Sunday, November 8, 2020

Inktober Day 2: Claude Cahun

I'm using "zie/hirself/hir" instead of "she/herself/her" because Claude Cahun was genderqueer, though how exactly to interpret that in modern times is an ongoing debate.* I don't like the more popular "they/them" pronouns, and while it's not remotely the hill I'm willing to die on this is my blog so I'm using the one I prefer.

When Claude Cahun met hir partner Marcel Moore it was "like a bolt of lightning." They were just 15 and 17 but they'd be together for life. Both born female, they both used assumed names; Marcel is male and Claude is neutral in French. The two would collaborate in writing, illustration, photography and photocollage; they risked their lives together fighting Nazis, they were imprisoned together, attempted suicide together, and were saved together at the last second by allied victory. 

"The autonomy of the ring finger.
For me, a miracle, terror or charm, surprise, is anything I cannot obtain from my body
or soul. For the Christ, Christ is completely normal. He didn’t even get any joy from walking
on water."  --Claude Cahun, from Disavowals.

"Cahun" is an assumed name as well, and an interesting one. Claude's father and other relatives were already well known in France for their writing and for their family publishing business, all under the last name "Schwob." Claude didn't want to attach hirself to hir father's fame, but nor did zie want to erase zir Jewish identity. In the 1910s when antisematism was steeply on the rise and many Jews were adopting non-Jewish-sounding last names to get by, Claude made a point to choose "Cahun," which is the French version of "Cohen." Openly rebelling against antisematism with Marcel (also Jewish) was a central theme of Cahun's life and writing.

"The best way to keep your god near you: crucify him. The pagans who used to collect gods
pinned Jesus to the cross like a rare butterfly."  --Claude Cahun, from Disavowals.

After attending the Sorbonne in Paris, Cahun and Moore began holding their own salons, amassing a circle of colleagues who included surrealist poets, the legendary lesbian literary duo behind Shakespeare & Co. bookstore, and the influential artist and writer André Breton. Nearly all of their work was collaborative in some way with others from these circles, from Moore's illustrations for avant-garde poets to Cahun's published reviews of other writers. Cahun's well-known face was sculpted in bronze by Chana Orloff (the subject of an upcoming Inktober profile). They were heavily involved in radical theater, which is evident in their costumed photographs, while Moore's graphic design work and fashion design business expanded their circles still. Their art was extremely community and action-oriented, and for this reason it's difficult to gauge their influence or extract them from the world around them.

"I dedicate this puerile prose to you [Marcel], so that the entire book will belong to you and in this way your designs may redeem my text in our eyes." --Claude Cahun

Among the solo work Cahun created in the 20s and 30s was a series of re-imagined modern monologues from famous women of mythology, the Bible and fairy tales, entitled Heroines, 1925. Zie also exhibited a series of objects and assemblages at a surrealist show. A request for a confessional-style (i.e. autobiographical) book from Adrienne Monnier (of Shakespeare & Co.) resulted in Cahun's "anti-confessional," a surrealist collection of poetry titled Aveux non avenus, 1930. Long considered "untranslatable," Susan de Muth published an English version in 2007 under the title Disavowals, available to read online. A central theme is the unstable struggle before God to face oneself honestly, without any sort of socially constructed pretense or mask. With its blazing honesty and thoroughly confusing subconscious-driven style, it can be a harsh and abstruse read peppered with gutter humor and pathos. 

“Make myself another vocabulary, brighten the silver of the mirror, blink an eye, swindle myself by means of a fluke muscle; cheat with my skeleton, correct my mistakes, divide myself in order to conquer, multiply myself in order to assert myself; briefly, to play with ourselves can change nothing.” --Claude Cahun, Disavowals.

Moore and Cahun's photography places them more in the context of Dadaist photocollage artists like Hannah Höch and Raul Haussmann, as well as surrealist photographers like Man Ray and Dora Maar. Some costumed and some nakedly confrontational, all looking homemade, raw and somewhat guerrilla-style, they were collaborations where Cahun was usually photographed but sometimes they took turns posing in the same tableau. Today it's what Cahun is most famous for, but oddly I don't have much to say about the photographs (though I like them a lot). Just look: 

Part of the Keepsake series where Cahun is wearing a beaded Jewish star. (Image via)
In costume as an angel, image by Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore.

