Claude Cahun (1894 – 1954)
Claude Cahun was the pseudonym of French photographer Lucie Schwob, best known for her Surrealist self-portraits. Born in Nantes into a wealthy intellectual family, she started photographing and writing as a teenager and enrolled at the Sorbonne in 1918, becoming involved in avant-garde theatre. She moved to Paris in 1920 with her step-sister lover Suzanne Malherbe, a graphic artist. They adopted the gender-ambiguous pseudonyms Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore and collaborated on work questioning gender and the domination of ‘the male gaze’.
To escape mounting political turmoil in pre-war France, they moved to Jersey in 1937. During the occupation, from 1940, Cahun and Moore channelled their artistic philosophy to undermine the Nazis and took considerable risks distributing hand-made, subversive flyers. They were eventually caught and imprisoned from 1944 to 1945.
Cahun’s black and white images have a haunting, confrontational quality. Her work was self-exploration and little was published in her lifetime. She often assumed a persona, experimenting with emblematic masks, mirrors, costume and double exposure.
Her genres were diverse, ranging from portraiture and nudes, to still life and landscape. In one of her best known self-portraits she is shaven-headed, dressed as a cravat-wearing dandy; in another, she wears a silver checked jacket, turning questioningly from a mirror. A still life of an iris has three plastic dolls tumbling from it. Another shows her head trapped in a glass dome.
Cahun and Moore published the groundbreaking ‘Aveux non avenus’ (Disavowals) in 1930, an illustrated book of their surrealist photomontages and writings.
Cahun took the iconic portrait of Dali’s flower-headed woman in Trafalgar Square used to promote the International Surrealist Exhibition of 1936.
Her pioneering work has inspired many contemporary artists including Gillian Wearing and Sarah Pucill.
An archive of her work is housed in The Jersey Heritage Trust
By Paula Vellet