As our museums still nowadays seem to showcase, sometimes it’s harder to be remembered in art history if you were born a woman.
Proverbial for their chameleonic abilities, their ambiguity in sexual identity and orientation, their sinuous swimming and slippering among multiple art media, Claude Cahun stood their whole artistic life for the defense and exploration of uninvestigated points of view.
Lesbian, non-binary, extreme leftist, Claude Cahun -née Lucy Renée Mathilde Schwob- was born on October 25th, 1894 in Nantes, the niece of writer Marcel Schwob and great-niece of orientalist David Léon Cahun.
Due to their mother’s mental illness, Lucy was raised by their maternal grandmother, Mathilde.
After attending the faculty of Literatures at vibrant Sorbonne in Paris, Lucie changed their name into the gender neutral Claude Cahun, managing thus to escape the first of a series of fundamental gender-binding frames.
Mirroring a doppelgänger scheme so often recurring in Cahun’s life, also their sister and lifetime lover Suzanne Malherbe adopted the synonym Marcel Moore.
But Cahun doesn’t fit in the stereotype of the sapphic, nor troubled artist.
At a first remark, their work spreads through different media -theater, journalism, sculpture and photography.
In second instance, their aesthetics being ascribed to the canons of Surrealism, they devised a ploy in order never to deliver an ultimate outline of the system Cahun.
Their photographic self-portraits reach the observer through the sieve of makeup, stage props, costumes, curtains and screens that make it a riddle to decipher the location, time and facial features of the moment in which the picture was taken.
It is as if Cahun’s wish is to build their identity through a layering of interpretations, assumptions and critiques coming from the outside, more than through an assertive statement of her inner ego. And the resolute abstention from confirming which observer’s guess was correct forces their audience to repeatedly confront and lose trust in their mental categories.
Is the artist a doll? A circus artist? A lusty mistress in her boudoir? A mischievous tomboy? Which is the sentiment that should seal our final judgement: complicity, scandal, pity, hate, love?
Cahun proposes, but doesn’t tell. It’s not the artist’s job to point out how we should, if we should at all, think differently of each personality. That is a moral dispute that is consumed in the heart of the viewers, who more often than wished will find themselves either falling into the trap of a compulsion to repeat, or having to dramatically redesign their reality reading schemes.
If Cahun had glasses, their lenses would have the shape of a kaleidoscope, and they would play the part of an unreliable narrator. And such a figure is mandatory for the safeguard of intellectual honesty, especially during their own times, since the whole human history was turning out to be the biased narrative of men, who celebrated their similars and disqualified women as nuisances, sorceresses, obstacles to the greater good pursued by their male peers.
But -what if we could watch closer?
What if we could be allowed in famous households, where infamous héroïnes have been secluded, not to overshadow the glory of their renewed companions?
Probably, we would discover we didn’t know the whole story, and this is the theme of Cahun’s Héroïnes, published in February 1925 on the prestigious literary magazine Mercure de France.
As in for Eve, la trop crédule (Eve, the too gullible one), we learn that the original sin is just a side effect of a too convincing product marketing.
Eve, portrayed as a candid housewife with a positivist faith in Capitalism, still has enough critical sensibility to admit that, in order to improve her life, she would need a miracle, or just… more money (“Ah! Si seulement Adam me donnait plus d’argent de poche!“).
She is attracted to a fruit that promises to instill knowledge and emancipate her from her status of middle-class housewife; to endow her companion with sexual energy (“Oh dommage, trop cher! Vraiment, j’aurais aimé lui donner ça. Il en a tant besoin, le pauvre chéri…“); to make her come forward with creative skills, even if this would mean being guilty of hubris, since creativity was arbitrarily passed by God onto Adam so that he could irradiate his superiority on the planet (“Pourquoi ne le ferais-je pas? Pourquoi pas moi? Qu’est-ce qu’il dirait de voir sa petite femme devenue grande peintre, grand poète, la gloire du Paradis?“).
