Discover the Inspiring Story of Claude Cahun: The Groundbreaking Non-Binary Artist.

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Claude Cahun was a French surrealist artist and writer whose work continues to inspire and challenge audiences today. Throughout her life, she experimented with self-portraiture, gender identity, and political activism, significantly impacting the Surrealist movement and the French Resistance during World War II.

Early Life and Background

Claude Cahunoriginal name Lucy Renee Mathilde Schwob was born on October 25, 1894, in Nantes, France, and died December 8, 1954 St. Helier, Jersey. She grew up in a well-to-do family with a strong literary roots. Cahun’s father Maurice owned and published Le Phare de la Loire, a regional newspaper that ha been in the family since 1876. Her uncle was the well known symbolist writer Marcel Schwob and her great-uncle David Leon Cahun was an orientalist and prolific writer and poet.

Her German mother ,she suffered from mental illness and was permanently admitted in 1898 in an asylum. Cahun went to live her paternal grandmother Mathilde Cahun for several years. She grew up during the antisemictic movement of the Drefus Trial, Cahun was jewish on her father’s was bullied at school because of that. Her father worried about the growing anatisemetism sent her Surrey England to study. She return in 1909, she met Suzanne Malherbe, the daughter of family friends. She fell in love.

Later on when Suzanne’s father passed Cahun’s father married Suzanne mother. Suzanne and Claude were stepsisters but also lifelong companion and collabarator. Cahun showed an early interest in writing and literature, which was encouraged by her parents.

She also attended a progressive co-educational school in Nantes, where she was exposed to the ideas of feminism and social justice. Claude Cahun also developed an interest in photography and image-making, which would later become a central part of her art practice. Claude Schwob adopted the Pseudonym Claude Cahun in 1914.

Artistic Period of Claude Cahun

Cahun’s artistic career began in the 1920s when she moved to Paris and became involved in the Surrealist movement. She worked in various mediums, including photography, writing, and performance art. One of Cahun’s most well-known works is her series of self-portraits, which she created using costumes, makeup, and props to transform herself into different personas.

Cahun’s art often dealt with themes of identity, gender, and power. She frequently challenged social norms and conventions, creating provocative and sometimes disturbing images. Cahun was also interested in the concept of the subconscious and explored the idea of the dream world in her work.

Cahun’s self-portraits are a hallmark of her art. She frequently used masks, costumes, and props in her photographs, manipulating her appearance to the point where her gender and even her humanity were often ambiguous. In one photo, Cahun appears as a faceless, androgynous figure, her features obscured by a white mask.

In another, she poses in a military uniform, her short hair and severe expression challenging conventional ideas of femininity. The use of masks and costumes allowed Cahun to explore gender and identity in a playful and thought-provoking way. Her self-portraits challenged the viewer to question their assumptions about gender and the nature of identity itself.

Cahun’s artwork is often associated with the surrealist movement, a group of artists who sought to express the unconscious mind through their art. Like other surrealists, Cahun used dreamlike imagery, juxtaposition, and symbolism to create both disorienting and thought-provoking works.
But while the surrealists were often criticized for their misogyny and tendency to objectify women in their art, Cahun’s work subverted these ideas. In her self-portraits, Cahun used her body as a canvas, reclaiming her image from the male gaze and subverting traditional notions of femininity.

Gender Identity and Sexuality

Claude Cahun’s gender identity and sexuality were complex and fluid. Although assigned female at birth, Cahun identified as non-binary and often presented themselves as androgynous in their self-portraits.
Cahun’s art can reflect her gender identity, challenging traditional gender roles through their use of masculine clothing and poses. Cahun’s images also frequently included symbols and motifs associated with masculinity and femininity, creating a sense of ambiguity and fluidity that fascinates audiences today.
Throughout her artistic period, she always tried to challenge popular opinions and invited others to think about gender roles once again.

Cahun’s relationships were also unconventional. She had a romantic and artistic partnership with her stepsister, Marcel Moore, and the two lived together throughout their lives. Cahun’s writing and art often explored the theme of love and desire, and they described her sexuality as “neuter,” rejecting traditional notions of binary gender and sexual orientation.