Image of Claude Cahun with a cat.

Autoportrait by Claude Cahun, 1928. (image via)

Autoportrait by Claude Cahun, 1929. (image via)

I Am In Training, Don't Kiss Me, (title taken from the words on the chest) by Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore. (image via)

Self-Portrait by Claude Cahun, 1928. (image via)

Combat de pierres by Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore, 1931 (image via)

Que me veux tu? (What do you want from me?) by Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore, 1929. (image via)

Self Portrait, by Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore, 1920. (image via)

"E – If you see me hesitating at the edge of pleasure, come and help me: remind me that I love
P – Love puts the least naive man in such a state of mind that he asks his hangman for help.
E – Handsome? Me? – Yes: as if to say a handsome syphilis."

--Claude Cahun, from Disavowals. E and P are throwaway hypothetical characters whose purpose is unclear to me.

Here are some of the photocollages that Marcel Moore made from their photos to illustrate Cahun's books:

Photocollage by Marcel Moore to illustrate Claude Cahun's book. (image via)

Photocollage by Marcel Moore to illustrate Claude Cahun's book. (image via)

“Permit me to warn reckless young women: seeing the trap doesn’t prevent you from getting caught in it and that doubles the pleasure." --Claude Cahun

As Hitler gained power in Germany Cahun and Moore's art turned increasingly political, as did their collaborative social circles. Cahun joined and helped to found a series of radical activist groups of artists and writers who opposed fascism and Stalinism. When Germany invaded France Cahun and Moore were so politically active that they were forced to flee to remote Jersey (a small island in Normandy, France, that is under British government). 

Nearly a decade after Cahun and Moore initially met, their parents married, suddenly making them technically stepsisters. The odd sisterly title actually ended up helping them to quietly cohabitate without drawing too much attention once they relocated. They reverted to their inconspicuous birth names as well (Cahun was Lucy Renée Mathilde Schwob and Marcel was Suzanne Alberte Malherbe). Tucked away in Jersey, incognito, the raucaus avant-garde circles of Paris slowly began to forget about them.

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

Germany invaded Jersey in 1940 and Cahun and Moore went on the attack. Because the Nazis were using Jersey as a training ground, the island filled with vulnerable new recruits. The couple focused their efforts on sowing discord among them, sneakily bombarding recruits with allied information to try to flip their loyalties. They translated BBC radio broadcasts from English to German (because German soldiers would otherwise be exposed only to Nazi propaganda radio and be missing crucial information) and slipped these fliers discreetly into coat pockets, cigarette packs and magazines, under doors and tucked onto windshields. They stole German propaganda posters, cut them up and reassembled them into anti-Nazi propaganda, then discreetly distributed these as well. They wrote anti-Nazi propaganda fliers, both direct and in poetry. Since Marcel spoke fluent German they wrote letters pretending to be older disgruntled German soldiers, complaining and urging the new recruits not to join.

Obviously each instance of leafletting was outrageously dangerous. Yet Cahun and Moore were so prolific that Nazis actually believed Jersey was home to a massive secret cell of the Résistance. They were eventually found out and sentenced to death in 1944. They spent a year in a Nazi jail, during which they attempted together to kill themselves to control their own deaths, but were thwarted. They were saved just under the wire when the Allies won WWII and Jersey was liberated in 1945. 

A proposal of marriage:

I will take the place of variously girthed snakes. My torso will replace the ones that fill
your arms in an embrace. My thighs will obey you, well cast reptiles; [...]
Don’t concern yourself with formalities: I’ll take care of those. Heaven is short of
wings; and God no longer requires the consent of the mother land to facilitate the union of
bodies and souls.  --Claude Cahun, from Disavowals.

A look back at their anti-Nazi resistance through an artistic lens may seem frivolous, given that the main goal was of course to defeat the Nazis. But consider that it is one of the few instances when surrealism was actually weaponized. And consider, again, Moore and Cahun's fading star and rising obscurity among the art world. Thus their audience became their enemies. They may have been forgotten in Paris but they were notorious to the Nazis, looming larger than life. The pair's poetry, alter egos, graphic design and photocollage was all for Nazi eyes. What had begun in Paris as a creative rebellion for an audience of friends had reached its conclusion as a pure attack delivered straight to the enemy in a battle to the death. Of course, even their earlier years in Paris were not without physical risk: they were openly queer, female-bodied, Jewish nonconformists in a hostile society. I suspect that Moore and Cahun had determined to risk death for their ideals before the Nazies were ever in Jersey.

