“Lucy and Kid”. Nantes, ca.1926. Original silver print. This piece seems to close the series of “self-portraits with a glass globe” (1926), which initiates complex manipulations, technical processes that Claude Cahun (along with Marcel Moore) will later use for photomontages (1929-1939). Note the disturbing position of the suspended cat, held above the void against a background reminiscent of the decor of an expressionist film.
Claude Cahun was a French photographer and writer known for her surrealist self-portraits. Her performative photographic practice explores themes of identity, gender nonconformity, and self-image. Cahun’s art prefigured the radical feminist photography of artists such as Cindy Sherman, Nan Goldin, and Yasumasa Morimura.
Persistently aiming to undermine authority and actively disavow social and cultural norms, Cahun was highly politicised, both in her art and her everyday life and was active as a resistance worker and propagandist during World War II.
Despite not receiving recognition during her lifetime, Cahun’s artwork has been exhibited widely at major galleries around the world including The Museum of Modern Art and The Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Cahun was born in Nantes, France in 1894 to a prominent Jewish family. As a teenager, Cahun experimented with photography and recorded her first self-portrait in 1912. After moving to Paris to study at the Sorbonne University, Cahun immersed herself in the surrealist art scene. She began working alongside artists and intellectuals like Man Ray, André Breton, and Georges Bataille.
In the early 1920s, Cahun—born Lucy Renée Mathilde Schwob—decided to change her name to Claude Cahun. Traditionally in France, the adopted name ‘Claude’ can refer to either a woman or a man, making it gender-neutral.
Although never identifying as openly gay, Cahun’s forward thinking approach to gender-fluidity shaped her artistic practice and has established her as an important figure among artists and members of the LGBTQ community. As she wrote in her surrealist memoir Disavowals in 1930, ‘Masculine? Feminine? It depends on the situation. Neuter is the only gender that always suits me.’
Cahun often collaborated with fellow artist and lifelong romantic partner Suzanne Malherbe, who adopted the pseudonym Marcel Moore. The two artists worked together to create multidisciplinary art including collages and sculptures. Cahun and Moore also published various written works including articles and novels.
Claude Cahun is best known for her portraits capturing the self in a plethora of shifting personalities. Cahun used her photos as a device to present her own image and the overworked characteristics of feminine and masculine identity.
Her self-portraits capture posed performances where Cahun would dress as a man or woman under various guises. She fashioned her hair short, long, or completely shaved, and wore playful makeup that disguised her as anything from dandy to doll, body-builder to vampire.
Her performative portraits feature various surrealist aesthetics. From her expressions and poses, to her backgrounds and use of specific props, Cahun encapsulates the vibrancy of surrealism during its height in the 1920s. Her photographs were strikingly different to her male contemporaries because they focused on self-image as the subject and object of the work.
quoted from Ocula Limited
“Les autoportraits ont beaucoup contribué à la reconnaissance puis à l’engouement posthumes dont l’œuvre de Claude Cahun [et marcel Moore] fut l’objet. Dans un décor généralement réduit au minimum (un fond de mur, de tissu, un coin de jardin, l’angle d’une porte), avec peu d’accessoire, mais choisis pour leur qualité symbolique (…), Claude Cahun va multiplier les poses, les travestissements, les rôles, les mises à nu, pour aboutir à une sorte de chorégraphie immobile de mouvement sériel, où transparaît son attention pour la danse, la danse qui semble combiner et sublimer tous les genres. Elle ne se borne pas à questionner une identité problématique, elle la force, elle la produit. L’appareil photographique est véritablement placé dans la position d’un « miroir magique », que l’on scrute et interpelle, d’un instrument qui, paradoxalement, doit induire une transformation.”
