‘Masculine? Feminine? It depends on the situation’

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Portrait of Claude Cahun. Pic: Cea./Flickr

The surrealist artist Claude Cahun is far too little known — especially at a time when her radical approach to gender and identity is so relevant to current discussions, writes Sue Caldwell.

It is unusual for this magazine to promote the cause of high fashion, but there may be a welcome overlap with that world this year. According to Vogue the muse of Christian Dior’s pre-fall collection is Claude Cahun, an artist whose life and work deserve much greater recognition. Not that Cahun would have been impressed by mentions in glossy magazines.

Those who do know her name may be familiar with some of her photographic self-portraits that confront and contest notions of gender, taken some 50 years before such a thing became acceptable. What is less well known is that she wrote passionately about freedom of artistic expression and the role of art in politics, and that she was a Trotskyist sympathiser who risked her life opposing the Nazis in Occupied Jersey during the Second World War.

Cahun was born Lucy Schwob in Nantes, western France, in 1894. She came from a relatively well-off Jewish family, and was sent to be privately educated in Surrey, England, after antisemitic incidents in her home town. In 1918 she enrolled at the Sorbonne in Paris, by now living with her lover and lifelong partner and collaborator Suzanne Malherbe, also known as Marcel Moore. Both Cahun’s and Moore’s pseudonyms were deliberately androgynous.

Cahun produced most of her iconic self-portraits during the 1920s. The photographs were provocatively staged, often using masks or mirrors to challenge the viewer’s assumptions about gender and identity. She often appeared with a shaved head, as in “Self Portrait with Mirror” where she looks not passively into the mirror but defiantly outward.

She wrote of herself in her autobiographical work Disavowals, “Shuffle the cards. Masculine? Feminine? It depends on the situation. Neuter is the only gender that suits me.” It would be wrong to categorise Cahun using today’s vocabulary, but she was decades ahead of her time in her representations of women and gender in art, and in her everyday appearance and lifestyle.

Rebuke

In 1925 Cahun wrote Heroines, a book that took well-known stories of female figures but gave the stories a twist that undermined their traditional interpretation. Some of these were quite amusing — in Cinderella her Prince Charming is presented as a shoe fetishist. Some of her writing is more political, such as when she wrote about Salome as a rebuke to a politician who had written a homophobic review of a private performance of Oscar Wilde’s play.

In the 1930s Cahun and Moore became increasingly involved in radical politics, principally through art rather than party affiliation. Cahun and Moore joined the communist-led Association des Écrivains et Artistes Révolutionnaires (association of revolutionary writers and artists) through which they met the founder of French Surrealism André Breton. The Communist Party at the time was promoting what became social realism, where art was seen as a propaganda tool in the service of an increasingly Stalinised government. For Breton, Cahun and others this clashed with their ideas about creative expression. Breton was expelled from the Communist Party — which Cahun had never joined — in 1933.

Not all Surrealists took this position though. One leading member, Louis Aragon, denounced “idealism, Freudianism and Trotskyism”. In response Cahun wrote “Les paris sont ouverts” (all bets are open), in which she argued that there was no recipe for writing revolutionary poetry or literature, and that the unconscious plays a role in the making and reading of artworks, sometimes with unexpected results. She dedicated the book to Leon Trotsky, in recognition of his support for the Soviet poet and artist Mayakovsky, who committed suicide as a result of his persecution by Stalin.

This is not to say that Cahun wanted to keep art and politics separate; on the contrary she defended both artistic creativity and the making of political art.

Throughout the 1930s the photographs she produced were no longer focused primarily on herself, but on collections of objects or in one series a puppet made from pages of the French Communist Party paper L’Humanité, intended to make the viewer challenge the reports in the paper.

This was produced in 1936, when the French CP was espousing the popular front, which meant opposing the mass workers’ strikes that took place that summer in the interest of unity with bourgeois forces against fascism — a disastrous strategy that allowed the workers’ movement to be broken.

Despite her sympathy with Trotsky and the left opposition, there is no evidence that she joined any political party or engaged directly in workers’ struggles. Some of her reluctance to do so may be due to the backward attitudes towards women and homosexuality that she encountered. Although Breton remained a friend, he held openly homophobic views.

She did join a small Marxist group, the groupe Brunet, in the mid-1930s, but wrote that she was accused of “sentimentalism” because of her opposition to sexual oppression and homophobia. She was also conscious of her relatively privileged class position and saw her contribution coming from her art.

Revolutionary

In 1939 she became a member of the short-lived Fédération Internationale de l’Artistes Révolutionnaires Indépendants (international federation of independent revolutionary artists), of which Breton, Diego Rivera and Trotsky were founding members, but by this time she and Moore had moved to Jersey in the Channel Islands as the political situation in Europe worsened.

When Jersey was occupied by the Nazis, the couple engaged in a daring series of actions. Cahun believed the German workers were victims of the Nazis, and the actions were designed to turn the soldiers against their superiors. They put pamphlets signed by “the soldier with no name” on Nazi car windshields, and wrote “Down with Hitler” in nail varnish on coins which they then left in the amusement arcades used by the soldiers.

In 1944 they were arrested and sentenced to death for “undermining Nazi authority”. Miraculously they managed to survive until the liberation of the island in 1945.

One of my favourite photos of Cahun shows her shortly after her release, her head wrapped in a scarf, smiling at the camera with a piece of Nazi regalia stuck defiantly between her teeth. Unfortunately her health had suffered badly as a result of her imprisonment and she died in 1954 at the age of 60.

Cahun’s work remained largely obscure until the 1980s. Even now, as she is beginning to get the recognition she deserves, her work is often described using the rather frivolous term “gender-bending”. There is so much more to Claude Cahun: her refusal to accept oppression; her defence of artistic expression; and her determination to use her art to promote revolutionary thought in every sense of the word.

Exhibitions of Cahun’s work are few and far between, but there is a touring exhibition available to hire from the Southbank Centre throughout the year. The only date currently booked is at Keele University until 18 March. Tell your local community gallery!