OCTOBER 25: Claude Cahun (1894-1954)


The groundbreaking French artist
and photographer, Claude Cahun, was born on this day in 1894. Her work is known
for its daring disregard for 20th century gender roles, Claude
herself even famously saying, “Shuffle the cards. Masculine? Feminine? It
depends on the situation. Neuter is the only gender that always suits me.”

A self-portrait by Claude Cahun (x).

Claude was born Lucy Renee
Mathilde Schwob on October 25, 1894 in Nantes, France. She was born to a
wealthy Jewish family that boasted the well-known avant-garde artist Marcel
Schwob as one of its brood. Tragically, when Claude was just 4-years-old, her
mother began to show signs of serious mental illness and was put in a
psychiatric facility to live out her days. Claude was then raised by her grandmother.
She suffered a great deal of antisemitic bullying during her time at the local
schools in Nantes and eventually transferred to a private high school in
Surrey. After high school, she enrolled in
the University of Paris, Sorbonne.

One of her most well-known pieces is this surrealist self-portrait titled “What Do You Want From Me?” (x).

It was while she was at college when Claude began to practice photography. She began with
self-portraits and would continue to work in that mode throughout the 1920s and
1930s. In 1919, she officially changed her name to Claude Cahun. She briefly
considered the name Daniel Douglas, inspired by fellow gay historical icon Lord
Alfred Douglas, but Claude Cahun won out in the end for its seeming gender
neutrality. Although she had been working consistently since 1912, she didn’t
find fame until she joined the group of European surrealists in the early
1930s. In 1936, she was featured in both the London International Surrealist
Exhibition and The Exposition surréaliste d’Objets.

Claude and her partner Suzanne invent the mirror selfie in 1920 with the piece “Self-Portraits Reflected in a Mirror” (x).

Claude’s life partner was Suzanne Malherbe, who often went by the name Marcel Moore. In 1922,
they began holding salon meetings inside their home and became known as a power
couple in the artist world. Attendees of their salon were iconic artists such
as Henri Michaux, André Breton, Sylvia Beach, and Adrienne Monnier. At the rise
of World War II, they both fled Europe and settled in New Jersey. Despite being
in America, Claude and Suzanne became active in the Nazi resistance movement
and started to publish anti-German pamphlets. In 1944, Claude was arrested for
her work in the resistance. Although she was eventually released, her health never
recovered from the poor conditions of the jail and she passed away on
December 8, 1954. Today, Claude and Suzanne are buried side by side at St
Brelade’s Church.