Claude Cahun, the Lesbian Surrealist Who Defied the Nazis
Picture this. Two oddly dressed women walking a cat on a leash on a beautiful sandy beach, known as St. Brelade’s Bay in Jersey, the cat squealing as the waves swept closer.
Then one of them, seen again, resembling something that looked like a cross between a witch and a ghost, dressed in draped artful layers, wandering through the adjacent churchyard, situated at one end of that wide sandy beach, where she also liked to perform like an angel at night.
And all of this under Nazi Occupation of the Channel Islands during WWII.
It is what prompted the 94-year-old Jersey resident Bob LeSueur to declare, “They lived as art.” He knew the couple, who lived next door to the graveyard, only from watching scenes like these from afar.
But he described the artist Claude Cahun and her lover and stepsister, Marcel Moore, just so. “Everyone knew they were Jewish. But nobody turned them in,” he added. “They were eccentrics.”
The couple lived on this picturesque bay from 1937 until 1954, when Cahun died. But discovered by the art set long after her death, Cahun is now the subject of two exhibitions, one at Jersey’s Museum and Art Gallery, Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore: A Life Defiant, and a second show at London’s Nunnery Gallery, whose 'Magic Mirror' exhibition sets her work in dialogue with that of the filmmaker Sarah Pucill.
Described as “one of the most curious spirits of our time” by the Surrealist Andre Breton, whose family were photographed by the pair at their Jersey house, La Rocquaise, Cahun was a French writer, surrealist and artist, whose subversive art both questioned gender and self, and was a form of protest against the Nazis.
The Nazis occupied the Channel Islands during World War II, and the officers lived in a hotel across the street from the couple who formed a resistance movement for quite some time, until their cover as two old ladies was blown.
Sentenced to death, they were in fact imprisoned for a year and only released at the end of the war. One famous photograph shows them posing as old ladies, clutching a Nazi badge in their teeth. Cahun is now buried in the churchyard, with Moore, where she liked to perform at night as an angel.
Cahun was born Lucy Schwob in 1894 in Nantes to a family of rich Jewish intellectuals and writers. Her father was the editor of a local newspaper and her uncle an Orientalist and writer, and she adopted his surname in 1918.
As Louise Downie of Jersey Heritage writes in her biography of Cahun for the exhibition’s brochure, the name Claude could be both male and female in French.
At the age of 17, Cahun met Suzanne Malherbe, a graphic artist who worked under the name Marcel Moore. Moore became her lover and companion and, later, her half-sister, after Cahun’s father married Moore’s widowed mother.
The couple—Cahun called Moore “l’autre moi” (“the other me”)—lived in Paris in the 1920s and 1930s, where Cahun performed in plays and wrote. Downie says that she was best known for her writings during her lifetime, when only one of her photographs was published.
But Cahun was more than a provocative rebel. Not always understood by her contemporaries, she was a true outsider as a lesbian and a Jew living on a Nazi-occupied island.
Long after her death, she has gained recognition for her work on gender and the self, and for her photographs she has been dubbed a forerunner to contemporary artists like Cindy Sherman and Nan Goldin.
One of her most striking photographs of Cahun sees her dressed in a check jacket with short blond hair, looking like an androgynous but more masculine Tilda Swinton, gazing away from a mirror. She often photographed herself to explore the self and gender.
Karen LeRoy Harris, the curator of the London show, discovered Cahun, growing up on Jersey on St Brelade’s Bay. The Nazis had long before destroyed much of the couple’s work when they finally invaded their house.
In the ‘Magic Mirror’ exhibition, the filmmaker Sarah Pucill has restaged Cahun’s black-and-white photographs on film.
Cahun and Moore spent childhood holidays in Jersey—usually staying at St. Brelade’s Bay hotel, which was later occupied by the Nazis—where they became friends with the owners, the Colley family.
They campaigned surreptitiously about the invaders’ presence at close quarters and later created art about the Nazi occupation, including photographs.