Cahun’s exploration of gender identity and sexuality was radical for her time and remains a source of inspiration for many artists and activists today. She promoted through her art, acceptance and understanding of diverse gender identities and sexual orientations.

Claude Cahun
Claude Cahun Self Portrait Series

Imprisonment and Resistance

During the rise of Nazism in Europe, Cahun and Moore witnessed the spread of this ideology, which led to the German invasion of Jersey in 1940, the closest point to mainland British soil. Despite the danger, the two women chose to stay and participate in the resistance against the Nazis.

They produced and distributed anti-Nazi propaganda, often by slipping homemade leaflets into the pockets of German soldiers. Their acts of resistance were an extension of the surrealist group’s advocacy for “indirect action,” and Cahun described their work as a “militant surrealist activity.” 

Even though they were initially able to carry out their work without being suspected, they were eventually caught, arrested, and charged with listening to the BBC and inciting troops to rebel. While in prison, Cahun and Moore continued their resistance activities, writing and distributing anti-Nazi messages. They also created a series of collages and photographs that documented their experiences in prison. These works, collectively known as “Aveux non avenus” (Disavowed Confessions), were later published as a book.

Claude Cahun " Aveux non Avenus
Claude Cahun ” Aveux non Avenus”

They were sentenced to death but were released only with the island’s liberation in May 1945, after spending almost a year in separate cells. Upon returning home, they found that most of their artwork had been destroyed by the Nazis. In recognition of their contribution to the resistance, Cahun was awarded the Medal of French Gratitude in 1951. Some art historians argue that their resistance should be seen as an extension of their radical artistic practice.

Claude Cahun’s Legacy

Cahun’s legacy continues to inspire artists and activists today. Their exploration of gender identity and political resistance has resonated with a new generation of artists seeking to challenge societal norms and conventions.
Her work has been exhibited in galleries worldwide, and she has been the subject of numerous academic studies and critical essays. In recent years, her self-portraits and exploration of gender and identity have gained renewed interest and relevance in contemporary discussions about gender and sexuality.

Claude Cahun’s unconventional artistic expression, multiple personas, and intriguing personal life have inspired and captivated countless artists. esseialCahun’s photography has influenced famous individuals, such as David Bowie, who celebrated her work in a 2007 exhibition in New York.

Her gender-fluid self-presentation and non-heterosexual connections make her an important figure for both feminist and LGBTQ+ communities.Bowie described Cahun’s work as provocative, with surrealist inclinations and cross-dressing tendencies. Despite her close ties to the Surrealist movement, Cahun has yet to receive the recognition she deserves outside of the UK and France. Nonetheless, her legacy and influence continue to inspire and influence contemporary artists and activists.

Later Life and Death

After the war, Cahun and Moore returned to their home on the island of Jersey, where they lived a relatively quiet life. After this traumatic period, Cahun’s health began to decline, and she suffered from chronic illnesses. Despite her deteriorating health, she continued to produce and exhibit her artwork.
In 1954, Cahun was diagnosed with osteomyelitis, a severe bone infection, and had to have her left leg amputated. This marked a turning point in her life and work, and she began to create art that explored the themes of death, illness, and disability.

Cahun’s last major project was her autobiography, “Disavowals,” which she wrote in 1950 but was not published until after her death. The book is a complex and layered reflection on identity, gender, and politics, and it has become a key text in feminist and queer theory.

On December 8, 1954, Cahun passed away at 60. Her funeral was a small affair, attended only by her sister and a few friends. She was buried in the family plot in St Brelade’s Churchyard, Jersey, where her grave went unmarked for many years. It was not until the 1990s that a small plaque was placed on the site, acknowledging her life and work.

Claude Cahun
Self Portrait 8 May 1945

Final Thoughts

Claude Cahun was a trailblazing artist and writer whose work continues to push boundaries and challenge audiences. Cahun’s life and art were marked by her courage, creativity, and commitment to social justice. Her self-portraits and surrealist art challenged traditional ideas about gender and identity, and her writing explored themes of desire and intimacy.

Her activism during World War II and her resistance to the Nazi regime demonstrated her unwavering commitment to justice and freedom. Cahun’s life and work continue to inspire artists and activists today. Her legacy as a queer icon and pioneer in gender and identity exploration remains an integral part of art history.

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