"We’re only allies, only comrades through opposition –
against others.
As soon as you isolate it, the species (in the concrete kingdom or the abstract
kingdom), generalisation, disintegrates; the Homeland breaks up into parishes; Paris into
arrondissements (russian doll); alone at last, the couple are flung apart, I separate from you,
the Aryan male himself renounces his solidarity with the Aryan female.
There are as many ways of being as there are stars; I wouldn’t know what more to
say…"  --Claude Cahun, from Disavowals

Physically, Cahun never recovered from hir treatment in the Nazi jail. The couple stayed in Jersey as hir health deteriorated and continued creating art and photography until Cahun died in 1954. 

Image of Claude Cahun holding grapes, wearing a Rococo/Edwardian wig, and lying on a leopard skin rug. (image via)

Cahun in 1945, liberated from Nazi jail and clutching a Nazi pin between hir teeth. (image via)

Le Chemin de chats. This was taken shortly before Cahun's death. Twenty years prior zie'd written to a surrealist poet friend about a dream zie'd had in which a cat led hir blindfolded; the cat represented impending death. (image via)

How unexpected, then, that Cahun's work was suddenly rediscovered in the 1980s by an art historian named François Leperlier while researching for his book on Surrealism. When Cahun had died hir estate and work was passed on to Marcel. But when Marcel killed hirself 18 years later in the 1972 their work was auctioned off (under Cahun's name). Leperlier did extraordinary work to reassemble the legacy, popularize hir in the art world and write Cahun's biography in the early 90s. The exploratory photographs of a searching identity found a rapt audience in an art world where queer theory was exploding. 

Understandably, the photographic collaborations were misinterpreted at the time as Cahun's solo self portraiture project, and as such they were compared to the work of artists like Cindy Sherman, Nan Goldin and Gillian Wearing. Interestingly enough Cahun's 1920s contemporaries likely considered hir work as closer to Marcel Duchamp's dadaist antics, in that Cahun's gender-bending personas and writing echo Duchamp's female persona of Rrose Selavy which he used as a nom de plume and the cheeky self portrait photographs he took as "Rrose."  Most recently people in the music world like David Bowie and Air also dedicated efforts to organizing exhibits of Cahun's work. What an odd time-bending legacy.

Here is the portrait I drew of Claude Cahun based on hir work. I kept it relatively simple, stealing a bit of the "I Am In Training Do Not Kiss Me" makeup but keeping Cahun's own shorn hair. I stole the particular pose from part of the series of photos of Cahun dressed as an angel. 

* I spent freaking ALL NIGHT trying to figure out what to do here with pronouns, researching and reading primary sources. A genuinely good case could be made for either female-gendering Cahun or non-binary-gendering Cahun. I genuinely can't decide, and in cases where the gender is unknown it's appropriate to go with they or zie. By using these pronouns I'm not trying to declare that Cahun WASN'T a woman or female; I simply don't know. So here's a quick rundown of the case for each pronoun:

The case for nonbinary, or genderqueer, third gender, trans, or agender:

1. Most of Cahun's photography pointedly involves gender identity, where it flows between appearing conventionally masculine - feminine - neither - both.  

2. The chosen name Claude is gender-neutral in French.

3. In 1929 Cahun translated Victorian psychologist Havelock Ellis' theories on the third gender, part of his progressive and open-minded studies of sexuality; the issue was clearly important to Cahun.

4. Cahun constantly wrote about masks and feeling ill at ease with hir body.

5. In zir autobiography Cahun wrote, “Shuffle the cards. Masculine? Feminine? It depends on the situation. Neuter is the only gender that always suits me.”

The case for feminine/her pronouns:

1. I read that Cahun frequently referred to hirself as "she/her" in letters, especially through the 1920s. I didn't do further research to find those letters to confirm; that's a helluva lot of research. 

2. Most academic writing refers to Cahun as she/her. These folks actually have pored through all the letters, writing and primary sources and arrived at that conclusion. I assume they mostly have good reasons. I tried to find out more about that, but was unable to. 

