked. In many of Cahun’s photomontages, she seems to take several characters at once. In What do you want from me (1928), two shots of the artist – his head is shaved in both – are shown one above the other. In another solarized self-portrait from 1928, Cahun looks over his shoulder, one side of his face in a mirror, one jaw clenched, and a hard gaze directed at the camera. An image of Cahun taken decades later is emblematic of his defiant spirit. In a 1945 sepia photograph titled Untitled (Portrait of Claude with the Nazi badge between his teeth), she appears as an elderly woman wearing a headscarf. In her mouth, she is holding a Nazi badge.
For much of his career, Cahun worked in conjunction with his partner, Suzanne Alberte Malherbe, who took the name Marcel Moore. The two met in their teens and started a relationship when the couple’s mother and father tied the knot, making them half-sisters. In 1937, as anti-Semitism was on the rise in Europe, they fled the cultural center of Paris to Jersey, an island off the coast of Normandy. They maintained a life there, managing to survive thanks to the family inheritance. (Cahun was the daughter of a prominent publisher.) A few years later, in 1940, France fell under Nazi occupation and the couple devoted themselves to anti-war activism.
One of Cahun’s most enduring legacies is the project she and Moore called “The Nameless Soldier”. It was an effort by the two artists to disseminate anti-war propaganda by means of secret messages to neighboring German soldiers. In quintessentially surrealist fashion, the artists concocted an imaginary German soldier as the protagonist of a coup, who, disillusioned by the war, set out to incite dissent within the military. Cahun and Moore wrote notes on paper with messages criticizing the war effort and the German officers that they slipped into cigarette packs and soldiers’ clothes.
As the war began to evolve in favor of the Allied forces, paranoia within the Nazi regime intensified, as did campaigns to target spies and anti-German conduits. In 1944, Cahun and Moore were arrested and sentenced to death during a trial, and the two remained in prison for years afterward. Their sentences were both commuted by the appeal of the French government. Cahun died a few years after her release, in 1964.
Although he received the approval of AndrÃ© Breton, who was considered the most important figure associated with surrealism in France, Cahun remained on the fringes of the surrealist circle dominated by heterosexual men in the 1920s-1930s. In 2019, as part of a series devoted to women whose deaths were not properly commemorated by the newspaper, the New York Times published an obituary for Cahun in which David J. Getsy, a professor at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago, said that Cahun was an artist who “turns the camera on himself to see who else he may become “.
Cahun was well aware of the complexity of her games with identity. âUnderneath that mask, another mask,â she wrote, âI’ll never be done removing all those faces.â