Claude Cahun was a Jewish queer self-portrait artist ahead of their time. Cahun was born in 1824 and by the age of 18, they were making self-portraits challenging gender norms and documenting their changing gender identity. At this time, they challenged gender, stereotypes, roles, and norms by posing as an androgynous subject in their self-portraits, and also changed their name to a gender-neutral name–Claude. they identified as “neuter”, thus why they felt free to explore gender fluidity. During their lifetime, they took photos expressing their gender (or lack thereof), as well as spread anti-Nazi publications during World War II, which lead to their capture and resulting death sentence. Most of their artwork was destroyed while they were in prison.
In their photos, they dressed up as a series of characters and played with different gender stereotypes–you can see them posing as Little Red Riding Hood, a weightlifter, fortune teller, devil, and angel. This method of taking on characters and taking self portraits is something that became familiarized by artists like Cindy Sherman and Gillian Wearing. Their theatrical characters are reinders that identity is a construct–take their photo taking in 1928 in which they are in a cape, decorated in masks. Cahun themself wrote “under this mask, another mask.” Some of their photos play with reflections in the mirror, perhaps reinforcing the duality of identity, or even can be seen as a comment on race.
Their work was typically considered on the surrealist spectrum. In fact, they ran in the same circles as surrealists Man Ray, Salvador Dali and Andre Breton while in Paris. While these other artists became well-known, Cahun’s work became obscure and relatively forgotten. For years, their work went unrecognized, until they were rediscovered around 1980’s-90s. Their influence has been seen in artists across the board–David Bowie showed admiration for their theatricality in their 1920s photos, describing them as “really quite mad, in the nicest possible way.” Cindy Sherman has briefly sighted Cahun as an influence for their self-portraiture. Their work resembles that of Marcel Duchamp in which he posed as a silver screen starlet Rrose Selavy for Man Ray’s portrait series.
As mentioned before, Cahun was imprisoned for spreading Anti-nazi propaganda at rallies and military conventions. While spreading these anti-nazi documents, Cahun would dress in elaborate disguises to protect their identity alongside their stepsister (and lover, unfortunately). The two contributed greatly to the resistance. This resulted in the capture of Cahun and their partner. They were both put in Jersey, in which they were sentenced to death. Cahun went under extreme torture and abuse, their health declining rapidly, which resulted in permanent damage and perhaps their premature death in 1958. Fortunately, the camp in Jersey was liberated in 1945, before they could be put to death, allowing them to continue their photography until their death. They continued with their art, becoming more and more defiant and proud with their work. After their release, they took a self portrait in which they hold a Nazi insignia eagle between their teeth, posing casually and looking directly at the audience.
In one of their collections of photos, Claude poses as a weightlifter, wearing a shirt that reads “I am in Training, Don’t Kiss Me.” In these photos, they don makeup that could almost be fit for a clown, and they resemble a pinup tattoo that a sailor might be adorned with. These photos show just one of the many
characters that Cahun has taken up. The melodrama and theatricality of these photos are very interesting; the photos are pretty simple and seem to have taken little effort, but the message buried within ignores that.
Claude Cahun is a visionary and was ahead of their time. They defiantly rejected gender norms and roles, choosing to identify as however they pleased. Their work reflects their gender fluidity and confronts viewers straight on with questions regarding our own identities. Claude took on characters that seemed outrageous but reflects who we are and the stereotypes we portray whether we realize it or not. Also, they were anti-Nazi, which is pretty cool.