(Catalogue exposition Claude Cahun, Jeu de Paume, Paris, Hazan, 2011, p. 64)
“The Self-portraits have contributed a great deal to the recognition and then to the posthumous enthusiasm for Claude Cahun’s [and Marcel Moore’s] work. In a decor generally kept to a minimum (a wall background, fabric, a corner of the garden, the angle of a door), with few accessories, chosen for their symbolic quality (…), Claude Cahun will multiply the poses, the disguises, the roles, the stripping, to end up with a kind of motionless choreography of serial movements, where the emphasis on dance shines through, the dance that seems to combine and sublimate all genres. They do not limit themselves to questioning a problematic identity, they force it, they produce it. The camera is truly placed in the position of a « miroir magique », which one scrutinizes and questions, an instrument which, paradoxically, must induce a transformation.” (*)
(Catalogue of the exposition Claude Cahun at Jeu de Paume, Paris, Hazan, 2011, p. 64)
(*) The modification of pronouns is completely our choice
Aveux non Avenus, by the celebrated poet, writer, sculptor and photographer Claude Cahun, was published in 1930 by Éditions du Carrefour, Paris, in an edition of five hundred. The book comprises a series of texts in French: poems, literary aphorisms, recollections of dream sequences and philosophical thoughts, ideas and meanderings. Pierre Mac Orlan, a French novelist who wrote the preface to the book, described Mademoiselle Claude Cahun’s text as ‘de poèmes-essais et d’essais-poèmes’, or ‘poem-essays and essay-poems’, and said that overall ‘the book is virtually entirely dedicated to the word adventure’
The alliterative title presents a conundrum for English translation – ‘aveux’ meaning ‘avowals’ or ‘confessions’, and ‘non avenus’ meaning ‘voided’ – and is variously translated as Disavowals, Denials, and Unavowed confessions, among other things. Curator Jennifer Mundy has written that the title suggests ‘an affirmative expression immediately followed by some form of negation or retraction’.1
Ambiguities around the title aside, there is a strong visual aspect to the book too. The texts are each demarcated with a complex and fantastical photogravure created by Cahun’s partner, Marcel Moore. These photogravure (where an image from the negative of a photograph is etched into a metal plate, similar to printmaking) are collages made up of photographic images of, and by, Cahun. Throughout the book, graphic devices of stars, eyes and lips are also used to separate sections of text. Aveux non Avenus, which has been described as an anti-realist or surrealist-autobiography of the multi-disciplinary Cahun, exists as a potential critique of the autobiography format altogether, is wonderfully irreducible.
Claude Cahun was born as Lucy Renée Mathilde Schwob into a prominent intellectual Jewish family in Nantes, France, in 1894. Her father, Maurice Schwob, owned the regional newspaper Le Phare de la Loire; her uncle was the avant-garde Symbolist writer Marcel Schwob; and her great-uncle the orientalist and writer, David Léon Cahun. Following the institutionalisation of her mother, Mary-Antoinette Courbebaisse, Cahun was raised from a young age by her grandmother, Mathilde Cahun. In her teens, her father remarried and she gained a stepsister, Suzanne Malherbe; they were to become life-long partners and collaborators.
Fond of alliterations, and having temporarily used several different male pseudonyms (Claude Courlis and Daniel Douglas), around 1916 she adopted the name of Claude Cahun – the surname taken from her maternal grandmother’s side of the family, and Claude for its intentional gender ambiguity and neutrality. Suzanne Malherbe, similarly, took on the name of Marcel Moore. Cahun also explored ideas around gender indeterminacy through her physical appearance and dress – early self-portraits show her with shortly cropped and shaved hair, and intentionally ‘masculine’ forms of dress, as well as adopting various guises – from doll, to aviator, to dandy. It was the beginning of a long exploration, in art and life, into a radical and persistent questioning of traditional ideas around gender roles, identity and authority.
The city of Paris re-established itself as the hub of the arts during the early years of the postwar period, drawing together artists, writers and musicians from around the world. […] Against this cultural and social backdrop, Claude Cahun commenced studies in philology and philosophy at the Sorbonne in Paris while Marcel Moore worked as a graphic designer and fashion illustrator. Their first known collaboration, ‘Vues et visions’ (‘Views and Visions’), with text by Cahun and illustration by Moore, was published in the literary journal Mercure de France. In 1920 they made a home together in Montparnasse – the centre of artistic activity at this time – and became a prominent couple immersed in a circle of avant-garde literary, artistic and theatrical practitioners. Particular friends during this period were two significant bookstore owners – Sylvia Beach, the British expatriate who established the bookstore Shakespeare and Company, and Adrienne Monnier, owner of La Maison des Amis des Livres. Independently wealthy, Cahun and Moore also hosted artists’ salons from their apartment and guests included the likes of the co-founder of the Surrealist movement, André Breton, and Belgian writer and painter Henri Michaux.
It was during these years in Paris that Cahun wrote the majority of text for Aveux non Avenus – specifically between about 1919 and 1925, with a later section added in 1928. Cahun begins the book with a statement that reveals the complex self-analysis she was exploring and sets the tone for the abstract and non-coherent picture that the book paints of the artist. As she wrote, imagining herself in front of a camera:
The lens tracks the eyes, the wrinkles skin deep … the expression on the face is fierce, sometimes tragic. And then calm – a knowing calm, worked on, flashy. A professional smile – and voilá! The hand held mirror reappears, and the rouge and eye shadow. A beat. Full stop. New paragraph.