The more she speculates on the fruit, the more she is unable to determine what is so despicable about it -the more the reason, the fact that the serpent reminds her that “le père n’y connait rien. Il n’est pas gourmand“.
The intelligence duet performed by Eve and the serpent reflects a mindset of true scientific method: they find out that not only tasting the fruit doesn’t seem to potentially bring any damage to Eve’s life -made exception for the Father’s anger-, but also that the prohibition itself has its sole root in the Father’s bigotry.
Eve proves furthermore to be compassionate: unlike Adam and God, Eve is ready to share her knowledge (“Je ne suis pas égoïste, moi!”), which is not granted to her from above, but that she conquers putting her own life at risk.
In this sense, Eve is a new mythological Prometheus, giving a new eschatological meaning to rebellion.
Dalila, femme entre les femmes, prosecutes the doubtful mission of Eve by pointing out how exaggeratedly insecure Samson’s culture of reference must be, if he is supposed to have lost his masculinity together with his hair.
A man whose vigor was so forcefully tied to his hairdo, probably never had any, and she refuses to be blamed for Samson’s ruin, just because she walked over a silly superstition.
Her sarcastic intensity peaks when she ironically declares that she’s also ready to give up her equally non-existing masculinity and undergo circumcision before a lay audience (“Ce soir, je te le jure, par le grand Prêtre lui-même, devant nos peuples réunis, moi, Dalila l’infidèle, je me ferai CIRCONCIRE”).
Judith, la sadique, is the daughter born from the union of Eros and Thanatos: her undeniable sexual charge is paired together with the arousal she experiences while having the chance of destroying the man who lays in her bed.
Dreaded by Holofernes as if she was a mantis, Cahun’s Judith has a moment of being when she notices a crescendo of pleasure as long as she has physical power over other creatures.
She kneels to collect from the ground a little hurt bird and acknowledges the bliss she feels whilst having a living, defenseless creature in her hands.
It’s clear that she only comes second to this conclusion: the face of her lover comes to her mind and suddenly, those tired, dull, weak features (“ces yeux morts, si lents -des yeux petits, étroits, aux paupières énormes ; ce menton charnu mais point trop saillant ; cette bouche bestiale aux lèvres sensuelles, mais de la même peau, semble-t-il, que le reste du visage“) come together signifying not only Holofernes’s unsuitability to the role of hefty lover, but also the admission of his inferiority, his subjection to Judith’s letal seduction.
Again, Cahun’s male anti-heroes come across as potentially sex phobic, cautious, but hence incapable of even imagining the thousands forms joy can take.
And on the other hand, ineptitude is complementary to Judith’s desires. She is not curious about her similars, with whom the idea of danger is out of question (“Et voici mes frères! Ceux là n’ont rien à craindre, car ils me font horreur“).
Judith testifies Cahun’s horror towards the self-absorbed bourgeoisie of their times. A society that doesn’t confront its secret drives and it’s not ready for diversity is a society that gives up on its self-preservation, is doomed to eradicate a risky, yet rewarding instinct of reproduction and it sets up for extinction.
Ironically enough, when Judith and Holofernes’s mating ends with the homicide of the latter, the people of Israel are ready to celebrate their queen, who is instead saddened: the encounter and radical physical fusion with the other was for Judith a private claim for pleasure, whereas Israel conveys to history a miscalculated interpretation, as if Judith’s sexual conduct had been a resolute elimination of every difference, propelled by fear and hatred.
Helen of Troy is Cahun’s most modern heroine. Dismantling already in the opening the myth of Helen’s beauty, Cahun gives voice to a glamorous, charming and smart social climber.
“Je sais bien que je suis laide, mais je m’efforce de l’oublier. Je fais la belle“.
Bulding from scratch her persona for glossy magazines, Helen confesses that her boasted birth from Jupiter and Venus is a preposterous lie. She adds up to her value by stating that no mortal would ever be worthy of lying with her, thus triggering a ruthless competition among men who want to establish their status quo.
When eventually Menelaus gets to marry her, a new branding is launched and Helen rises to the function of trophy wife.
