Anarchists of Style: Claude Cahun

“I knew they used to write poetry and articles to French papers and journals—they dressed—let’s say, very modern”

-Arthur Newman, fisherman, 1938

c. 1928, JHT

In this column, Monica and I are seeking to celebrate 20th century characters who defy sartorial standards, instead using their own creativity to create a unique identity and iconography. Considering our well-informed readership, we’re attempting to go beyond the classic (yet beloved) images of say, Marlene Dietrich in pants.

So it is with great pleasure that we present Claude Cahun.

The Anarchist: Writer and photographer, Claude Cahun, born Lucy Schwob in 1894.

Her Persona: Throughout her lifetime, Cahun would ultimately be labeled the following: Lesbian, Symbolist, Surrealist, Communist, anti-Stalinist, anti-war activist and amusingly—“an old lady in black who looked so ill.”(1) (Cahun remembers this moment—her first interrogation with Nazi interrogators—to which she went in “disguise” as Lucy Schwob. Her mask was temporarily successful, as the Nazis apologized to this apparently harmless elder.)

c. 1927, JHT

Her photographs are difficult to classify, although often clearly express an attempt to eradicate differentiation between male and female identities. As author Gen Doy explains, “What tends to unify them is their success in eluding categorization: neither male or female, old/young, butch/femme.” (2)

Author Jennifer Shaw takes a slightly different view. Through reading Cahun’s written work, she believes the artist’s intent was an “inward turning self-exploration, an attempt, a dream, to escape the contingencies of the body and the physical world that is specifically female and to become only one thing—a beating heart.” (3)

Her Story: As the daughter of an important literary family in Nance, France, Lucy Schwob was a sickly child, who was encouraged to and enjoyed engaging in intellectual endeavors. In 1909, upon meeting Suzanne Malherbe (who changed her name to Marcel Moore), she would find a lifelong partner in her passions. Wonderfully, in Malherbe, she also found lifelong passion. Ironically, Calhun’s father and Moore’s mother, both widowers, married in 1917.

Calhun and Moore took up living quarters together in Paris in the early 1920s, and Cahun shaved her head bald. Although many “new women” of the time had been chopping their hair in declaration of play, independence, or even simply in the name of fashion, Cahun’s new look went far beyond the “Castle Clip.” It was a harbinger of a life that would embody anti-establishment causes.

c. 1928, JHT

JHT

While her photographs would go long unpublished, her written work was more widely recognized. For example, the 1925 publication of Heroines, was an important collection that broke down classic fairy tales for the modern woman (for example, the prince in Cinderella was not in love with the title character, but a foot fetishist with a passion for the glass slipper). By the 1930s, she was becoming firmly ensconced in the Surrealist circle, and befriended by such notables as Man Ray, André Breton, Tristan Tzara, and Salvador Dali. Her written work was abundant in the 1930s.

In 1937, Cahun and Moore purchased a home, La Rocquaise, in St. Brelade’s Bay, Jersey, and moved there permanently in 1938. Upon the German takeover of Jersey in 1940, the two began active resistance, as writer Kristine Von Oehsen described, their efforts were designed as “counter propaganda to disabuse German soldiers of how Hitler exploited them and destroyed their lives.” In Cahun’s words, she and Moore were fighting “an individual battle together.” (4)

c. 1920, JHT

When the Gestapo discovered that Cahun was, indeed, more than “an old lady in black who looked so ill,” she and Moore were sentenced to death in June 1944. In jail, she kept up the mask of Lucy Schwob. A fellow prisoner remembers her as a “demure nun-like figure with her hair in a bun…who wore a cardigan embroidered with flowers.” He also recalls the shock he experienced when seeing her earlier photographs. (5)

Cahun and Moore were released after the Liberation in 1945. They returned to La Rocquaise and remained there until Cahun’s death on December 8, 1954. Troubled by poor health, Moore committed suicide in 1972.

May 1945, JHT

Her Style: In day-to-day life, Cahun’s preferred the androgynous look: trousers, jackets, scarves worn as cravats. In her time and circles, this style would certainly be acceptable. Not mainstream, for sure, but a calculated guise for the female intelligencia of the period. It was in her photography that her look took on a performative aspect. The pictures tell the story.

(Lisa and Monica collaborated on this post.)

References:

(1, 2, 4) Doy, G. Claude Cahun: A Sensual Politics of Photography. I.B. Tauris, 2007.

(3) Shaw, J. “Narcissus and The Magic Mirror,” in Don’t Kiss Me: The Art of Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore. Tate Publishing, London, 2006.

(5) Von Oehsen, K. “The Lives of Claude Calhun and Marcel Moore,” in Don’t Kiss Me: The Art of Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore. Tate Publishing, London, 2006.

For further discussion see:

Doy, G. Claude Cahun: A Sensual Politics of Photography. I.B. Tauris, 2007.

Louise Downie (Ed.). Don’t Kiss Me: The Art of Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore. Tate Publishing. 2006.

c. 1920, JHT

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