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Claude Cahun





 

Claude Cahun

( 1894 – 1954) was a French photographer and writer. Her work was both political and personal, and often played with the concepts of gender and sexuality.

Born Lucy Schwob in Nantes, she was the niece of writer Marcel Schwob and the great-niece of Orientalist David Léon Cahun. Her mother's mental problems meant that she was brought up by her maternal grandmother, Mathilde Cahun.

Around 1919, she settled on the pseudonym Claude Cahun, intentionally selecting a sexually ambiguous name, after having previously used the names Claude Courlis and Daniel Douglas. During the early twenties, she settled in Paris with her life-long partner and step-sister Suzanne Malherbe. For the rest of their lives together, Cahun and Malherbe (who adopted the pseudonym Marcel Moore) collaborated on various written works, sculptures, and collages. She published articles and novels, notably in the periodical "Mercure de France", and befriended Henri Michaux, Pierre Morhange and Robert Desnos. Throughout her life, she worked on a series of monologues called "Heroines," which was based upon female fairy tale characters and intertwining them with witty comparisons to the contemporary image of women. In 1929, a photograph of her was published in the journal Bifur. The following year, her autobiographical essay Aveux non avenus, illustrated with photomontages, was published by Carrefour.

In 1932 she joined the Association des Ecrivains et Artistes Révolutionnaires, where she met André Breton and René Crevel. Following this, she started associating with the surrealist group, and later participated in a number of surrealist exhibitions, including the London International Surrealist Exhibition (New Burlington Gallery) and Exposition surréaliste d'Objets (Charles Ratton Gallery, Paris), both in 1936. In 1934, she published a short polemic essay, Les Paris sont Ouverts, and in 1935 took part in the founding of the left-wing group Contre Attaque, alongside André Breton and Georges Bataille.

In 1937 Cahun and Malherbe settled in Jersey. Following the outbreak of World War 2 and the German invasion, they became active as resistance fighters and propagandists. Fervently against war, the two worked extensively in producing anti-German fliers. Many were snippets from English-to-German translations of BBC reports on the Nazi's crimes and insolence, which were pasted together to create rhythmic poems and harsh criticism. The couple then dressed up and attended many German military events in Jersey, strategically placing them in soldier's pockets, on their chairs, etc. Also, fliers were inconspicuously crumpled up and thrown into cars and windows. In many ways, Cahun and Malherbe's resistance efforts were not only political but artistic actions, using their creative talents to manipulate and undermine the authority which they despised. In many ways, Cahun's life's work was focused on undermining a certain authority, however her specific resistance fighting targeted a physically dangerous threat. In 1944 they were arrested and sentenced to death, but the sentences were never carried out. However, Cahun's health never recovered from her treatment in jail, and she died in 1954.

In many ways, Cahun's life was marked by a sense of role reversal, and her public identity became a commentary upon not only her own, but the public's notions of sexuality, gender, beauty, and logic. Her adoption of a sexually ambiguous name, and her androgynous self-portraits display a revolutionay way of thinking and creating, experimenting with her audience's understanding of photography as a documentation of reality. Her poetry challenged gender roles and attacked the increasingly modern world's social and economic boundaries. Also Cahun's participation in the Parisian Surrealist movement diversified the group's artwork and ushered in new representations. Where most Surrealist artists were men, and their primary images were of women as isolated symbols of eroticism, Cahun epitomized the chameleonic and multiple possibilities of the female identity. Her photographs, writings, and general life as an artistic and political revolutionary continue to influence countless artists, namely Cindy Sherman and Nan Goldin. Claude Cahun is often claimed today as a historical example of a lesbian or queer woman, but some are now claiming Cahun as a transgender person on the female-to-male spectrum. Claude Cahun is seen by some as a transgender photographer whose works precede that of Loren Cameron's, a contemporary transgender photographer who, like Cahun, focuses on the self.

 


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