That art included an image of Cahun standing on a wall built by German Forces, an anti-tank wall at the end of their garden, blocking their view of the bay. “After the Liberation, the sisters knocked a hole into it.”
During occupation, as part of their own resistance movement on Jersey, the couple distributed anti-Nazi leaflets.
“Moore spoke fluent German, a secret kept from the Nazis,” said said LeRoy Harris. “The leaflets were written as if written by a German officer and signed ‘The soldier without a name.’ They distributed the notes themselves, on buses, in soldiers’ pockets, in staff cars. In 1944, the sisters were arrested and charged with listening to the BBC and inciting the troops to rebellion.”
But it took some time for the trial to take place as authorities found it hard to believe that old ladies, which is how they presented themselves, could take on such a resistance, LeRoy Harris said. The death penalty was finally commuted.
Their resistance work was in keeping with the Surrealist movement.
“Cahun continually questioned,” LeRoy Harris said. “She questioned gender, and she resisted corrupt power. In 1935, she co-founded Contre Attaque, a group of Surrealists and friends protesting against the rise of Hitler and the spread of fascism in France.”
Her work had an impact in other ways too, including her portrayal of gender. Cahun declared that Neuter was the only gender.
Some of the images are strikingly masculine and androgynous. In one work she is dressed as a body builder, wearing makeup, with nipples drawn on her top and the words, “I am in training do not kiss me,” LeRoy Harris said.
For her, the self in Cahun’s work “isn’t easily pinned down—she continually re-invents herself with identity shifting and changing. The sense of theatre and staging within her work is also appealing and once again plays on this idea of performing an identity.”
Pucill came across Cahun whilst studying at the UK’s Slade art school 25 years ago and subsequently made a film, Cast, inspired by two of her photographs.
Pucill wanted to create work that echoed Cahun’s subversion of the unified self. Finding a lesbian Surrealist, she said, although not unheard of, went against the movement’s misogynist principles.
“Although there were Surrealist feminist artists, a number of whom were bisexual or lesbian, the dominant context that surrounded the key players in the Surrealism movement was largely misogynist and in its early phase openly homophobic,” Pucill said.
Initially, Pucill added, André Breton, the founder of Surrealism, disliked Cahun for her sexuality but later changed his attitude and befriended her and praised her writing.
Mirrors, a multiplicity of selves, and the notion of a “lesbian gaze” link both Cahun and Pucill’s work.
“Mirrors, frames often empty, and mannequins and a gaze between female lovers are a shared vocabulary between Cahun’s and my work,” said Pucill.
Pucill looked also to connections with other artists, and well-known Surrealist avant-garde films like Louis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí’s Un Chien Andalou (1929) and Jean Cocteau’s The Blood of a Poet (1930) and images by Man Ray, de Chirico, Magritte and Duchamp.
“As an early member of the Surrealist group,” Pucill said of Cahun, “her intellectual contribution as a writer and artist is her questioning of all forms of authoritarianism, fascist, Stalinist, or artistic authoritarianism,” alongside “her questioning of patriarchal and homophobic and xenophobic, anti-semitic attitudes in the culture at large and within her immediate artistic circle.”
Cahun wrote of her reception of her work: “In vain in [her book] Disavowals I tried through black humor, provocation, defiance to shake my contemporaries out of their blissful conformism, their complacency.
“Ostracism was more or less the general response. Aside from silence, the book was met with the basest insults. This is how ‘literary criticism’... sought to welcome the ‘prose-poems’ of this unwanted Cassandra.”
Cahun and Moore may have been thought of as odd by other islanders—especially as Cahun sunbathed naked, Pucill said. They both wore trousers. But they were able to say they were stepsisters, which would have helped dilute any homophobia a gay couple would have faced from the islanders at the time.
Cahun died in 1954, and Moore committed suicide in 1972. The couple are buried together, united, at St Brelade’s Church.