Claude Cahun (1894-1954) was born Lucy Schwob, but around the 20s changed her name to a pseudonym, which we would now describe as gender neutral. She writes herself: “Man? Woman? It depends on the situation. Neuter is the only gender that always suits me.” In his* self-portraits, Cahun explores different (gender) roles, sexualities and identities; a theme that is still very relevant today. In early images we see Cahun depicted with a shaved head and in men’s clothing. Cahun uses his own image to constantly reinvent himself and dismantle assumptions about identity. At the age of fifteen, she meets her life partner Marcel Moore, formerly Suzanne Malherbe, with whom Cahun works closely.
Under this mask is another mask
Cahun’s participation as an actor in several Parisian avant-garde theater groups in the 1920s greatly influenced her work. Cahun regularly uses the characters she plays as a starting point for her self-portraits. In staged situations – using theatrical attributes such as make-up, costumes and draped curtains – Cahun takes on the roles of worldly dandy, buddha, sailor, man, woman, androgynous and everything in between. In the work ‘I am in training don’t kiss me’ (1927) we see her dressed as a bodybuilder with male and female features. The bright, nipple-painted shirt she wears is a parody of the typical male image of a bodybuilder. The caption on her chest taunts the viewer, who is simultaneously seduced by her painted lips and hearts on her cheeks. Each time from a different role, Cahun poses the question of whether it is possible to be your authentic self, or whether our identity is shaped by society. In particular, the use of different masks is striking. These symbolize the way we present ourselves to the outside world. In 1930, Cahun writes about this: “Under this mask is another mask. I keep freeing myself from these faces.”
Surrealism and activism
Cahun was closely involved with the emerging surrealism of the 1920s and 1930s. Not only is she good friends with some of the main characters of the movement, her work from this time clearly shows influences. Together with Moore, Cahun is currently publishing ‘Aveux non Avenus’, which could be described as an anti-autobiography. Various texts such as letters, poems, fables and written conversations and dreams alternate with photo montages and assemblages. These works, some of which can be seen in the exhibition, bring everyday objects together in an alienating way. Cahun’s artistic development goes hand in hand with an increasingly open expression of her political views. Her texts and images during this time are a response to rising nationalism and anti-Semitism.
When Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore fled to Jersey in 1937 from the rise of fascism in Europe, they continued their photographic experiments there. In 1940, they are overtaken by the threat, and the Nazis invade the Channel Islands. The couple make a conscious decision to stay in Jersey to resist. Where Cahun first mainly expressed her activism through art, she now also puts it into practice. Although poetic and subtle: Cahun and Moore distribute mysterious anti-Nazi texts and pamphlets to German soldiers to discourage them. Photo and archive material from this period can be seen in the exhibition.
Confessions to the mirror
In addition to Cahun’s works, ‘Under the skin’ shows the film ‘Confessions to the Mirror’ (16mm, 68min, 2016) by the artist and experimental filmmaker Sarah Pucill. In this final piece of the exhibition, Cahun’s photos come to life. The film is based on Cahun’s unfinished autobiography ‘Confidences au miroir’ (1945-1954).
As can be seen in Cahun’s self-portraits, identity and gender for her are unstable and ambiguous. She challenges us to look at this in a different way. Nowadays, we might see Cahun as non-binary. However, Cahun’s texts do not show that she had a preference for pronouns other than ‘she’ or ‘her’. Therefore, the Kunsthallen chooses to refer to Cahun with feminine pronouns.