Her first rebellion involves Agamemnon, who turns out not to be at all fascinated by Helen, but only willing to complete a humiliating vendetta towards his brother.
After accepting to undergo additional courses for the formation of her public image, she decides to rebel against her patron, Menelaus. The role of great woman supporting an even greater man simply doesn’t suit her anymore: she sleeps with Priam et ses fils and flees away from a destiny of manipulation.
It is poignant that the male figure who is appointed as her alter-ego, the only one who doesn’t bend to her spell, is Ulysses, the archetype par excellence of cunning, resourceful intelligence.
Cahun operates in this way a long-waited, equal redistribution of mental capabilities. The Odyssey transmitted to posthumous generations Ulysses’s unmistakable quick wit; Cahun writes the missing page of the epic, giving back to memory the equally brilliant mind of Helen.
Sappho, the following heroine, is a tragic mirror of Helen and it embodies the bundle of heartbreaking lies women have to tell to survive in a men’s world.
Sappho’s story is much more tactfully narrated and it probably gives voice to Cahun’s moral torment -can a woman pursue happiness by fully expressing her own self, or can she only aspire to partial contentedness, by keeping her real aspirations as a private affair and displaying publicly the mother and wife is expected of her by common conventions?
Foretold as sterile, Sappho adopts a child and pretends it’s her own, in order not to be repudiated by her husband. Marriage is in fact the toll she has to pay to continue being accepted as a still relevant human being and dedicating her efforts to her real Muse: poetry, and everything that revolves around creativity.
Cahun here reveals not to be ready to embrace avant-garde pride for homosexuality, or more probably, she refuses to reduce Sappho’s powerful lyricism to a LGBT icon: Cahun’s Sappho is the victim of gossip, because of her unconventional, rough beauty and her poetic genius, which makes her an apprehended rival for rising stars, such as her lover and poet Alcaeus.
And even her next lovers, intimidated by the popularity Sappho has among self-assured, confident women, make it an excuse to disrespect her untamed creativity and choose the weapon of slut-shaming: she has chlamydia and her reputation is depicted on the boorish clothes that she wears.
Once more abandoned, Sappho comes to the conclusion that her urge for creation will only produce excruciating loneliness. She won’t ever be understood, therefore she will never be able to keep the comfort of a companion by her side.
“Quand on rénonce à créer, il ne rest plus qu’a détruire“.
Uncompromising on an existence where she would have to choose between authenticity or acceptance, Sappho decides to stay true to herself, and jumps from the cliff of Leucade.
The following heroine of the cycle has all the resemblance of an anti-hero.
Margaret, the candid girl abducted to Goethe’s Faust by Mephistopheles, confesses under Cahun’s spotlight that all her misadventures were the consequences of fully conscious choices.
Upholding the truthfulness of something such as body autonomy, Margeret l’incestueuse reveals that her sexual maturity began way before than Goethe’s gruesome pages.
While playing with her brother, Valentin, Margaret daydreams about her own harem of men, while laying the brother’s toy soldiers on her lap and picturing herself quenching their thirst with her own saliva.
Projecting those fantasies onto the only boy that she knows in flesh and bones, she ranks her brother Valentin as the captain of those soldiers, the one who deserves special consideration.
Valentin seems to reciprocate such attentions, especially when sensually combing the sister’s hair on her naked back.
As soon as Valentin actually does join the army, Margaret is reassured that their role-play game can continue: she will play the part of a grieving princess, longing for the return of her hero, to finally escape any fear and frailty.
But once again, romance is weaker than sex. As soon as Valentin is far from her sight, her mind is free to wonder on the prowess of new visitors.
And at this point, she’s ready to fall for an even more devilish rapture, the one for Faust -who is actually a sop for Mephistopheles, the transgression personified, who is turned away by Faust who fears his competition.
“Ne pas respecter l’opinion publique est toujours un signe d’effronterie incompatible avec la réserve et la mesure que doivent garder tous les actes des femmes équilibrées et respectables“.
