Photographs of Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore
The artists Claude Cahun (1894-1954) and Marcel Moore (1892-1972) were an extraordinary couple who worked, lived and loved together for more than 40 years. Cahun and Moore were the pseudonyms for Lucy Schwob and Suzanne Malherbe, stepsisters who were born in Nantes and lived in Jersey from 1937.
The pair met in 1909, when Cahun was age 14 and Moore was 16. Cahun later wrote that their meeting was a “thunderbolt encounter”. They became lifelong companions and lovers, and they collaborated closely in their art throughout their lives. When Moore’s father passed away in 1915, Cahun’s divorced father remarried Moore’s mother, therefore making the lovers, Cahun and Moore, stepsisters. Cahun noted that, “the strange coincidence that we were reunited through our family ties seemed to make everything work better.”
Cahun went on to produce some of the most startlingly original and enigmatic photographs of the early 20th century, in which she explored concepts of gender, sexuality and identity. One of her most famous photographs is shown here, taken in the couple’s Paris apartment in 1928.
There are many classic paintings which depict women looking at themselves in a mirror. Usually they refer to narcissism, voyeurism and being the object of the male gaze. However, in this self-portrait, Cahun is not looking at herself, she is looking at us looking at her. She wears a long, chequered coat, which she holds closed. The coat conceals all of her body apart from her face. Yet in the mirror image it appears almost as if she is opening the coat, revealing the base of her neck. She disrupts the viewer’s gaze by staring back in a strong, confrontational and unwavering way. The eyes of the mirror image do not connect with the viewer, rather they stare beyond into the unknown.
The way that Cahun is dressed can be seen as a rejection of traditional ideals of feminine beauty. Her hair is cut very short and the coat she wears is more like a costume than typical female clothing. This adopting of a gender-neutral persona is a common theme running throughout Cahun’s early photography. In a lot of Surrealist art, women typically feature in the role of a muse, child or femme fatale, however Cahun refuses to play into any of these stereotypes. In one of her essays she famously wrote, “Masculine? Feminine? It depends on the situation. Neuter in the only gender that always suits me.”
Self portrait (reflected in mirror, chequered jacket) 1928
A similar photograph was taken of Marcel Moore, standing at exactly the same mirror, probably during the same photo session. In Moore’s image, she smiles directly at the viewer through the mirror, however like Cahun, she adopts a neutral persona through the covering up of her hair and body, once again challenging the traditional image of a woman at the mirror.
Suzanne Malherbe 1928