Hidden Herstories: Claude Cahun

“Under this mask,/another mask. I will never be/finished removing/all these faces.”

“Masculine? Feminine? It depends on the situation. Neuter is the only gender that always suits me.”

The French Surrealist Claude Cahun was born Lucy Schwob in 1894, adopting the gender neutral pseudonym in 1917. In 1932, Cahun joined the Association des Ecrivains et Artistes Révolutionnaires, where she and André Breton met. Claude helped Breton and his supporters write many of their infamous Surrealist tracts, while her photographic work remained private until after her rediscovery long after her death.

“In 1934, Cahun published Les Paris sont ouverts (bets are on) a brilliant defense of poetry’s political potential, which earned her Breton’s grudging respect (despite his homophobia). Cahun participated regularly in surrealist demonstrations, strategy meetings, publications, and exhibitions during this period, while Moore remained active behind the scenes. The puppets and surrealist objects that Cahun… produced and photographed during the 1930s negotiated between the theater of political opposition and the theater of dreams, the psyche and the revolution, the two poles, in other words, of surrealist practice.” (Tirzer Latimer)

“No, I will follow the wake in the air, the trail on the water, the mirage in the pupil … I wish to hunt myself down, to struggle with myself.”

Rimbaud declared, “Je est un autre” (“I is another”),

Cahun replies, “Je est un autre—un multiple toujours”—”I is another—and always multiple.”

During the Occupation of Paris, Cahun was involved in Georges Bataille’s Contre-Attaque resistance group until she and her partner fled to Jersey in 1938, which unfortunately was the only British territory that the Nazis captured. While in Jersey her and her partner Suzanne Malherbe produced fake letters and tracts advertising unrest among the occupying forces, which had the Nazis fearing mutiny.

“When the Nazis invaded the island in July 1940, the sisters (for that is how they were known there) sprang into action, and began to apply Surrealist techniques to a covert resistance operation designed to confuse and demoralize the Germans into renouncing war and leaving the army. The two would slide anti-Nazi tracts into the French-Catholic newspapers for sale at the kiosk, stick them under the windshield wipers of Nazi vehicles, and leave cigarette cartons full of tracts in alleyways. Over time, the Nazis grew convinced that there was a full-scale resistance group in operation on the island, and when they finally apprehended Cahun and Malherbe, they were embarrassed to find the whole operation had been carried out by two middle-aged ladies. They were imprisoned and sentenced to death, but were released at the end of the war in 1945.” (Lauren Elkin, Quarterly Conversation)

 

“Individualism? Narcissism? Of course. It is my strongest tendency, the only intentional constancy I am capable of. Besides, I am lying; I scatter myself too much for that.”

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