For many people, the timeline of trans history seems short. There have been recent attempts to highlight the historic existence of trans people (like the disastrously cast 2015 film The Danish Girl). Nonetheless, the belief that transness is a new phenomenon persists. However, though gender confirmation surgeries are an advent of the 20th century, transness itself has always existed. Though society implores us to forget trans trailblazers, they, and their work, persist. One such trailblazer was Claude Cahun.
An Artist Forgotten
Claude Cahun is not a widely known name. Unlike their contemporaries, including Andre Breton, Man Ray, and Rene Magritte, Cahun does not persist as a cornerstone of art history textbooks. Their work, though identifiably of the surrealist movement, has rarely been discussed and examined like the art of their fellow surrealists.
Despite this, their story and work are both extraordinary and enduring. Born Lucy Schwob in Nantes, France in 1894, Cahun was brought up in a Jewish family. In 1917, Cahun’s father married the mother of fellow young artist Suzanne Malherbe. Though Cahun and Malherbe knew each other since the age of 15, they soon grew closer. In 1920, the pair moved to Paris, beginning a lifelong partnership and romance. Together, the couple chose masculine pseudonyms (Claude Cahun for Schwob, and Marcel Moore for Malherbe) and continued to collaborate until Cahun’s death.
“Shuffle the Cards”
Cahun was first and foremost an author, and soon became a part of Paris’ growing artist community. Aveux non Avenues, published in 1930, is their most well-known work. The autobiography featured poems, surreal photo montages, and accounts of dreams, all while attacking French conservatism. This work made Cahun’s rejection of the gender binary publicly evident. Cahun said of gender, “Shuffle the cards. Masculine? Feminine? It depends on the situation. Neuter is the only gender that always suits me.”
Many of Cahun’s most intriguing artistic works come for their time in Paris. Their photographs, for which they have become known, follow the surrealist model, often incorporating reflections and doubling. However, unlike the work of their male, cis-gender counterparts, they played with identity and gender in their work.
Cahun, in 1932, became a part of Association des Écrivains et Artistes Révolutionnaires. The group was a collection of artists and writers aligned with leftist causes. It was here that Cahun began associating with the larger surrealist group, often participating in exhibitions.
In 1937, Cahun and Moore settled on the island of Jersey, where they had both vacationed as children. Following the start of WWII, and the German invasion, both Cahun and Moore decided to stay on the island, despite the evident danger. The pair bravely dedicated themselves to resistance, producing and distributing anti-German fliers, often detailing Nazi crimes. They would then dress up and go to German military events, slyly placing the flyers into the pockets of soldiers, and throwing them into open car windows.
In July of 1944, Moore and Cahun were arrested, charged with listening to the BBC (banned under Nazi rule) and inciting the troops to rebellion. Sentenced to death, though this was commuted, the pair languished in prison for a year before liberation. Unfortunately, Cahun never fully recovered from imprisonment, and died in 1954.
Exist and Persist
Cahun’s work, though not appreciated to the degree it should have been, was a premonition of things to come. Their exploration of identity and gender is now mirrored in the works of contemporary photographers and writers. But beyond their art, their mere existence was revolutionary, and should be celebrated. A non-binary Jewish lesbian in the time of Nazi occupation, They fought for equality and liberation in a time when such acts could have you killed. Cahun was a visionary, and is a clear example of one truism: trans people have always, and will always, exist.
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