“[Y]ou should discover, handle, tame, make irrational objects yourself.”
“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?” 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. 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. If the great modernist artist has been mythologized as a singular genius innovating in his chosen medium, then their co-productions embody a triple undoing of this myth: multimedia, collaborative projects made by two artists who adopted genderless names.
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.” 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.” They were eventually discovered as the authors, and were consequently sentenced to death, only gaining their freedom after the island’s liberation. 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.”
Alex Zivkovic, independent scholar, 2022