“Masculine? Female? But it depends on the cases. Neutral is the only gender that always suits me.”
Courageous and adventurous, always alert and ready to seize the most fleeting moment: these are the women photographers, those who have succeeded through the lens to break down the prejudices of a profession considered “male”. These are women who have contributed to changing customs and finally finding their place in the world.
Claude Cahun is still today the most non-conformist artist the art world has ever had. In his life he explored different disciplines, from writing to photography, very often becoming a work of art itself. Unwilling to be labeled, she declared that her kind of art and life was not ascribable to any genre. Born on October 25, 1894 in Nantes, she was therefore an artist of many talents, but remained in the shadows perhaps because of her being a woman or perhaps because her art or her very person, escaped the categories imposed by society.
Life and art outside the box
Claude Cahun: a “neutral” name, depending on whether it is masculine or feminine, accompanied by a typically Jewish surname, that of his paternal grandmother.
All of Cahun’s work is strongly self-referential, her writings as well as her photographic images, almost as if to claim total autonomy from society and reality itself: it is no coincidence that she approached surrealist thought and art, of which she was also interested in the psychoanalytic implications. The name itself, Claude Cahun, was chosen in function of a reference, which referred to an experience strongly characterized by sexual indefiniteness. His early youth was marked, due to the spread of anti-Semitic thought, by attacks and insults for his Jewish origins. Even more unacceptable, however, in the eyes of society, his homosexual inclinations. It was in fact Suzanne Malherbe the love of his life, muse and closest collaborator.
During the 1920s, Cahun’s transformation is taking place: hair shaved to nothing, men’s clothes and friendships with the most extravagant and provocative surrealist artists. But it is above all his self-portraits that begin to take on a well-defined aesthetic. In fact, since he was a teenager, Cahun used self-portraits as a means of investigating his personality: he portrayed himself in half-length or even in close-up, often combining male and female elements.
Through photography Claude Cahun tells about herself, her liquid sexuality, the infinite possibilities of the body. The artist wrote her identity every day, art was for her a mirror in which the image appeared ambiguous, as if it were up to the viewer to give the definitive vision. On the background of the self-portraits anguish dominated, showing a continuous alternation between face and mask.
“Under this mask a face. I will never finish lifting all these faces.” Claude Cahun
Inner diversity, diversity in photography
In Claude Cahun’s photography there is the refusal to belong to a defined gender, but also the will to express through the body her own diversity. Diversity because she was Jewish, homosexual, probably anorexic, victim of a system that isolated people with mental disorders. Surrealism helped her to better express her art and creativity, but the legacy Claude Cahun left us goes beyond the movements and categories that were so close to her. Often her images, as well as her writings, seem to raise questions about the right to simply be different from everyone else. An attitude that Claude Cahun had called her “mania of exception.”