Claude Cahun

By: David Smay
October 25, 2012

I knew CLAUDE CAHUN’s (Lucy Schwob, 1894–1954) story long before I’d heard of her, because I’d read Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta. (I’ve never heard Moore cite Cahun as the inspiration for his comic, but doesn’t it seem likely that he would know an obscure nugget of British history about a forgotten lesbian surrealist artist imprisoned by Nazis?) Cahun was born in Nantes; as a teen, she fell in love with her step-sister, Suzanne Malherbe, who became her lifelong lover and artistic collaborator. Taking the gender-ambiguous name “Claude Cahun” she and Suzanne began shooting self-portraits that poked at questions of gender and identity with great wit and playfulness. In Paris, Cahun became involved with the Surrealists; when France fell, Claude and Suzanne moved to the island of Jersey. Jersey was then occupied by German forces, so the two surrealists used art to subvert fascism — they cut up BBC newsbriefs into rearranged poetry, and slipped these pamphlets into German soldiers’ pockets. Captured and sentenced to death, at the last minute — like Alan Moore’s Valerie — they were released without explanation. Her work, which anticipates artists like Cindy Sherman, is far more than a footnote to V for Vendetta… but next time you see a Guy Fawkes mask at an Occupy rally, spare a thought for Claude Cahun: “Under this mask,/another mask. I will never be/finished removing/all these faces.”

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On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: Pablo Picasso.

READ MORE about members of the Partisan Generation (1904-13).

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What do you think?

  1. Fascinating story — and I hope David will share more of his argument about the Moore-Cahun connection in the comments… in the interest of space, I edited out some key pieces of evidence!

  2. The part of V for Vendetta which seems to draw most strongly from Claude Cahun’s life is the chapter titled “Valerie.” Which is, in my opinion, the single greatest published comic from the eighties. Moore’s revolutionary work at Warrior magazine tends to be overshadowed by The Watchmen.

    Here’s a point by point comparison of common elements.

    * Like the character Valerie in Moore’s comic, Claude Cahun was an artist, living in a committed lesbian relationship under Fascist rule (the Nazi occupation of the Channel Islands during WWII).

    * Like Valerie, Cahun and her lover were imprisoned by Fascists, and she kept a secret journal during the year she was jailed.

    * Quotes from her journal are very much in keeping with the tone of Valerie’s note which Evey finds. Cahun: “If there is horror, it is for those who speak indifferently of the next war. If there is hate, it is for hateful qualities, not nations. If there is love, it is because this alone kept me alive.”

    * Moore originally pitched the series as being about a “Transexual Terrorist.” Cahun’s work was deeply interested in questions of gender identity constantly toying with androgyny and received roles. Contemporary Queer Theory often views her through the lens of a transgender identity.

    * Like the character Evey, Cahun was released from imprisonment without explanation on the very day she expected to be executed. When she was escorted out of her prison cell, she anticipated her own death and was shocked that they simply escorted her to the front door.

    * Like Evey, Cahun’s head was frequently shaved. Though Evey’s head was shaved as part of her imprisonment (by V), and Claude’s was an act of self-definition. They were both transformative acts.

    * Like the character V himself, Cahun fought against Fascism with poetry and art, asserting the primacy of love against hateful politics.

  3. It’s also worth noting that Cahun was deeply involved with the Surrealists, joining Association des Écrivains et Artistes Révolutionnaires (an art group opposed to Fascism and war).

    She participated in major exhibitions including the London International Surrealist Convention of 1936 organized by Breton, Eluard, Hugnet and Man Ray, and featuring a lecture that Salvador Dali (that tried to give inside a pressurized diving suit – almost suffocating himself).

    Cahun wrote for several Surrealist journals at the time, and Breton in particular encouraged her writing considering her to be an important theorist.

    Her writing is as striking and distinct as her photography, though only pieces of it have been translated into English.

    She’s been a major rediscovery over the last ten years, with increasing scholarly interest.

    Here’s another quote from her that I would say suggests some inspiration for V for Vendetta:

    “Under this mask,/ another mask. I will never be/ finished removing/ all these faces.”

  4. Wow, David, that’s really fascinating! I’ll have to look more into her, and I’ll definitely pass this on to my comic-geek husband. He was getting his MA in Gender Studies AND used to write comics before the Love of Tech ate his life.

    Very cool.

  5. Above article * comments excellent; i don’t think Cahun is a footnote to anybody. I do believe the use o Guy masks are a result of the movie version of V & bear no connection to Moore’s intentions whatsoever, so enquire to him about them at your own hazard.

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