At Large  January 12, 2023  Effie Jackson

Gender and Identity in Claude Cahun’s Work

Jersey Heritage Collections, © Jersey Heritage.

Claude Cahun, Self Portrait from the series I am in Training Don’t Kiss Me, 1927. Silver gelatin print, 117 x 89 mm. (11.7 x 8.9 cm.),

The masks of French Surrealist photographer Claude Cahun (1894-1954) vary from that of an androgynous weight-training flapper to a Buddhist monk. Straddling, or completely leaping beyond, the gender binary has become not just a signature of Cahun’s artistic career but also of their own identity. Through an exploration of the multiplicities of gender, works such as the self-portrait from their series I am in Training Don’t Kiss Me (1927) declare that Cahun’s gender is both allowed to be on public display while simultaneously not to be objectified and exoticized by the male gaze. Dubbed a revolutionary by art historians, Cahun’s works manage to penetrate beyond the world of the Surrealist movement into one of righteous resistance to the fascism of the Nazi regime and the ideals that entrap LGBTQ peoples into silence and shame. By using their art to explore and assert their gender identity, Cahun established a space for queer artists to exist within Modernism.

© Claude Cahun. Courtesy of the Jersey Heritage Collections

Claude Cahun, Self portrait (in robe with masks attached), 1928

According to queer writer-curator Hugh Ryan, Cahun’s works have rightfully been recognized for their anti-fascist properties and place in propaganda, however, Cahun themselves has historically been praised/labeled as a lesbian revolutionary as opposed to a transgender one. Cahun themselves said regarding their gender identity, “Shuffle the cards. Masculine? Feminine? It depends on the situation. Neuter is the only gender that suits me.”

Given this statement from their own autobiography Disavowels (1930), alongside suggestive evidence in Cahun’s photography and writing, Ryan suggests that Cahun was, if not transgender, then non-binary. This assertion, slowly becoming accepted among art historians, provides a greater context into Cahun’s work. Not as a shock factor, but as a legitimate exploration, representation, and queering of gender and the binary that reinforces this construct.

Claude Cahun, Self Portrait as Elle in Barbe Bleu, 1929, photograph, 11.7 x 8.8 cm, © Jersey Heritage Trust
© Jersey Heritage Trust

Claude Cahun, Self Portrait as Elle in Barbe Bleu, 1929, photograph, 11.7 x 8.8 cm

Claude Cahun, Self Portrait, 1928. Jersey Heritage Collections, © Jersey Heritage.
Jersey Heritage Collections, © Jersey Heritage.

Claude Cahun, Self Portrait, 1928.

 

Claude Cahun, Self Portrait, 1925. Gelatin silver print, 12.5 x 9.5 in. (31.8 x 24.1 cm.).
Artsy

Claude Cahun, Self Portrait, 1925. Gelatin silver print, 12.5 x 9.5 in. (31.8 x 24.1 cm.).

Claude Cahun, Untitled, 1922. Gelatin silver print, 9.3 x 5.8 in. (23.7 x 15 cm.), Museum of Modern Art, New York City, New York
Museum of Modern Art, New York City, New York

Claude Cahun, Untitled, 1922. Gelatin silver print, 9.3 x 5.8 in. (23.7 x 15 cm.)

Jordan Reznick, an art historian who specializes in photography, settler colonialism, and transgender studies contends that the reason for this mislabeling of Cahun, and their life-and-art partner Marcel Moore (1892-1972), throughout art history is due to an attempt to use period-specific terminology and concepts related to gender. Transness, however, was not a part of the cultural zeitgeist of the 1920s and 1930s, which Reznick argues does a disservice to the true context of Cahun’s artistic catalogue, and contributes to the erasure of trans people throughout history. Therefore, it can be argued that part of Cahun’s artistic vision was to dismantle widely accepted theories and beliefs on what gender should look like. 

In the same way that Cahun used their art to queer traditional notions of gender, they also used it as a force of resistance against the Nazi regime. Having moved from their home country of France for Jersey, one of a series of islands between the English and French coastlines, Cahun and Moore established a small but mighty movement of resistance against Nazi rule. The Nazi regime gained control of all islands in the English Channel during World War II, including Cahun and Moore’s home of Jersey. While the bigoted regime occupied the island, the pair distributed anti-Nazi propaganda across Jersey, as well as displayed anti-fascist slogans and artwork throughout the region. 

Cahun and Moore even formed resistance groups and salons with artists and writers alike, André Breton being among a coalition formed in Paris in 1933. Scholar of Modern and Contemporary Art, Katherine Smith asserts that Cahun and Moore’s distribution and installations of anti-Nazi material and art served as a continuation of the anti-war narratives that are rooted throughout several Modernist movements. This radical demand for liberty and equality against the Nazi regime eventually led to their imprisonment in 1944, for which they were sentenced to death. Thankfully, Jersey was liberated from Nazi occupation in 1945 before this could happen.

Prior to their death in 1952, Cahun helped establish a movement among, and for, queer artists and Surrealists alike. It could be argued that contemporary photographers, such as Cindy Sherman, were inspired by Cahun’s chameleon-like artistic identity. Cahun’s wishes for a free and liberated world during the Second World War arguably stand today with a broader message of freedom, inclusion, and acceptance of not just queer artists, but of all LGBTQ people finding their way to authenticity, just as Cahun did through their explorative photographs.

About the Author

Effie Jackson

Effie Jackson is a contributing writer for Art & Object and graduated from UNC Asheville with a BA in Art History, where she received the University Research Scholar award in recognition for her undergraduate thesis. She is currently pursuing her MBA at Meredith College in preparation for a career in gallery/museum administration. When she is not working or studying, she loves doing yoga and playing with the family pup.

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