Lucy Schwob was a writer, actress, and outspoken member of the Parisian lesbian community between the two world wars. She and Suzanne Malherbe, her stepsister, became partners in life, love, and art, and took the ambiguously gendered pseudonyms Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore for their collaborative theatrical and photographic works. The images they made mostly depict Cahun, and sometimes Moore, in a variety of masculine, androgynous, and feminine personas set in minimally staged scenes in their home.
This print is an enlargement from a negative that was cropped to frame Cahun’s face and torso; the full-length image reveals a dandy in a men’s evening suit, her stance brazen, with hand on hip and cigarette in hand. Cahun erased the visible traces of her femininity by shaving her head, wearing masculine clothes, and avoiding jewelry and makeup. Through her wide variety of self-portrayals, she undercut the notion of a fixed identity and challenged the concept of a strict gender binary. Cahun and Moore’s writings—particularly their 1930 book Aveux non avenus (Disavowals), where this photograph was reproduced—also explored a shifting, malleable concept of personhood. Cahun considered their self-imaging project to be never-ending, explaining, “Under this mask another mask. I will never finish removing all these faces.”
Publication excerpt from MoMA Highlights: 375 Works from The Museum of Modern Art, New York (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2019)
Born Lucy Schwob, the French photographer, sculptor, and writer adopted the gender-ambiguous name Claude Cahun in 1917. She is best known for her self-portraits in which she assumes a variety of personas, including dandy, weight lifter, aviator, and doll. In this image, Cahun has shaved her head and is dressed in men’s clothing. She once explained: “Under this mask, another mask; I will never finish removing all these faces.”
Cahun was friends with many Surrealist artists and writers; André Breton once called her “one of the most curious spirits of our time.” While many male Surrealists depicted women as objects of male desire, Cahun staged images of herself that challenge the idea of static gender.