Claude Cahun, a writer, photographer and artist was born on October 25th, 1894 in Nantes, France. Cahun’s work was personal as well as political and it often engaged in concepts of sexuality and gender. She was the great-niece of David Léon Cahun (orientalist) and the niece of Marcel Schwob (writer of avant-garde). Her birth name was Lucy Renee Mathilde Schwob but she kept pseudonyms, like Daniel Douglas or Claude Courlis, and she finally settled down to Claude Cahun.
In 1912, she started making self-portraits using a camera at the age of eighteen and continued to do so till the 1930s. Cahun is remembered for her elaborately staged portraits of herself that included surreal visual aesthetics. Cahun took pictures of herself disguised in many roles, such as staring powerfully at the camera with a bald head or laying on leaves dressed like a man, buddha, a scary doll or a lady. In her self-portraits she disregards the boundaries of desire and gender.
In the early 1920s, she resided in Paris with Suzanne Malherbe, her personal and professional partner. They both collaborated and on many different written pieces, collages, photomontages, and sculptures. They were both zealous political campaigners. The duo printed and circulated propaganda material against the Nazis. Due to this, in 1940 both were arrested until the war was over. Cahun’s health worsened, but she still continued with photography.
Published work by Claude Cahun, include Heroines, 1925 and Aveux non avenus, 1930 . She wrote several more essays that got published in journals and magazines. She wrote a short stricture essay in 1934, Les Paris sont Ouverts.
In 1932, Cahun met René Crevel and André Breton when she was included as a member of the Association des Écrivains et Artistes Révolutionnaires. After this, she began communicating with a group of surrealists. Later, she participated in many exhibitions of surrealism, including Exposition surréaliste d’Objets in Paris, and London International Surrealist Exhibition. In 1935, she co-founded Contre Attaque, a group of left-wings, along with Georges Bataille and André Breton.
Her self-photographs (1927 to 1947) were exhibited at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, 1994. In this show, the works of Tacita Dean and Virginia Nimarkoh were also displayed. The exhibit was called Mise en Scene.
In a time when surreal artists were mostly men, who portrayed women as erotic and sexual objects; Claude Cahun exemplified the multiple and chameleonic possibilities of identities of women. Both her written and photographic works have been influential for many artists, especially Del La Grace Volcano, Nan Goldin, and Cindy Sherman.
Photography is no doubt a field that has been visually and historically revolutionized continually. There have been many kinds of photographers, who portray the reality and there have been ones who like to act things out and capture their performance. Cahun’s work has not been less than a theatrical show. Photographing yourself is like making yourself vulnerable to all kinds of judgments and interpretations. It takes great audacity to represent yourself through an image, to the world. Through her photographic work, Cahun expressed diverse emotions through her body language, gesture, posture, eyes, dressing, and the background of her images.
Exhibitions of her work have been happening since 1936 around the world, including Canada’s Presentation House Gallery, 1998; Essen’s Museum Folkwang, 1998; New York’s Grey Art Gallery, 1999 and 2000; Barcelona’s La Virreina Centre de la image, 2011 and 2012; and at many more locations. She died on December 8th, 1954.