At this time Cahun was also experimenting extensively with photography and self-portraiture. It is believed that her first self-portraits were taken around 1913, in her late teens, and the examination of gender using her own face and body continued throughout her life. In the 1920s, the images were often highly theatrical and staged, and made use of costumes, makeup and masks to blur and alter her identity. Cahun often gazes directly at the camera in her portraits from this time – her distinct, angular face and androgynous hairstyle is immediately recognisable and yet intentionally inscrutable. Indeed, Marcel Moore clearly had an abundance of photographic materials to work with when producing the collages for the book – with Cahun’s face mirrored, cropped and repeated extensively throughout the illustrations, and yet, like the texts, telling you very little about the person in the traditional sense of an autobiography. The frontispiece is one of the most obscure images in the book, introducing symbols of the eye and mouth, and mirroring techniques, all of which appear throughout. Curator Anne O’Hehir has said that ‘the eye represented Moore, the artist, and the mouth, Cahun, the writer and actor’.
A later collage by Moore, in the section entitled ‘I.O.U.’, or ‘self-pride’, shows a detail of a photograph by Cahun from 1927 reworked in the lower right corner. Cahun is seen posing as a carnival weightlifter, legs crossed and her top adorned with the phrase ‘I am in training don’t kiss me’, and a love heart drawn onto her leggings and painted onto her cheeks. Combining photographs, drawing and text, the composite image also shows a series of stacking dolls, each receding in size and revealing an X-ray-like image of a baby or foetus within; a drawing of a man, woman and child whose stomachs extend out from their bodies to join them physically together; a stack of Cahun’s ‘faces’ are repeated and overlaid to form an abstracted tower of eyes and foreheads and mouths. Hand-written text outlines this ‘tower’ – translated into English, it reads, ‘Under this mask, another mask; I will never finish removing all these faces’.
Following the rise of fascism throughout Europe, Cahun and Moore left Paris for the isolated Channel Island of Jersey. It was not the haven they had anticipated; soon after German military forces invaded Paris, Jersey was also overrun. Cahun and Moore became highly active anti-Nazi campaigners – eventually being arrested and imprisoned by the Gestapo in 1944. Sentenced to death, they were saved only when the island was liberated in 1945. Cahun’s health suffered terribly during this time, however, and she died in 1954. Marcel Moore died in 1972; they are buried together in St. Brelade’s Church, on the island.
Many of Cahun and Moore’s remaining possessions and artworks were bundled into chests and crates and sold, for little, at auction – fortunately much of the archive ended up at the Jersey Heritage Trust. Having been largely forgotten in the mid-twentieth century, their work was gradually rediscovered and widely circulated through publication and exhibition in the 1990s. Their radical ideas around gender-indeterminacy and selfhood became of great influence, as did Cahun’s pioneering use of self-portraiture as a means of questioning and constructing identity – ideas and techniques which were, and continue to be, of vital interest to contemporary artists of the late twentieth century. Aveux non Avenus remains one of Cahun’s best-known, if perpetually intriguing, works.
1 Mundy, ‘Introduction’, Disavowals or Cancelled Confessions: Claude Cahun, The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2007, p. xi.
2 O’Hehir and Wise, ‘Sole survivor: Re-evaluating and conserving Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore’s only known remaining photomontage used for Cahun’s 1930 publication Aveux non Avenus (Disavowed Confessions)’, Topics in Photographic Preservation, 2013, vol. 15, p. 380.
Quoted from National Gallery of Victoria: Claude Cahun by Maggie Finch and Isobel Crombie. The essay was originally published in the 2019 July/August edition of NGV Magazine.
« Sous ce masque, un autre masque. Je n’en finirai pas de soulever tous ces visages » Claude Cahun
“Beneath this mask is another mask. I’ll never stop removing all those faces” Claude Cahun
To judge from her literary, poetic and photographic works, it is clear that Claude Cahun was an artist of the avant-garde in many respects. Her surreal and mysterious self-portraits have been an inexhaustible inspiration for many artists of today and her cross-dressing and troubled view of her own identity were and remain a favorite subject for “gender studies”.
A multi-disciplinary artist, in the 1920s Cahun aligned herself with the surrealists, first joining literary circles and then artistic ones.Truly precocious in this time, her insatiable search for herself began then. She shaved her head, constantly wore disguises and questioned her sexuality. Endlessly ambiguous, the artist transformed herself into a man, a Buddha or even a fairy-like creature. It was through cross-dressing that she embarked on her construction process. Les Aveux non Avenus (1930), a work created by four hands (with Suzanne Malherbe known as Moore, her life partner) is a blend of writing and photography somewhere between a search for self and an indecipherable camouflage, as its opening lines demonstrate: “The objective follows the eyes, the mouth, the wrinkles in the skin. The facial expression is violent, sometimes tragic. Finally calm – the conscious, deliberate calm of acrobats. A professional smile – and there it is! The hand-mirror, rouge and eye shadow are back again. For a moment. Full stop. New paragraph. I start again. What a ridiculous little game for those who have not seen – and I haven’t shown anything – the obstacles, the chasm, the steps I’ve climbed”.
