Claude Cahun (Lucy Schwob). M.R.M (Sex). c. 1929-30. Gelatin silver print, 6 × 4" (15.2 × 10.2 cm). Gift of Helen Kornblum in honor of Roxana Marcoci

“[Y]ou should discover, handle, tame, make irrational objects yourself.”

Claude Cahun

“The abstraction, the dream, are as limited for me as the concrete and the real,” wrote Claude Cahun. “What to do? Show a part of it only, in a narrow mirror, as if it were the whole?”1 To show the whole of life, Cahun collided dreams and reality across writing, photomontage, sculpture, photography, and performance. Through different mediums, the artist explored how symbols of fantasy like masks, dolls, and props altered and disturbed everyday situations. For Cahun, one reality was not enough, nor was one medium. Perhaps most surprisingly, nor was a singular creative voice.

Cahun is best known for striking photographic self-portraits, yet these personal images were often produced collaboratively with Marcel Moore, Cahun’s lifelong creative and romantic partner. Similarly, Cahun’s memoir Disavowals is illustrated not by works produced independently, but by photo collages made by the couple.2 As adults, the artists picked new names, replacing their family surnames and gendered first names in favor of the ambiguous and alliterative Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore, names they used for the rest of their lives. While acclaimed modernist artists have often been mythologized throughout history as male geniuses working alone in their chosen mediums, Cahun and Moore's co-productions undo these myths in various ways. Instead of one man, they were two queer artists; instead of presenting innate genius, they used a collaborative process; and instead of one medium, their multimedia projects offered us many.

Born in Nantes, France, into a creative family, the artist who would become Claude Cahun was nurtured as a child by a father and uncle who were both writers. Cahun and Moore met in their youth, and became step-siblings when Cahun’s father and Moore’s mother married. In the 1920s, Cahun and Moore moved to Paris, where they encountered an avant-garde that pushed artistic and societal norms in new directions. Cahun allied art with life, as in an untitled portrait from 1921–22, in which the artist’s suit and characteristic shaved head stage a confrontation with the prevalent binary gender norms. In addition to using fashion and appearance to convey politics, Cahun participated in a revolutionary writers’ group with fellow leftist artists.

Though Cahun never became a formal member of the French Surrealists, the admixture of dreams, the everyday, and pro-Communist politics in Cahun’s work strongly resonated with the movement. Cahun even participated in a 1936 exhibition of Surrealist art, contributing an essay titled “Beware of Domestic Objects.” In this Marxist-inflected text, the artist wanted people to envision everyday objects not just as useful tools, but as fun playthings: “you should discover, handle, tame, make irrational objects yourself.”3 This was Cahun’s intellectual justification for unsettling sculptures at the show, which included Meret Oppenheim’s furry teacup, Object (1936), and Cahun’s own Object, which featured a tennis ball painted to resemble an eye that was then covered with curly hair.

With the rise of fascism in continental Europe, Cahun—who was of Jewish descent—and Moore moved to the island of Jersey in 1937. Shortly after, the island was occupied by German troops. During this period, the two artists actively resisted the Nazis by clandestinely publishing leaflets advocating mutiny that they distributed to soldiers under the shared pseudonym “The Soldier with No Name.”4 They were eventually discovered as the authors, and were consequently sentenced to death, only gaining their freedom after the island’s liberation.5 After the war, they spent the remainder of their lives on the island.

From childhood to death, Cahun treated life and art as grounds for experimentation. Always pushing boundaries—yet adapting to changing, even dangerous circumstances—Cahun celebrated serial masquerade as a person and artist: “Under this mask, another mask. I will never finish lifting up all these faces.”6

Alex Zivkovic, independent scholar, 2022

  1. Claude Cahun, Disavowals: Or, Cancelled Confessions, trans. Susan de Muth (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007), 1.

  2. Abigail Solomon-Godeau, “The Equivocal ‘I’: Claude Cahun as Lesbian Subject,” in Inverted Odysseys: Claude Cahun, Maya Deren, Cindy Sherman, ed. Shelley Rice and Lynn Gumpert (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999), 116.

  3. Claude Cahun, “Prenez garde aux objets domestiques,” Cahiers d’art 11 (1936), 47.

  4. Laura “Lou” Bailey and Lizzie Thynne, “Beyond Representation: Claude Cahun’s Monstrous Mischief-Making,” History of Photography 29, no. 2 (June 2005): 140.

  5. Mary Ann Caws, The Surrealist Look: An Erotics of Encounter (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1997), 95-96.

  6. “Sous ce masque un autre masque. Je n’en finerai pas de soulever tous ces visages.” The French quote appears in a photomontage reproduced in Cahun, Disavowals, 183

Wikipedia entry
Claude Cahun (French pronunciation: [klod ka.œ̃], born Lucy Renee Mathilde Schwob; 25 October 1894 – 8 December 1954) was a French surrealist photographer, sculptor, and writer. Schwob adopted the pseudonym Claude Cahun in 1914. Cahun is best known as a writer and self-portraitist, who assumed a variety of performative personae. In her writing, she consistently referred to herself as elle (she), and this article follows her practice; but she also said that her actual gender was fluid. For example, in Disavowals, Cahun writes: "Masculine? Feminine? It depends on the situation. Neuter is the only gender that always suits me." Cahun is most well known for her androgynous appearance, which challenged the strict gender roles of her time. During World War II, Cahun was also active as a resistance worker and propagandist. Founding the leftist group Contre Attaque alongside Andre Breton and Batallie; a union of communist writers, artists and workers.
Information from Wikipedia, made available under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License
Getty record
Artist, Writer, Painter, Photographer, Photomontagist, Sculptor
Claude Cahun, Lucy Schwob, Claude Courlis, Lucy Renee Mathilde Schwob, Claude Cahun (Lucy Schwob)
Information from Getty’s Union List of Artist Names ® (ULAN), made available under the ODC Attribution License


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