Gender Heroes: Claude Cahun (1894-1954)

Claude Cahun, originally uploaded by Peglessness.

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–early biographers 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 seemed 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, Disavowels, “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, inside of newspapers for sale, and leaving cartons full of them in alleyways. They were imprisoned, but happily released shortly thereafter.

During her lifetime, Claude Cahun was better known for her writings than her photographs, which were never shown during her lifetime. Happily, Disaovowels and another book, Heroines, have been translated from French into English, but the bulk of her written work still remains uncollected.

Posted by on February 27th, 2011 at 10:00 am

Category: faces 4 comments »

4 Responses to “Gender Heroes: Claude Cahun (1894-1954)”

  1. math

    totally, she’s so major.


  2. Tasha

    Ah, the subject of my Masters thesis – love hir!


  3. Dibbs

    Thank you for the article, I hadn’t known of this person before, this was really cool. I am however wondering about the persistent use of female pronouns to refer to a person who, in their own words, apparently identified as neutral (or at least, not exclusively female) – it jars a little is all.

    But I definitely need to go look up more about Claude Cahun, ze sounds awesome. :)


  4. Clare

    An extraordinary and courageous individual – this is what it’s like to be a free person. The only person i can think of who comes anywhere close in that mercurial quality of appearance would be either british actreesses Miranda Richardson or Tilda Swinton – possibly a mix of both. Long may her memory, and example, endure!


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