In costume – The Green Amsterdammer

Claude Cahun & Marcel Moore, Untitled (Cahun with mirror image), 1928. 107 mm x 82 mm

Jersey Heritage Collections

Claude Cahun poses in a picture as a weightlifter. She has pursed her lips and drawn hearts on her cheeks. On her sweater there are dots where her nipples are, between them it says: ‘I’m in training, do not kiss me’. There are also pictures where she looks at the camera with a bald head through the mirror. There are edited pictures where her face appears to be under a bell, there are pictures where she looks in the mirror with shaved head. In one photo, she is sitting naked on a blanket, legs together, arms in front of her breasts, a Venetian mask covering her eyes. Almost all of the images in which Marcel Moore portrayed his life partner Claude Cahun are staged. Only the picture where you see German soldiers walking down the beach from their home in Jersey is a snapshot.

All of these images, taken by Cahun and Moore between about 1915 and 1950, were unknown until the early 1990s. Now they are central to the exhibition Claude Cahun: Under the skin in Kunsthal in Rotterdam. A new chance exhibition: A year and a half ago, this particular exhibition was hardly available due to the corona closure at the Cobra Museum in Amstelveen.

That only Cahun is mentioned as the author in the title is partly due to the discovery story of the photographs. In the 1980s, French author François Leperlier researched a book he stumbled upon, Aveux non avenus, (loosely translated as ‘Fictional Confessions’), with a surreal looking photo collage for each chapter. The lyrics were sensual, sometimes erotic, and although Leperlier had at first thought that this Claude Cahun was a male writer, he got the feeling that the name might also be hiding a woman. The woman who appeared everywhere in the photo collages in the book actually turned out to be the author as well. Through an appeal in a newspaper on Jersey, Channel Island, where Cahun had died in 1954, Leperlier came in contact with a real estate salesman who had just taken over the remains of the furniture from Suzanne Malherbe or Marcel Moore. She had taken her own life in Jersey in 1972.

The estate consisted of books, papers and photos. Leperlier published a first book on ‘the photographs of Claude Cahun’ in 1992, and the same year there was an exhibition in New York. Due to the simultaneous emergence of queer theory Cahun grew retroactively into a role model. Malherbe and Moore fell into the background due to lack of written sources and visibility.

Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore, I’m in training, do not kiss me, 1927. 117 mm x 89 mm

Jersey Heritage Collections

Yet there is no history of Cahun without Moore. Cahun was born Lucy Schwob in Nantes in 1894, into a liberal Jewish intellectual environment where it was almost natural that she would start writing. Her father was a journalist, editor-in-chief of the local newspaper Phare de la Loire, her grandfather had been friends with Théophile Gautier and Jules Verne.

Lucy first met Suzanne Malherbe, two years older than her, when she was six. They lived in the same environment, Malherbe’s father and grandfather were doctors. When Lucy returned to Nantes at the age of fourteen after a year of boarding school in England, she immediately fell in love with her old playmate. Now the two often went out by bike, in the country, to avoid convictions or scandals. “Suzanne and I had to overcome difficulties that I like to leave to the imagination,” she later wrote.

Lucy’s health deteriorated due to appendicitis and subsequent ether dependence. The Malherbe family understood that Suzanne’s presence had such a beneficial effect on her that they had to approve their visit. It became even easier in 1917: Lucy’s divorced father married Suzanne’s mother, who was now a widow. Thus, the daughters became step-sisters and could live together without being noticed.

Malherbe studied at the École des beaux-arts in Nantes and made illustrations for books and articles. Schwob wrote these articles and they were published in her father’s newspaper. As a pseudonym, Schwob chose a first name used for both men and women in France, and the (Jewish) surname of her father’s mother. The motivation behind Malherbe’s pseudonym is unknown.

They took pictures together. According to cinema Jeffrey H. Jackson, none of them had ever had any education in that field and never had anything but a simple portable Kodak camera. Oddly enough, there is no information at all in the exhibition about how, why and when the two took pictures.

Who were the pictures for? The couple, Cahun and Moore, made the portraits for each other

The images themselves can also not be seen in their original form. With two exceptions, there are magnified digital prints. According to the explanation, Cahun’s work in this form comes closer to the visitor, and the ‘theatrical or personal character of the work becomes clearer – as if it is necessary to hide the fact that the fragile originals have apparently not been lent out.

