Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore - I am in training don't kiss me, 1927. Courtesy of the Jersey Heritage Collections

“Behind this mask another mask, I will never finish lifting up all these faces” – on Claude Cahun’s intangible identity

Issue no5
okt-nov 2020
Wat is Nederland

Even armed with our 21st-century arsenal of terminology, French activist, artist and writer Claude Cahun’s identity flux remains uncapturable. The exhibition Under the Skin – Claude Cahun at the Cobra Museum unfolds as a dive into the carnival mirror hall where Cahun is both strongman and meditating Buddha, life-sized doll discarded in a wardrobe and Unknown Soldier standing on his own grave.

Around eight months ago, somebody changed Claude Cahun’s pronouns to ‘they/them’ on Wikipedia. I checked again recently: someone else had converted Cahun back into a cis woman.[1] If the presence of a Wiki war isn’t an indicator of a topic du jour, I don’t know what is. The few instances of the neuter gender still dotting the page where the erstwhile editor missed them add a certain je ne sais quoi to Cahun’s identity flux, something uncapturable even armed with our 21st-century arsenal of terminology.

Cahun, born Lucy Schwob in 1894 but never answering to that name if she could help it, made a large body of photographic work that was equal parts irony and grace, intimacy and standoffishness, humor and activism. Easily one of the most radical artists associated with Surrealism, it was high time for a Cahun retrospective in the Netherlands. Cobra, which hosted the Boijmans’ traveling Surrealism collection earlier this year,[2] brilliantly continued the Surrealist theme with Cahun. As we near the 100th anniversary of Surrealism’s founding by André Breton (who respected but disliked Cahun – I believe this was mutual) in 2024, the embarrassing lack of works by non-male Surrealists in public collections requires creative solutions. Curator Julia Steenhuisen wisely chose not to seek out the original photographs but to make exhibition-quality prints authorized by the Jersey Heritage Trust. This allowed her to tell Cahun’s story from angles not dictated by the (un)availability of the originals.

As you walk into the exhibition, you are confronted with Cahun: so tan, so golden, so masc, Adam’s apple protruding from boyishly popped collar. Contrast her with her stepsister and life partner Marcel Moore’s softer face smiling out of the same mirror. The pendant portraits welcome the visitor in the tradition of grand Dutch grachtenhuizen, the hostesses graciously allowing us into their private lives. Printed on a huge scale (the originals were tiny), Cahun’s photographs lose some of their mystery. They gain instead a Cindy Sherman-esque theatricality: every detail, every flaw in the negative blown up 100-fold and pixelated despite the high-quality UV print on dibond.

Cahun, born Lucy Schwob in 1894 but never answering to that name if she could help it, made a large body of photographic work that was equal parts irony and grace, intimacy and standoffishness, humor and activism

Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore - Untitled (Cahun with mirror image), 1928. Courtesy of the Jersey Heritage Collections

Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore - Untitled (Moore with mirror image), 1928. Courtesy of the Jersey Heritage Collections

Cahun was an original photographer whose self-portraiture speaks for itself. Hinting to the viewer to discover whether she is ‘man, woman, or other’ – as Steenhuisen does several times throughout the show – is hardly as interesting as the fluidity of the images themselves. Cahun doesn’t stop to wait for us to catch up, the nature of a binary gender expression being immaterial to her core being.

By far the most successful part of Under the Skin is the latter half (of the exhibition), where Cahun and Moore’s creative – and later, guerilla – partnership becomes the star of the show

Unlike the men, whose internal squabbles and commercialized selling out tarnished their once-passionate idealism, the women of surrealism actually used their power with images to make waves outside the art world. By far the most successful part of Under the Skin is the latter half (of the exhibition), where Cahun and Moore’s creative – and later, guerilla – partnership becomes the star of the show. Their collaborative efforts on Cahun’s surrealist memoir Aveux non Avenus are explored in depth; this would be a rather academic choice for an exhibition of this importance if not for the delightful and meticulous bookplates Moore designed for each chapter, which are a joy to see enlarged and are emblematic of their utterly intwined artistic partnership.

Exhibition overview 'Under the Skin – Claude Cahun' at Cobra Museum of Modern Art, photo: Peter Tijhuis

Claude Cahun - Surrealists (untitled). fltr: André Breton, Roland Penrose, David Gascoyne, unknown woman, Claude Cahun and E L T Mesens, London 1936. Courtesy of the Jersey Heritage Collections

Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore - Photomontage introducing Chapter 8, entitled H.U.M., in Aveux non avenus ca. 1930. Courtesy of the Jersey Heritage Collections

Cahun and Moore left Paris in 1937 to enjoy peaceful farm life on Jersey (a British isle off France’s coast). The rumblings of Nazi occupation jolted them into action, however, and Cahun (of Jewish descent and a lesbian) and Moore spent the entirety of WWII until their incarceration in 1944 conducting a concerted effort to undermine Nazi morale. The display cases of the pamphlets they tucked into soldiers’ coats or under windshield wipers; the revelation that they made the life of a Nazi officer who’d commandeered their house a living hell (only what shenanigans did they get up to?); their handwritten parody of the Heine poem Lorelei with Hitler as siren luring soldiers to their deaths on the Mosel… these are the tangible stories of two artists who turned their endless creativity to warding off evil.

We follow along with bated breath as we learn that Cahun and Moore were sentenced to prison and condemned in 1944 for listening to the BBC (along with other ‘crimes’); thankfully their prison sentence was carried out first and both survived torture and deprivation until May 1945 when Jersey was liberated. In prison, where pen and paper were the scarcest treasures, Cahun wrote Confessions to a Mirror, writings from prison build the clearest picture of her and Moore’s ingenuity and faith. Later portraits of Cahun’s war-ravaged face are a harrowing reminder that while the world moved on from the horrors, she had no way to escape but through the lens.

In the end, questions of man, woman, or other rather miss the point. Cahun transcended these labels by playfully using them to physical effect, as when she and Moore disguised themselves as soldiers to sneak into Nazi dinner parties

Claude Cahun en Marcel Moore - Keepsake (part of series of 4), 1932. Courtesy of the Jersey Heritage Collections

Claude Cahun en Marcel Moore - Untitled (Cahun on quilt) c. 1928. Courtesy of the Jersey Heritage Collections

Sarah Pucill’s 68-minute meditation on Confessions to the Mirror is a serene ending to this rich exhibition. Layering passages from Confessions with live reenactments of Cahun’s photographs, it’s an invitation to the visitor to sit for a while, allowing Pucill to extend our fantasies of Cahun’s play into an animated feature. In the end, questions of man, woman, or other rather miss the point. Cahun transcended these labels by playfully using them to physical effect, as when she and Moore disguised themselves as soldiers to sneak into Nazi dinner parties. At Cobra, Steenhuisen has set the labyrinthine stage for the newly initiated to dive into the carnival mirror hall where Cahun is both strongman and meditating Buddha, life-sized doll discarded in a wardrobe and Unknown Soldier standing on his own grave.

'Under the Skin - Claude Cahun' is on view at Cobra Museum voor Moderne Kunst until the 17th of January, 2021

[1] In this review I shall also use she/her pronouns for Cahun.  

[2] This is Surrealism! 1 June – 27 September 2020.

Maia Kenney
is an independent curator working on promoting marginalized voices in cultural institutions

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