“Masculine? Feminine? It depends on the situation”: Claude Cahun

A new exhibition opening at London’s National Portrait Gallery brings together the work of Claude Cahun (1894–1954), the French agender artist who was closely involved in Surrealism, and Gillian Wearing (born 1963), the Turner Prize-winning artist who was one of a number of graduates from Goldsmith’s College to find fame in the early 1990s. The two have much in common: both are interested in self-portrait photography, altering their appearance to raise questions about gender and identity. There are also close parallels between Cahun’s work and leading contemporary photographers such as Cindy Sherman and Nan Goldin who also play with their own image. And yet Cahun’s work was almost unknown until the early 1990s.

Cahun’s self-portrait photographs have been much commented on as she was an early proponent of the idea of a third gender, commenting “Masculine? Feminine? But it depends on the situation. Neuter is the only gender that always suits me”. However, as Dr Michelle Gewurtz has pointed out in an illuminating study available online, less has been made of Cahun’s interest in her Jewish identity, though her attentiveness to this is visible in some of her self-portraits as well as in her own life story. She was born Lucy Schwob in Nantes, into a well-known Jewish intellectual family that included a great uncle who was an Orientalist travel writer and another uncle, Marcel, famed for his symbolist writing. A third uncle was a Rabbi. Her mother was institutionalised when Cahun was a little girl and she was brought up by her paternal grandmother Mathilde Cahun. In 1906, she moved to England to study at a boarding school in Surrey after being subjected to antisemitism from classmates as a result of the furore surrounding the Dreyfus Affair.

However, she returned to France where, at the age of 15, she met Suzanne Malherbe, who became her partner for life. Whilst they were lovers, their relationship was somewhat normalised in the eyes of others by the fact that they became step-sisters in 1917 when Cahun’s father married Malherbe’s mother. Around 1919, they began to use gender-neutral pseudonyms, Malherbe becoming Marcel Moore, whilst Cahun swapped one very Jewish-sounding surname for another, choosing her grandmother’s name, a French variation of Cohen (what is more, the names Claude and Marcel(le) can be used for both men and women). In this way, she could not have been more different from her fellow Surrealist Man Ray who was born Emmanuel Radnitsky but whose choice of pseudonym prevented people from guessing his Jewish identity.

The women became closely associated with the Surrealists, whose leader, André Breton, described Cahun as “one of the most curious spirits of our time.” She both wrote and produced photographs, exhibiting with the Surrealists in Paris and London. Whilst male Surrealist artists often showed images of women as symbols of eroticism, Cahun’s images of herself instead explored new ideas of gender and sexuality and many show her dressed as a man or as an androgynous figure. One of the most famous examples is Self Portrait c.1927, which shows her dressed as a short-haired flat-chested strongman wearing a leotard reading “I AM IN TRAINING DON’T KISS ME”—all very masculine.  But then she also wears pasted-on nipples, has kiss curls, Clara Bow lips and love hearts on her cheeks, adding a feminine element. In many other photographs, she incorporates masks, and in her own writing suggested how this was a way of expressing multiple identities, writing “Under this mask, another mask. I will never finish removing all these faces”.

Moore and Cahun were involved in fighting Fascism first in Paris and then in Jersey, where they lived from 1937. Tanya Bentley, curatorial assistant to the exhibition explains more: “Cahun and Moore produced counter-propaganda tracts in active resistance of the Occupation, which they then distributed amongst the German soldiers. Moore would translate news broadcasts on BBC Radio, which Cahun then converted into short, catchy texts. They were arrested for this and sentenced to death on 16 November 1944. After Liberation and their release from prison, Cahun and Moore created a defiant image of Cahun gripping a Nazi eagle insignia between her teeth.” This photograph is included in the exhibition alongside a second one taken in a photo booth in which Cahun wears a star brooch. Although the star only has five points, Cahun was no doubt identifying herself with those in Europe being forced to wear such badges to identify themselves as Jews.

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Featured image: I am in training don’t kiss me by Claude Cahun c. 1927; Jersey Heritage Collections © Jersey Heritage

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