Claude Cahun (1894-1954) was an artist, photographer and writer. She is best known today for her surreal self-portrait photographs which show her dressed as different characters. Cahun questioned the accepted status-quo, particularly the position of women, through her art and in the way she lived her life
Cahun’s connection with Jersey began early, with childhood holidays spent in Jersey and Brittany. She was born Lucy Schwob in Nantes, France to a wealthy Jewish family. But in her late teens and early twenties Cahun had been looking for a new, gender-neutral name for a while. She fixed on the name Claude Cahun in 1918. At that time she was in a same-sex relationship with Suzanne Malherbe, who used the pseudonym Marcel Moore. They had become step sisters in their mid-teens and at some point a closer relationship developed.
Self Portrait with Marcel Moore
The two, both artists, collaborated on work. Their first joint publication was a re-issue of Cahun’s book called Vues et Visions in 1919, with new illustrations by Moore. It publicly outed them as a couple and is the first recorded use of Cahun’s new name. Shortly after its publication she and Moore moved to Paris, at the time a creative hub and perhaps a more forgiving place, socially and artistically, for the couple to live in. But by 1937 they were ready to leave. Jewish on her father’s side, Cahun felt a ‘premonition of danger’ about the political situation. And she was feeling the pull of the countryside, too. She and Moore returned to Jersey to live, taking up their old names and letting people assume they were sisters.
Self portrait (in velvet dress, at La Rocquaise) 1939
They initially stayed at St Brelade’s Bay Hotel where Cahun’s family had holidayed. But the couple soon bought La Rocquaise, a house overlooking the bay. They became village eccentrics; walking their cat, Kid, on a lead, wearing trousers and making art in and around the house. Initially they found life in Jersey to be a ‘holiday without end.’ But with the prospect of a Nazi invasion of Jersey looking very likely in 1940, they refused to be evacuated back to England. Instead the women decided to mount an underground resistance campaign following the Nazi’s occupation of the Island in June 1940. Their campaign largely took the form of propaganda in the form of fake news sheets – authored by listening to the BBC on an illegal radio and then translated into German by Moore. These were left in places German soldiers might find them.
Their two-woman campaign against the Nazi’s lasted a risky four years and provoked the Nazi’s – who spent years looking for the perpetrators. Until the summer of 1944 when the Gestapo entered La Rocquaise to investigate the ‘sisters.’ Cahun and Moore ended up in prison in St Helier and narrowly avoided a sentence of death. They remained in jail until 9 May 1945, the day Jersey was liberated. The couple stayed on in Jersey until 1953, until Cahun’s increasing ill health, as well as her bitterness against the locals who had (as she saw it) collaborated with the Nazis, saw them briefly returning to Paris to see if they might live there again. But back in Jersey in late 1954, Cahun was taken into hospital and died on 8 December, aged 60. Moore lived on in Jersey until 1972, when she ended her own life.
Self portrait (with Nazi badge between her teeth) 1945
Cahun and Moore are both buried in St Brelade’s Church on Jersey, which is next door to their old house. The church is a place Cahun photographed. And it is where she walked her beloved cats.
After her death Cahun’s artwork remained in relative obscurity. An exhibition “Surrealist Sisters – an extraordinary story of art and politics” was held in 1993 at Jersey Museum, showcasing John Wakeham’s collection of photographs, drawings, manuscripts and other material by Cahun and Moore. Wakeham, looking for Surrealist books, had bought tea chests of books and ‘stuff’ from a sale after Moore’s death in 1972. The exhibition led to material being acquired by Jersey Heritage in 1995. This was followed by a later purchase of another smaller collection in 2000.
And so Jersey is now home to the world’s best collection of Cahun’s work and we have loaned works to museums and galleries all over the world.
While this work is not on permanent display at Jersey Museum and Art Gallery, you can view Claude Cahun’s work by visiting Jersey Archive during normal opening hours, registering as an Archive Reader and requesting to see the originals through the online catalogue (links below).
St Brelade's Church from La Rocquaise