February is LGBT History Month in the UK, and there are events exploring queer history up and down the country. Oxford Brookes University has an excellent programme of events, and the other day I went to the first event of LGBTHM 2017, the launch of an exhibition of Claude Cahun’s photographs, which included a film about Claude Cahun by Lizzie Thynne.
Claude Cahun was born Lucy Renee Mathilde Schwob in Nantes in 1894. She changed her name to Calude Cahun in 1919, and moved in with her stepsister and lifelong partner, Suzanne Malherbe, who used the name Marcel Moore.
Cahun made photographic self-portraits where she played with gender, light, and identity, water, and the occasional kinky motif. She played with the image of the dandy and was fascinated by Oscar Wilde. She also translated Havelock Ellis’ work on the third gender into French, and identified as a person without gender.
Malherbe/Moore was a graphic artist whose style was similar to Aubrey Beardsley; unfortunately a lot of her work did not survive.
Cahun and Moore were friends with several surrealists and artists and the left-wing avant garde generally. They were friends with Andre Breton, Robert Desnos, and other surrealists.
When the war broke out, they moved to Jersey, but even that was not safe, as the Nazis invaded the island. Cahun and Moore typed up pamphlets in German and used to put them in cigarette packets, match boxes, and the pockets of soldiers’ coats. The pamphlets informed the soldiers that they should not fight other workers, and should rise up and kill the officers. Eventually, Cahun and Moore were caught, and when they were imprisoned, they were delighted to discover that there were soldiers in the prison who had been persuaded to mutiny by their pamphlets.
On the way to prison, they each took twenty sleeping tablets in an attempt to kill themselves, but this failed and they were both very ill. The illness prevented them being shipped to the mainland for execution, and this saved their lives, because that was the last boatload of prisoners to be shipped to the mainland before the liberation of Paris by the Allies.
When they were tried for their activities, the Nazis informed them that their sentence was both shooting and two terms of imprisonment. Cahun asked which of these sentences the Nazis intended to carry out first. This annoyed the Nazis, and they responded that the shooting would be done first, and would include the other two sentences.
After the war, Cahun became increasingly reclusive, and died in 1954, her life cut short by the privations she endured in prison. Moore took an overdose in 1972, and they are buried together in St Brelade churchyard in Jersey.
As artists, as resisters, as surrealists, as lovers, these two deserve to be remembered. They lived, loved, resisted, and made art, in an unique and original way, and blazed a trail for all of us who do not conform to gender norms imposed by society. Their story is especially relevant in the current climate of fear and repression.
- Claude Cahun – Wikipedia
- Claude Cahun: A Very Curious Spirit | AnOther
- BBC – Culture – Claude Cahun: The trans artist years ahead of her time
- Acting Out: Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore – Queer Cultural Center
- Claude Cahun: Finding a lost great | Books | The Guardian
- Claude Cahun, the Lesbian Surrealist who defied the Nazis – the Daily Beast