In one of the first photos, 21-year-old Schwob is sitting behind a desk. She seems engrossed in a book, on the backbone of the closed copy one can read that it is about The image of femme by Armand Dayot from 1899. To fit into the female ideal of her time, she had to study it seriously, this is how Schwob and Malherbe’s idea seems to be with the photo. We know that Schwob felt most at home in the neutral sex, as described by the British sexologist Havelock Ellis, whose texts Schwob translated into French.

Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore, Photomontage, Introducing Chapter 8, entitled HUM, in Aveux Non Avenus ca. 1930

Jersey Heritage Collections

The couple left in 1920 to Paris. They became regulars at the literary salons of Sylvia Beach and Adrienne Monnier, they met Paul Valéry and Jacques Prévert, Gertrude Stein, Tristan Tzara and that’s how they came in contact with the surrealists. They would remain lifelong friends with Jacqueline Lamba, the wife of the sovereign surrealistic (and homophobic) André Breton. Malherbe’s address book contained the names of Salvador Dalí, Georges Bataille and Jacques Lacan.

This is where the book originated Aveux non avenus, with the intriguing collages, where the themes from the chapters are portrayed suggestively. The collage of the exhibition hangs in poster format, which according to the explanation is made together by Cahun and Moore. That Chicago Tribune mentions in the section Who is who abroad in 1929 that Malherbe under her artist name Marcel Moore makes the collages with the images of Cahun. ‘Completely printed by herself, these photographs are something new in the field’, is in the newspaper clipping that is in a display case.

Cahun was the actress who became an actress with avant-garde theater companies and posed in costume for the Kodak camera that Moore operated. In addition to the question of who took the pictures – the model, the woman behind the camera or both – there is the question of who the pictures were intended for. In addition to the collages in the book, the couple made the portraits for each other, with their own story, not documented to the outside world.

For example, there is the intriguing photo where Cahun poses in a black long cloak to which all sorts of masks are attached. Only after looking closely can you see that the face of the figure is also an expressionless mask. A photo that now more than enough gives rise to analyzes of its significance, but the original intention remains uncertain.

In 1936, Cahun did own title with the exhibition organized by Breton objects in a Parisian gallery. She showed assemblies that referred to the political mood at the time – the left-wing People’s Front had just won the parliamentary election after a fierce battle against the far right. The objects that Cahun exhibited sometimes still exist, but at the exhibition in Rotterdam there are only photos of the objects that they have probably had made as documentation material. Only the name Cahun is mentioned as the author. As if she had not exhibited the objects but the pictures.

The political mood became gloomy, the traditional family-with-child ideal became more and more suffocating, and in 1937 the couple decided to move to Jersey, the Channel Island, where they had been regulars since 1916. In ‘La Rocquaise’, a former farmhouse on the granite cliffs overlooking St. Brelade’s Bay, the couple introduced themselves again as Lucy Schwob and Suzanne Malherbe: wealthy step-sisters over forty who chose a quiet life in the healthy sea air.

On it bbcradio they heard the increasingly gloomy messages from Germany, from July 1940 the Germans were also physically present on the island. In response to the indifferent attitude of the people of Jersey towards this German presence, Schwob and Malherbe began their silent opposition.

They started making collages with fragments from propaganda posters and the glossy German propaganda magazine signal† They provided the images with texts to convince readers of the futility of the war. German readers: Malherbe had learned enough German to know what words he would need to come to appear as a German soldier on a dissertation.

They secretly hid the pamphlets in the unsold German magazines in the newsagents in the village. They also distributed their own texts in German, typewritten in edition with carbon paper, which they signed with ‘the soldier without names’. ‘paper balls’ cinema Jackson calls the pamphlets. Although the Wehrmacht secret police quickly saw the documents, it was not until June 1944 that the ‘sisters’ were discovered and imprisoned.

They survived captivity and were liberated on May 8, 1945, their belongings, books and works of art had largely disappeared. They were physically and mentally shaken, even though, as can be seen in pictures from 1947, they had enough energy to make Cahun pose as Soldier without Namur Cigarette in mouth, skull in hand.

That they as women over forty attracted little attention had worked in their favor. It is a pity that the exhibition in Rotterdam failed to present a story about Cahun and Moore, about the hassle-free collaboration that should show that women are not only interesting because of what they have done and who or what they were. An equal co-authorship in a love affair is apparently still unthinkable – as if one of the two should always play weightlifting.

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