In early-20th-century France, when society generally considered women to be women and men to be men, Lucy Schwob decided she would rather be called Claude Cahun.
It was her way of protesting gender and sexual norms. She thrived on ambiguity and she chose a name, Claude, that in French could refer to either a man or a woman. She took the last name from her grandmother Mathilda Cahun.
Cahun (ca-AH) made ambiguity a theme in a lifelong exploration of gender and sexual identity as a writer and photographer. Decades after her death, she has a growing following among art historians, feminists and people in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer community.
Working in Paris in the racy 1920s and ’30s alongside surrealist artists and writers, long before the rise of the gender-neutral “they” as a pronoun and the advent of terms like transgender and queer theory, Cahun created stark, sometimes playful, but deliberately equivocal photos of herself.
Here she’s a man. There she’s a woman. Sometimes she’s a little of both. Sometimes her head is shaved. In one photograph, Cahun brings together two silhouette portraits of herself, bald and austere, sizing each other up. “What do you want from me?” her caption reads.
“Masculine? Feminine?” she wrote in her book “Aveux non Avenus,” published in English as “Disavowals.” “It depends on the situation. Neuter is the only gender that always suits me.”
As writer and photographer, Cahun worked at upending convention. “My role,” she wrote in an essay published after her death, “was to embody my own revolt and to accept, at the proper moment, my destiny, whatever it may be.”
Cahun’s writing is complex and often difficult to follow, scholars say. But it provides context for the photographs and the weave of her life.
The photographs are by far her most compelling work. At first, scholars thought of them as self-portraits. But the gathering consensus is that Cahun choreographed and posed for the photos, and that her romantic partner, Marcel Moore, who was born Suzanne Malherbe, often pressed the button. It was a collaboration.
Cahun died on Dec. 8, 1954, at age 60, on the tiny Channel Island of Jersey off the Normandy coast of France. Hardly anyone noticed. “Disavowals,” her most heartfelt book, had not been well received. And she had never exhibited the photographs.
In the 1990s, however, she received a rush of attention as gender issues were gathering steam around the world. “Suddenly,” said Vince Aletti, a New York photography critic and curator, “she seemed incredibly of the moment.”
A French writer, François Leperlier, published a book on Cahun and helped organize the first exhibition of her work, at a museum in Paris. An English edition was published as “Claude Cahun: Masks and Metamorphoses.”
Professors and graduate students in art history and in feminist and gender studies began writing about her. Art museums wanted her work.
Cahun’s photographs have been displayed in group shows in the last two years in nearly a dozen museums in London, Paris, Washington, Melbourne, Warsaw and elsewhere. She is featured in a group exhibition running through early July at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco. Another group show opened in Bonn, Germany, in late May, and one opened in Sweden in mid-June.
Tellingly, many middle and high school students have attended the San Francisco exhibition, said Lori Starr, the museum’s director.
“In Cahun you’ve got an artist who turns the camera on themselves to see who else they can become,” said David J. Getsy, a professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago who specializes in gender and sexuality in art. “Isn’t that what we’re all doing now with cellphone photos? This is one reason young people might see themselves in Cahun.”
Paris named a street for Cahun and Moore in 2018. That same year, Christian Dior brought out an androgynous collection inspired by Cahun.
Cahun’s art spoke to David Bowie, who was known for his shifting personas. He arranged a flashy, high-tech, outdoor presentation of her photographs in New York in 2007, telling reporters her work was “really quite mad, in the nicest possible way.”
Lucy Renee Mathilde Schwob was born on Oct. 25, 1894, in Nantes, a provincial capital 200 miles southwest of Paris, to Maurice Schwob, the owner and publisher of the regional newspaper Le Phare de La Loire, and Victorine Mary-Antoinette Courbebaisse.
When she was 4, her mother began to show signs of mental illness and her grandmother took her in.
At 12, Lucy was sent to boarding school in England after French classmates began harassing her with anti-Semitic taunts. Back in Nantes at about 14 or 15, she met Suzanne Malherbe, who was two years older. The encounter, Cahun would write, was like a lightning strike.
Eight years later, Cahun’s father remarried. His new wife was Marie Eugénie Malherbe, Suzanne Malherbe’s mother. That made Cahun and Moore stepsisters, which created the appearance of a conventional relationship.
In Paris, they lived comfortably off family money. Drawing on her studies at the Sorbonne, Cahun wrote for literary magazines and journals, published at least two books and performed in experimental theater.
Moore worked as an illustrator and theatrical designer. Their apartment became a gathering place for writers and artists. They talked about social justice and debated communism as a counterforce to fascism. André Breton, a leader of the surrealist movement, wrote in a letter to Cahun in the early 1930s that she was “one of the most curious spirits of our time.”
Scholars are convinced that the choice of the name Claude Cahun was an important and symbolic expression of Cahun’s worldview. “It was not just a pen name,” said Jennifer L. Shaw, an art history professor at Sonoma State University in California and the author of a biography of Cahun. And yet Cahun and Moore usually called each other Lucy and Suzanne. Many friends and relatives also addressed them by those names.
In a similar separation between the intimate and the public, scholars say, the photographs were more part of a private conversation than something to present to the world.
“They were in the mode of investigation, who you could be, how you could be, projecting yourself into another skin, another universe,” said Tirza True Latimer, a professor at the California College of the Arts in San Francisco, who first wrote about Cahun in her Ph.D. thesis nearly 20 years ago. “These were two lesbians living within certain constraints. The photographs, the acting out, were a way of being free. It wasn’t really about producing an art object.”
In 1937, with tension rising in prewar Paris, Cahun and Moore decamped for Jersey, where they bought a large granite house overlooking St. Brelade’s Bay.
When the Nazis rolled over France in 1940, they took Jersey and the other Channel Islands. Cahun and Moore fought back — with their typewriter and pens, writing short messages to the Germans under the guise of an unhappy soldier they called “the soldier with no name,” said Louise Downie, the director of curation at the Jersey Heritage Trust, which has the main collection of Cahun’s and Moore’s work.
The messages — written on small bits of paper, sometimes even toilet paper — said that the war was lost, that German troops should look out for themselves. They called Hitler a vampire. Whatever the soldiers’ commanders might say, one note read, “Nobody dies for us.”
They slipped the notes into uniform pockets at the laundry, under windshield wipers and into cigarette packs left on cafe tables, Val Nelson, the senior registrar at the Jersey trust, said.
It was a small-scale effort, with serious consequences. Cahun and Moore had a suicide plan and carried barbiturates. After three years they were caught and sentenced to death. Twice, they tried to kill themselves but underdosed. The war ended and they went free.
Cahun died nine years later and was buried in the churchyard next to their house. Moore took her own life 18 years after that. They are now together under a single gravestone inscribed with two stars of David and their birth names.
Why they did not put Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore on the tombstone — or use them in their handwritten wills — is a mystery. There are no clues at the Jersey trust.
But whatever their reasoning, Cahun and Moore remain symbols of how people can break free of society’s preconceptions.
“Their lives were a performance around the questioning of identity,” said Jonathan Carter, the chief executive of the Jersey trust.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.