Serena Freewomyn

The Art of Claude Cahun

Filed By Serena Freewomyn | March 09, 2008 12:37 PM | comments

Filed in: Gay Icons and History, Media, The Movement
Tags: Claude Cahun, FTM, surrealism, transgender

When I discovered the work of photographer Claude Cahun, I was intrigued. When I read more about hir life, I was drawn in even more.

Claude Cahun was a surrealist artist who focused on the subject of gender. Born Lucy Scwob in 1894, Cahun came from a prominent Jewish family and received a good education. Schwob changed her name to Claude Cahun because Claude was a gender neutral name and Cahun was her maternal grandmother's name. This change reflected Cahun's desire to critically examine gender and aided her in her efforts to turn gender on its head.

Cahun's sexuality influenced hir work greatly. In today's world, Cahun would be considered transgender, but in hir time zie was simply homosexual. Cahun lived with hir stepsister and lifelong partner Suzanne Malherbe, another gender bender, who went by the name of Marcel Moore. Cahun felt that homosexuality gave hir a general freedom of behavior that allowed hir to mix the masculine and feminine characteristics of hir personality in order to explode the gender dichotomy.

For Cahun, gender was not a static concept. Instead, Cahun believed that gender was fluid and was constantly changing throughout a person's life. According to Steven Harris:

Her work is remarkable for the way in which she becomes both the subject and the object of her work, bringing herself into existence as an artist and writer in a way, at the same time, puts any secure notion of identity into question . . . with its emphasis on negation and . . . it's critique of modernist and naturalist aesthetics; the erosion of the foundations of a secure, stable identity was a significant feature of the surrealist project, as it tried to put the logic and forms of bourgeois culture into question through a regression to the dream or to the transcription of automatic thought . . . for Cahun, this involves a challenge to the verities of sexual difference, and an undoing of the role of art and artists, in the very attempt to negotiate a space for herself as a female artist and intelletual in a patriarchal culture. (Steven Harris, "Coup d'oil," Oxford Art Journal, 24:1, p.91)

This can definitely be seen in Cahun's photography. Cahun appears in various forms of cross-dress in all of hir self-photos, attempting to blend the masculine and feminine aspects of hir identity so that there is no distinct boundary between the two. Cahun also photographs hirself in front of mirrors, as well as with busts of hirself so that the line between self and reflection is blurred. In this way, Cahun attacks the restrictions that are placed on hir because of her gender and tries to formulate a more inclusive alternative.

aveux_deb.jpgCahun uses symbolism in hir sculpture to blur gender lines as well. For instance, eyes are symbolic of the phallus, while globes and moons are symbolic of the vagina. In Cahun's sculptures, the eye is placed in the center of the globe or moon so that the object is both phallic and vaginal at the same time. By combining the symbolic aspects of biological sex, Cahun makes the viewer as the question, "what is a woman?"

Cahun's work was also part of a larger political project. In 1937, Cahun and Moore settled in the Jersey region of France. After the German invasion, Cahun and Moore used their art to aid the resistance movement during WWII. Cahun would write subversive pamphlets on tissue paper and sneak them into the pockets of German soldiers or toss them into their cars. Zie hoped that this would help inspire mutiny within the German ranks. Unfortunately, Cahun was arrested by the Gestapo on July 25, 1944 and was imprisoned until May 8, 1945. While in prison, the majority of Cahun's work was destroyed and the remainder of hir work is only now being recovered. Claude Cahun escaped execution by the Germans but zie died in 1954 from an illness that zie developed while zie was in prison.

Claude Cahun lived a remarkable life and is a true woman warrior because the battles zie fought were personal battles that impacted society as a whole. Perhaps Cahun's artwork was a means for hir to create a space in which zie could be accepted for being transgender. In any case, Cahun's work helped to lay the foundation for a broader movement of gender benders who, like Cahun, seek to blur the distinction between male/femlae, pink/blue.

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Fascinating. I'd never heard of hir before.