Once back, Valentin is blinded by jealousy and orders the sister to kill her newborn baby, without knowing it’s his own child.
Then, jailed for homicide, Margaret can finally recognize that she has been used as a scapegoat to bring the burden not only of her shortcomings, but also of the sexual misconduct and violence of men in her life.
“Comment des hommes osent-ils me condamner, et surtout s’ils ont des soeurs? Savez-vous donc, o Juges, savez vous ce-qui vous attende?“
Margaret implies in her closing sentence that she believes in the justice of a superior court, where men will be held at the end of their days, and hopefully be reminded of the pain and loneliness they inflicted on a single individual, just because she happened to be a woman, a human being so easy to blame and forget in a men dominated world.
The last heroine has probably the most cryptic story, with which is difficult to sympathize at a first reading.
Salome, the voluptuous dancer who performed before Herod and beheaded John the Baptist, is revealed to be an artist, disappointed by the coming-of-age during which she understands that most artists imitate life, instead of crafting new realities.
Even those who declare to avoid Realism and to do Art for Art’s Sake, just waste their time on Earth by camouflaging present subjects to level them with the standards of ideal beauty.
Cahun mocks this model of tormented, anarchic, outcast masculinity: in her artist colleagues, Cahun discerns the defeat of courage, ambition, creative genius overall (“Se croyant tous destructeurs, bâtisseurs, méconnus, maudits, parricides, incendiaires -comme ils s’intimident eux-mêmes!“).
After having seen on stage at the theater a painted carton of the head of a prisoner, Salome provokes Herod to find out whether he appreciates this art form, and ascertained that he also is a keen defender of Realism, she obtains that the decapitated head of John the Baptist is brought to her for comparison.
The horror of the homicide proves a series of points that were part of Salome’s path towards disillusion.
“L’art, la vie: ça se vaut“. A type of art that so closely imitates life can’t but leave great souls indifferent.
Moreover, the audience who is fond of Realism too often turns out to be weak, hypocrite and mean: they insult art by making it an apotropaic canvas for their nastiest passions, being unable to fulfill them in real life.
Herod is aghast when he is presented John’s head on a silver platter, despite “Il n’aime pas qu’on parle du prisonnier, dont il est jaloux“.
At last, Salome comprehends that all along she had been searching the absolute quintessence of an artist, when she already was that herself:
“Ils disent que je tournoie, tantôt sur les paumes, tantôt sur les orteils, comme une acrobate -car ils ne savent pas voir. Je suis sirène ou serpent et me tiens dressée sur ma queue: je suis un oiseau, un ange, et dance légèrement sur la pointe endurcie de mes ailes“.
All along, she has been able to transform herself into something else, creating around herself images of ambiguity, disorientation and magic.
Behind Salome’s veils, amid her fast spinning, hidden in her hypnotic music, Claude Cahun has signed their manifesto.
As a lesbian woman in the male dominated art scene of 1920s, but also later on as a political opposer in the France invaded by Nazis, Cahun holds onto art as a means of survival and assertiveness.
In disguise, wearing multiple masks and speaking their voice through the microphone of Eve, Dalila, Judith, Helen, Sappho, Margaret and Salome, Claude Cahun left behind an artistic heritage that is for seekers.
Witty but not caustic, ironic but never laughable, Cahun still speaks to us a hundred of years later, teaching us the mastery of watching closer and discussing without yelling.
As for her Salome, the conversation Cahun strives to start with their readers introduces a never-before-explored modality: they gently suggest possible worlds, where we can close our eyes and slowly recuperate the voices of those obscured by history; and for once, we can simply shut up and listen, because people who are depositories of their truth don’t feel the need to scream, they simply narrate their story in a low voice.
-Claude Cahun, Héroïnes, in Mercure de France, n. 639, February 1, 1925, Paris, Gallimard
-Claude Cahun, Écrits, curated by François Leperlier, Les Nouvelles éditions Place, Paris, 2002
-Wikipedia, Claude Cahun