3. It's a struggle to know what Cahun would've preferred, if offered modern concepts and language surrounding gender. Given that it's all guesswork, many writers are uncomfortable choosing Cahun's pronouns and instead default to the pronouns of Cahun's time that zie was at least familiar with. 

4. That excerpt from the autobiography I just quoted above and repeated so often out of context? It's not so much an autobiography as a self-described "anti-realist surrealist anti-confessional," in which Cahun explicitly writes that nothing in it should be taken realistically, factually or at face value. It's written as a collection of difficult-to-decipher poetry fragments. Though I'm admittedly not a poetry person, I took a stab at reading it and found it to be beyond convoluted and interminably lengthy given the cerebral style-- though if you bite off little chunks here and there it's actually very interesting, painfully honest and at times lyrical and funny. Most of it is about God and exploring truth through conversations and conversational "exercises" among various characters who may or may not represent fragments of Cahun. "Cards" frequently are used as an extended metaphor of playing a strategic game with/against God. "Female" and "male" thoughts are explored a bit prior as allegorical characters that interact with each other in very unclear ways. The quote may or not be part of an extended metaphor-- again, I cannot emphasize enough just how unclear Cahun's book is. But from my tenuous grasp on the passage, the choice between masculine/feminine appears to be part of an appeal for absolution from God, and choosing in which gender to present hirself to God will retroactively affect that decision; in the next line Cahun declares that choosing the neuter gender will make hir "a good little worker bee." Though the quote seems, on the surface, to be a straightforward reason to gender Cahun as "zie/they," I find it unlikely that Cahun would've written an entire book that is this abstruse-- only to stop briefly in the middle and deliver clear, realistic instructions about gendering hir that are meant to be taken literally in the real world.

5. Besides that autobiographical excerpt there's apparently not much that Cahun wrote that reveals an explicit pronoun preference. I've read this assertion several times from "big-name" art sites that have an actual professional staff, but I haven't followed up to confirm it myself.

From this debate the question naturally arises: is it even appropriate to include a nonbinary person in this series of women artists? Yeah, I say it is. This series isn't about celebrating vaginas or goddess-essences or inherent femininity. It's about bringing attention to artists who were overlooked by the fame-machine because the world saw them as women, and it's about showing that despite the overwhelming obstacles placed before certain artists because the world saw them as women, an overwhelming amount of them became successful anyway. I want to combat the notion that only men worked outside the home and that only men were artists except the Big Three (Frida, Georgia, Artemisia). I also want to combat the practice of discussing women artist's work as out of context with their contemporaries, as not influencing those around them and unconnected to society. I'd like to avoid forcing these artists into "hero/role-model" jobs that they never asked for and to avoid forcing the common narrative that all of their work is about being a woman and that you can visually discern their indelible womanness in their very brushstrokes. 

Cahun fits right into this series on all those criteria. The only alternative would be to include only artists who identified as women in a series of women artists, but wow does that present a lot of problems. First, the vast majority of pre-20th century women had no choice about how they identified or presented, so you just have to assume that if a woman looked... conventionally female from the outside (wearing female clothes, married to a man, not "acting masculine") then she identified as female. That's a bad assumption. Then there are the unconventional women. They didn't have the language or even the concepts we have today and they largely couldn't be open about it, so what we have to go on is murky. 

What does it mean that a Victorian woman wore pants and lived with another woman? Is she a cis lesbian? Trans? Cis, straight, and just trying to be comfortable among friends? A straight cis woman who objected to marriage and gender oppression? There are an extremely high number of these hard-to-call cases since nonconformists and queer people seem always to have been drawn to the arts. Then consider that being an artist itself WAS unconventionally feminine behavior which frequently sparked rumors. To complicate matters more, a Victorian artist trying to express butch lesbian identity with no social concepts to grab onto could easily have reached for the masculine expressions that we would today interpret as trans, and vice versa (though I don't think this is the case with Cahun). The only way to play it safe and to only include self-identified women, would be to exclude all of the possibly queer people. Even then you're just assuming that all the non-queer-presenting women were on board. 

Including every artist pre-mid-20th century who wasn't a man, under "women artists" is a very flawed solution. It just beats the alternative. Maybe someone will eventually come up with something better.

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