French photographer Lucy Renee Mathilde Schwob (1894-1954), better known as Claude Cahun, was a groundbreaker in both the fields of photography and sexuality. Her art defies gender stereotypes through a series of theatrical self-portraits where she appeared as both a man and a woman, that is, with an ambiguous or undefined gender. In contrast to her art, she did take a clear stance in regards to her political views: she supported the resistance efforts against the Nazi, so she was captured by them and sentenced to death.
She also stood out as a writer and poet, as a feminist icon, and as a Jew. She had a complicated childhood. Due to mental instability, her mother was institutionalized during long periods in an asylum. Claude suffered from anorexia and manifested depressive tendencies, which made her father deeply concerned. She grew up in a family that understood and appreciated art: she was niece of writer Marcel Schwob and daughter of Maurice Schwod, journalist and editor of the French newspaper Le Phare de la Loire. She was also grand niece of historical fiction writer Léon Cahun. In 1971, Lucy changed her surname to Cahun to pay tribute to her uncle. Her character and natural affinity for expressing her visions was molded by this intellectual environment where she grew up.
When she was 15 years old she met Suzanne Malherbe, who would later become her stepsister. They got along right away and became inseparable. It was through their friendship that Claude's father (who was recently widowed) got to met Suzanne's mother, and married shortly after.
Suzanne and Claude began to create art together, especially photography. At that time Claude's sexuality was already hard to determine: she shaved her head and her common apparel consisted of a blend of female and male garments.
She attempted to create a third gender by adopting behavior and gestures which could be considered either male or female. Her own character and stage name could also be used by a man or a woman.
In her self-portraits she adopts different roles, in addition to the undefined gender she represented: she could be a decaying millionaire, a sailor, an Indian deity, or a carnival artist. She got to rub elbows with several important upholders of surrealism, like André Breton, Georges Bataille, and André Dresnos, because of her affiliation with the Association of Revolutionary Writers and Artists. She signed the surrealist manifesto along with them. She also collaborated with them in two exhibitions: "The Exhibition of Surrealist Objects" and "The International Surrealist Exhibition", which took place in Paris and London respectively.
She became the lover of her step-sister Suzanne Malherbe since their time in Paris. Due to Claude's health issues they moved together to Jersey, off to the coast of Normandy, and continued with their artistic activities.
In 1940, the Nazi troops invaded France. The two women were attacked and imprisoned due to their contributions with anti-Nazi groups. One of her usual transgressive acts was to attend Nazi soldier's meetings dressed as men. Once the soldiers gathered, the couple would put in their pockets pamphlets that opposed Hitler's government. Both were captured and tortured by the Gestapo and sentenced to death. The Gestapo also confiscated their works, their archives, and home.
In May 8, the Allies invaded Jersey and the couple was set free. With her sledgehammer wit, Claude went on to immortalize herself in a portrait where she appears with the Nazi hawk symbol in her mouth. It was a Jewish woman's victory over Hitler's government.
Due to her imprisonment, Claude's health deteriorated. Nonetheless, she continued to make photographs in an effort to restore what the Gestapo had destroyed. She continued to travel to Paris on and off to visit her surrealist friends.
She died when she was 60 years old, leaving the world with a specially valuable artistic legacy that vindicated sexual and artistic freedom in way in which only few people have dared to. Art and Nazism stumbled upon a woman who, through her intelligence and determination, was able to defy myths and false preconceptions about gender. She taught us not to be afraid to show who you really are inside.
Translated by Andrea Valle