1894 – 1954 / French author and surrealist photographer
With two cute curls framing her brow and a painted heart on each cheek – this is how Claude Cahun chose to appear in her self-portrait. Yet this rather coquettish pose conceals just how politically radical and ground-breaking Cahun’s art really was.
In her younger years, Cahun turned her hand to many different artistic endeavours, including writing, photography, collage, and theatre. Her artistic journey of self-discovery was encouraged by her wealthy upper-middle class family. Shortly after her birth in 1894, Cahun was sent to live with her grandmother in Nantes, but her father and uncle – both of whom were politically active newspaper publishers – were to influence her greatly as well.
In 1909 Cahun met her stepsister Suzanne, who would become her closest ally and subsequent romantic partner. From 1913, Suzanne called herself Marcel Moore and in 1920 Cahun formally renounced her given female name to become Claude Cahun.
The couple moved to Paris where they ran an artists’ salon. During this period, Cahun studied at the Sorbonne. In this new environment they gained access to the circle of surrealists that included André Breton, Jacqueline Lamba and René Crevel, while also developing close ties to other queer intellectuals. During this time Claude Cahun created many of her impressive and innovative self-portraits, though she was only ever to publish one of these images during her lifetime.
Cahun and Moore worked together closely in their photographic and literary activities, often allowing the two art forms to merge into one another. Beyond these collaborative projects, Cahun was involved with Pierre Albert-Birot’s surrealist theatre ensemble and also with the first homosexual newspaper in France.
Her texts are highly political. Her left-wing anarchist sympathies placed her in clear opposition to fascism and until 1936 she was active with André Breton, Georges Bataille and others under the collective name “Contre-Attaque”, creating flyers that condemned fascism and the popular front in French politics.
Cahun came from a Jewish family and was sent to boarding school in Britain in her youth because of the anti-Semitism she experienced in France. In 1937 she fled to the island of Jersey (UK) together with Marcel Moore and from that point on they both took an active role in the Resistance. The German Army occupied the Channel Islands in 1940, and in 1944 they were both arrested and sentenced to death. Many of Cahun’s photographs and negatives were destroyed. Following 10 months in prison, the two artists were released when Jersey was liberated in 1945.
Cahun died at the age of just 60 years old in 1954. It wasn’t until the 1980s that her work was rediscovered – inspired by the second wave of feminism and the resulting discourse around the lived experience of one’s gender.v