My kinda woman: Claude Cahun

A regular series of posts in which an individual, historical or present-day, is highlighted for their creative or political impact. 

In her 1928 essay ‘A Room of One’s Own’, the modernist mammoth Virginia Woolf wrote: ‘It is fatal to be a man or woman pure and simple; one must be a woman-manly, or a man-womanly.’ The urgent connection Woolf draws between androgyny and liberation is perhaps best embodied by Claude Cahun.

Cahun (1894 – 1954) was a French photographer and artist whose surrealist self-portraits have recently undergone much critical revision, including an exhibition at The National Portrait Gallery in which she was coupled with Gillian Wearing. Deemed worthy of retrospective inclusion in the art historical narrative, Cahun’s place within the modernist canon sits most comfortably in that well-worn pigeonhole, ‘Female-Surrealist-of-the-Androgynist-Lesbian-Convict-variety’.

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Her photographs portray the artist donning a variety of eccentric costumes, reflective of the fluidity with which she ascribed her identity. These polymorphous pictures depict an individual who, in suffering societal prejudice to almost every facet of her identity, sought solace in the undefinable.

The young Cahun was subject to anti-Semitic acts ensuing the Dreyfus Affair. At 15, she met Suzanne Malherbe, who would not only become her life-long partner, but whose mother would, several years later, become Cahun’s step-mother. However, Cahun’s art is perhaps made most powerful when coupled with her political prowess. Following the invasion of Cahun’s then-home, Jersey, by the Germans in 1940, Cahun and Malherbe produced counter-propaganda tracts. They were consequently arrested and imprisoned in separate cells for almost a year. In 1951, she received the Medal of French Gratitude for her efforts during the Second World War.