CR Muse: The Adventurous Life of Claude Cahun

START body

This is CR Muse, a series dedicated to the remembrance of important artists and idea-makers from our past who have shaped culture as we know it today. From traditional creators to those of conceptual thought, we celebrate these women known not only for their work but their confident, eccentric style as well.

Claude Cahun was a revolutionary French artist that time almost forgot. Though also a writer and a sculptor, she was best known as a photographer, producing a series of self-portraits that challenged gender roles and the very nature of identity. A pioneer of gender neutrality, her work has never been more relevant—but for decades no one knew who she was.

It should be noted that Cahun never intended to be famous, and instead simply created art for the value of self-expression. Born Lucy Renee Mathilde Schwob in 1894, she adopted the name Claude (a French distinction that could be either male or female) in 1917, shaved her head, and began using costumes, wigs, and masks to create characters and identities for her photographs, with the help of Suzanne Alberte Malherbe (who later changed her name to Marcel Moore, was Claude’s romantic partner and stepsister, and was widely believed to be the one behind the camera).

What Cahun was so eloquently (and captivatingly) able to prove is how our visual perceptions of gender are entirely a social construct. “Under this mask, another mask; I will never finish removing all these faces,” she wrote. And in a way, she was right—of all her portraits, no two share the same gender, age, or personality. At once Cahun is a weightlifter, a little girl, and the heroine of a fairy tale. But more often than not, Cahun is a stranger—someone completely ambiguous. It’s these images that are the most interesting, as there is an unanswerable question lurking in the viewers’ eyes: Are these more of Cahun’s characters? Or are they genuine portraits of the artist as her truest self?

In a way, both are true. As is the case with most people, Cahun’s personality is multifaceted, mixing together different aesthetics, interests, and both past and future selves. What is interesting is how she often put these personalities in conversation with each other to not only highlighted the complex way we can be multiple identities at once, but also show the relationship these personae had with each other, that made her whole.

Perhaps the only thing more intriguing than her art is how she actively stood up to fascism during World War II. In 1937, Cahun and Moore moved to the island of Jersey, off the coast of Normandy. When the island became occupied by the Nazis, the duo started a quiet, yet creative, resistance. They crafted poems based on Nazi war crimes, and (using Cahun’s gift for inhabiting different personae) posed as soldiers in letters, which they would sneak into the pockets and cars of actual army members. It was a deeply risky endeavor, and when Cahun and Moore were caught in 1944, they were sentenced to death.

Luckily, the island was liberated, but not before Cahun spent a year in prison, which would ultimately affect her health permanently. She died 1954, and for a while, it seemed as though her memory was gone, too. But by the 1980s, with the help of a historian and newfound public interest, Cahun’s legacy was properly solidified in art history.

One can’t help but wonder how Cahun would have fared with social media today, in an age where apps and platforms have not only provided tools to help us curate and construct a character to present to the world, but actively encourage that we do so. In this regard, Chaun was ahead of her time. And that dedication to not only exploring one’s true self, but sharing it with the world, continues to be a radical act. Coupled with her courage to do so in the face of adversity (and to stick up for what she believed in, regardless of the consequences), cements Cahun’s legacy as one of the most fearless and progressive artists of all time.

prev link:
createdAt:Fri, 01 Jun 2018 23:37:09 +0000
displayType:Long Form Article