Wednesday Art Idol

Claude Cahun: the French surrealist who inspired Cindy Sherman and Nan Goldin
By Finn Blythe | Art | 3 November 2021

Claude Cahun, Self-portrait, date unknown

This article is part of HERO Dailies – Essential culture, curated daily and also part of Wednesday Art Idol

Throughout her life, French surrealist Claude Cahun fought against convention and status quo. Having never actively pursued fame and lost a significant part of work during the Second World War, her lack of recognition betrays the significance of her brave and pioneering non-conformism. 

Though she made sculpture, embedded herself within activism and wrote extensively, Cahun is mostly synonymous for her contributions to surrealist photography, particularly her striking self-portraits, in which she questioned societal expectations of gender years ahead of her time and inspired the likes of Cindy Sherman, Gillian Wearing and Nan Goldin.

Born as Lucy Schwob in Nantes, Cahun was surrounded by artistic minds early on. Her uncle, Marcel, was a prominent writer of the Symbolist movement and close friend of Oscar Wilde, while her grandfather, David Leon Cahun, was a key intellectual and writer within the Orientalist movement. 

Claude Cahun, ‘I am in training don’t kiss me’, 1927

Owing to the seriousness of her mother’s chronic depression, Cahun was raised by her blind grandmother but still suffered from bouts of poor mental health herself during much of her early life. A decisive moment came when she met Suzanne Malherbe, her lie-long partner and kindred spirit, with whom she moved to Paris in 1919 before the pair adopted their gender-neutral names (Malherbe becoming Marcel Moore), not so much an attempt to switch genders but to escape its confines entirely. 

Until this point Cahun had rarely taken photographs, but circling within the city’s thriving avant-garde scene, the artist’s exploration of the medium began in earnest. During the 1920s Cahun honed her meticulously staged style of self-portraiture that borrowed heavily from the aesthetics of Surrealism. Dressed in a variety of uniforms, from sailor to sportsman, dandy to damsel, Cahun defied the idea of gender as singular and static at a time when women still had to seek legal permission to wear trousers. Using a theatrical range of props intended to further obfuscate her identity – masks, mirrors and windows – Cahun’s brand of surrealism shared a close connection to that of Man Ray and Salvador Dali, both of whom the artist spent time with in Paris. 

Claude Cahun, Self-portrait, 1936

Self-portrait, date unknown

With her signature androgynous look and surrealist-inspired use of reflection, this iconic self-portrait exhibits everything that made Cahun such an important artist. Whereas mirrors would traditionally be used in classical portraiture to emphasise feminine beauty or narcissism, here Cahun subverts the symbolism to reject such reductive depictions of gender. 

Deliberately turned away from her own reflection to face the viewer with an air of self-assurance, the image presents femininity as conflicting and contradictory, a nuanced combination of reality and artifice. Facing the camera, Cahun has her collar turned up to protect her neck from view, yet in her reflection the artist’s neck is revealed in a deliberate show of eroticism.

Claude Cahun, Self-portrait, date unknown


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