This (…) is the first of the nine illustrations comprising the anthology of Aveux non Avenus. The surrealist photomontage is a true self-portrait. The artist’s eye and mouth are immediately identifiable. Then, in the mirror, we recognize the reflection of her famous double self-portrait Que me veux-tu? [What do you want of me?] created in 1929. The presence of so many arms could be a wink at that collaborative work but it also evokes Kali, the Hindu goddess of creation and destruction. Moreover, the omnipresence of the circle symbolises the finite and the infinite, and hence the perfection of the Creator, those four letters inscribed at the top of the picture, crossed by a two-headed bird, while the pomegranate is a metaphor for fertility. This set of twin symbols refers the viewer to the man-woman dichotomy so as better to deconstruct preconceived ideas about sex.
quoted from Lot Essay
(*) The only original artwork of the 10 made by Marcel Moore is this one above for the frontispiece of Aveux non Avenus and it is in the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra.
« L’objectif suit les yeux, la bouche, les rides à fleur de peau… L’expression du visage est violente, parfois tragique. Enfin calme- du calme conscient, élaboré, des acrobates. Un sourire professionnel – et voilà ! Reparaissent la glace à main, Lerouge, et la poudre aux yeux. Un temps. Un point. Alinéa. Je recommence. Mais quel manège ridicule pour ceux qui n‘ont pas vu – et je n’ai rien montré – les obstacles, les abîmes, et les degrés franchis. »
quoted from Lot Essay
Aveux non avenus (Unavowed Confessions) (1930) is a collection of essays and recorded dreams, justly celebrated for the remarkable collaborative photo-montages of Cahun and Moore. (**)
Where, for heaven’s sake, did you find the audacity to go against society’s expectations in such spectacular fashion – to look like an androgynous 1980s New Romantic, to cut off your hair, to dye that little buzz cut gold? You said you tried every way to fly under the radar, to be studious and good. Hardly surprising considering the difficult childhood you had – your mother in and out of institutions before disappearing, then you tied to a tree by those beastly school kids for being Jewish at the time of the Dreyfus affair. Children can be horrendously cruel to each other – Lord of the Flies scenarios in a blink of the eye. (*)
Maybe meeting Suzanne when you were young was your ‘rencontre foudroyante’ moment – your lightning encounter. You knew Suzanne/Marcel always had your back, and you found the courage to grow into your authentic self. Something so many of us are unable to do. How lucky you were to have found each other – a relationship that would last until the end of your life. From heady exciting days in Paris through the 1920s and 30s, and all those great friendships with actors, writers and artists. I suspect Marcel might have been a quiet force, the one who grounded you. And of course, you did work in collaboration, probably more than is acknowledged. It is after all Marcel’s name that appears on the bottom of our collage. We are still, despite everything, too much in love with the idea of individual genius to want to acknowledge collaboration. (*)
Alongside a copy of the book, the original artwork for the frontispiece that you and Marcel made for Aveux non Avenus is in a Gallery in Canberra. It’s what? I know. It’s bonkers. Canberra was only a few buildings, paddocks and some grand plans when you were writing the book. It is sadly the only original artwork for the illustrations to that crazy, strange, wonderful book that weren’t destroyed I’m afraid – left behind in Paris perhaps when you fled to Jersey? (If there are other collages in an attic somewhere maybe you could just tell me in a dream or something. Just me. Secret.) They are in a display at the Gallery at the moment – at a strange time when the Gallery is closed to visitors. All the works of art wait patiently to be seen again. It’s a shame because the collage in particular is looking grand – Andrea Wise, one of the paper conservators at the Gallery, has toiled away bringing it back close to how you and Marcel must have seen it when you made it all those years ago. It just shines off the wall – looking so fine, as enigmatic, sophisticated and magical as ever. It might be strange that it has ended up in a gallery all the way across the world. But then if anyone is proof that life is strange, unpredictable, extraordinary and full of surprises, it’s you. (*)
Much has been written in recent years about the gender-fluid writer, sculptor, and photographer Claude Cahun (1894–1954) and her companion Marcel Moore (Suzanne Malherbe). This statement from Cahun’s autobiography sheds light on her entire oeuvre: “Masculine? Feminine? It depends on the situation. Neuter is the only gender that always suits me.” Her art and her spirit have been kept alive by a number of well-known devotees. Notable among them was David Bowie, who created a multi-media exhibition of Cahun’s art in the gardens of Manhattan’s General Theological Seminary in 2007. (***)
(*) Open letter to Claude Cahun by Annie O’Hehir, curator of photography at the National Gallery of Australia
(**) source: Kunstmuseum Moritzburg
(***) source: Sotheby’s