by Erica Stratton
While researching a book on Surrealism, a man named François Leperlier came across a remarkable series of self-portraits created by an artist he had never heard of before: Claude Cahun. The name sounded masculine—some early biographers even used male pronouns—but she was female-bodied. In these pictures, Cahun showed a remarkable ability for gender transformation. She holds mysterious props that turn her into a magician, a doll, or an impenetrably masked androgyny. With her hooked nose and a shaved head, it seems she could photograph herself as male, female, or any shade in between.
Though Leperlier rediscovered Cahun in the 1980s—30 years after her death—it wasn’t until the early ’90s that her photos were shown at several international art shows celebrating Surrealism. As scholars delved into Cahun’s work, their perception of her identity seemed to shift with each summation. She collaborated with many of the Surrealists, but didn’t join the movement as one of them; her work is said to be marginalized because she was a woman, but her writing hints that she may not have thought of herself as female. Modern archivists have held her work up as an example of a transperson, an androgyny, a lesbian, queer, and even a transhumanist. She wrote in her autobiography, Disavowals, “Shuffle the cards. Masculine? Feminine? It depends on the situation. Neuter is the only gender that always suits me.”
Cahun was based in Paris throughout most of her career. She wrote and created photographs with her partner, Marcel Moore, until the 1930s, when they retired from the Parisian art world and moved to Jersey Island. They named the house they lived in La Ferme Sans Nom, “the Farm Without a Name,” and lived there until the 1940s. Then, Nazis occupied the island. Cahun and her partner were arrested for putting fliers protesting the occupation under the windshields of Nazi vehicles and inside of newspapers for sale, and leaving cartons full of them in alleyways. They were imprisoned and threatened with execution, but released shortly thereafter.
During her career, Claude Cahun was better known for her writings than her photographs, which were never shown during her lifetime. Happily, Disaovowals and another book, Heroines, have been translated from French into English, but the bulk of her written work still remains uncollected.