Self-portrait, 1927. Her shirt says, “I am in training, don’t kiss me.”
While David Bowie will always be my very first cultural touchstone of avant-garde androgyny, it’s Claude Cahun that’s my absolute favorite. And I’m sure Bowie would approve. He once said of Cahun, “You could call her transgressive or you could call her a cross dressing Man Ray with surrealist tendencies. I find this work really quite mad, in the nicest way.” You don’t really get much of a better recommendation than that, and looking as alien and draggy as anything Mr. Rebel Rebel ever dreamed of, her many photographic incarnations are just mesmerizing.
Born in 1894 as Lucy Renee Mathilde Schwob in Nantes, France, she was from a family of artistic Jewish intellectuals. Cahun chose her pseudonym for its unisex ambiguity—the surname was her paternal grandmother’s, who raised her, as Cahun’s mother struggled with mental illness. Her life-long artistic collaborator, romantic partner, and step-sister, Suzanne Malherbe, went by Marcel Moore, and together they fostered a true avant-garde community, hosting salons in their Paris home. (André Breton, author of Surrealist Manifesto, was a regular attendant.) Though photography is her most famous medium, she was also a painter, collage artist, sculptor, novelist, playwright and essayist—many of her published essays pertained to the avant-garde artistic community.
Cahun and Moore eventually moved to Jersey, in the Channel Islands, which was occupied by Germany during World War Two. They were active in the resistance, feverishly creating protest materials of collage and poetry denouncing the Nazis. The two actually attended German military events to discreetly hide their propaganda fliers on cars, in windows, in the seats of the crowd, and even in the pockets of Nazi soldiers. They were eventually arrested and sentenced to death. They spent some time in prison before the liberation, and though their sentencing was never carried out, Cahun’s death in 1954 is largely believed to have been the premature direct result of health problems she developed in prison. She is buried next to Moore in a church in Jersey.
Le Mystère d’Adam (The Mystery of Adam) 1929
Que me veux tu?, 1928
Que me veux tu?, 1927