On Monday, Google’s homepage paid homage to Claude Cahun, who was born on this day in 1894. Until recently, Cahun was regarded as a secondary figure within the Surrealist movement. Born under the Lucy Schwob, Cahun rejected gender constructs and imploded the division between masculine and feminine in her photographs. A Jewish refugee, she was also a political dissident and opposed German occupation during World War II.
Cahun existed beyond the gender binary. “Neuter is the only gender that always suits me,” she once remarked. In many of Cahun’s photomontages, she appears to take on multiple personas at once. In Que me veux-tu (1928), two shots of the artist—her head is shaved in both—are shown atop each other. In another solarized self-portrait from 1928, Cahun looks over her shoulder, one side of her face to a mirror, with a clenched jaw and a hard stare directed at he camera. One image of Cahun taken decades later is emblematic of her defiant spirit. In a 1945 sepia-toned photograph titled Untitled (Portrait of Claude with Nazi insignia between her teeth), she appears as an elderly woman donning a head scarf. In her mouth she holds a Nazi badge.
For much of her career, Cahun worked collaboratively with her partner, Suzanne Alberte Malherbe, who took the name Marcel Moore. The two met as teenagers and began a relationship when the pair’s mother and father married, making them step-sisters. In 1937, as anti-Semitism rose in Europe, they fled from the cultural hub of Paris to Jersey, an island off the coast of Normandy. They maintained a life there, managing to survive thanks to family inheritance. (Cahun was the daughter of a prominent publisher.) Just a few years later, in 1940, France fell under Nazi occupation, and the pair dedicated themselves to anti-war activism.
Among one of Cahun’s most enduring legacies is the project she and Moore called “The Solider with No Name.” It was an effort by the two artists to spread anti-war propaganda by way of covert messages to neighboring German soldiers. In typical Surrealist fashion, the artists conconcted an imaginary German soldier as the protagonist of a coup, who, disillusioned with the war, set out to incite dissent within the army. Cahun and Moore wrote paper notes with messages criticizing the war effort and German officers that they tucked into cigarette packs and soldiers’ clothing.
As the war began to shift in favor of Allied forces, paranoia among the Nazi regime heightened, and so did campaigns to target spies and anti-German conduits. In 1944, Cahun and Moore were arrested and sentenced to death during a trial, and the two remained in prison for years afterward. Their sentences were both commuted through the French government’s appeal. Cahun died a few years after her release, in 1964.
Though it received the approval of André Breton, who was considered the most prominent figure associated with Surrealism in France, Cahun remained at the margins of the circle of Surrealists dominated by heterosexual men in the 1920 to 1930s. In 2019, as part of a series devoted to women whose deaths were not properly memorialized by the newspaper, the New York Times ran an obituary for Cahun in which David J. Getsy, a professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, said Cahun was an artist who “turns the camera on themselves to see who else they can become.”
Cahun was keenly aware of how elaborate her plays with identity could be. “Under this mask, another mask,” she wrote, “I will never be finished removing all these faces.”