Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore, Untitled ( I am in training don’t kiss me), 1927, gelatin silver print ,4 5/8 x 3 ½ inches, Jersey Heritage Collection.
For many of us, French artist Claude Cahun has materialized as a kind of queer superheroine. Cahun first appeared on the world art stage in the early 1990s, nearly forty years after their death, when French scholar François Leperlier introduced Claude Cahun’s written and photographic work in the monograph Claude Cahun: l’écart et la métamorphose. Since this introduction, Cahun has been well examined, republished and widely exhibited. Today, the artist Claude Cahun is lauded as a feminist, performance artist, photographer and Surrealist writer.
Claude Cahun was born Lucy Renee Mathilde Schwob in Nantes, France in 1894. Early in life Schwob identified as androgynous, resisting a gendered life. As a teenager, Lucy met Suzanne Malherbe; they became best friends and would later become life partners. Lucy’s father married Suzanne’s mother, making them stepsiblings as well. By the end of World War I, Schowb identified as Claude Cahun and Malherbe as Marcel Moore. The pair moved to Paris in the early 1920s. Cahun came to be well regarded as a writer, performer and artist even within male-dominated Surrealist circles; Moore was equally acknowledged for their original drawings and illustrations.
Cahun was a prolific writer. Two of their most significant literary works are Héroïnes and Aveux Non Avenus. Héroïnes (Heroines) was first published in 1925 as a series of fifteen short stories and monologues. It remains a radical text that deconstructs gender roles and stereotypes in Western literature with such figures as Cinderella, Salome, Eve, Sappho and Androgyne. Aveux Non Avenus (DISAVOWALS), first published in 1930 as a limited edition artists’ book, takes the form of a literary montage: a compilation of dreams, stories, poems and philosophical musings. In this complex work, Cahun approaches some of their favorite subjects, including love, narcissism, gender and androgyny. Each of the nine chapters begins with a unique photomontage made by Cahun and Moore.
Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore, photomontage for the book Aveux non Avenus, 1930, original size for publication,8 7/16 x 6 ½ inches, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art Library.
Throughout the many years Cahun and Moore spent together, it is almost certain that Moore was behind the lens— shooting most of the exceptional black and white portraits that Cahun inhabited. These images appear to us as intimate explorations of identity, gender and selfhood. Until the late twentieth century, these groundbreaking photographs remained in relative obscurity, with the exception of their use by Moore and Cahun in the elaborate photomontages produced for the book Aveux Non Avenus.
Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore, Untitled (reflected in the mirror), c.1928, Jersey Heritage Collection.
THE UNKNOWN HEROINE project is a modern retelling or interpretation of Cahun’s essay “THE ESSENTIAL WIFE or the the Unknown Princess” (one of the fifteen essays in Heroines). The resulting performative photographs can be viewed as a tribute to the work of Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore and to their collaboration.
Please read my blog post about “the limited edition artists’ book-THE UNKNOWN HEROINE, posted April 22, 2021