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Claude Cahun was a French artist, photographer and writer who settled in Jersey in 1937.
Born Lucy Renee Mathilde Schwob in Nantes, she was the niece of an avant-garde writer Marcel Schwob and the great-niece of Orientalist David Léon Cahun. Her mother’s mental problems meant that she was brought up by her paternal grandmother, Mathilde Cahun.
She began making photographic self-portraits as early as 1912, when she was 18 years old, and she continued taking images of herself through the 1930s.
Around 1919 she settled on the pseudonym Claude Cahun, intentionally selecting a sexually ambiguous name. During the early 20s she settled in Paris with her lifelong partner and stepsister Suzanne Malherbe. For the rest of their lives together, Cahun and Malherbe (who adopted the pseudonym Marcel Moore) collaborated on various written works, sculptures, photomontages and collages. She published articles and novels, notably in the periodical Mercure de France.
Around 1922 she and Malherbe began holding artists’ salons at their home. Among the regulars who would attend were artists Henri Michaux and André Breton and literary entrepreneurs Sylvia Beach and Adrienne Monnier.
Cahun’s work encompassed writing, photography, and theater. She is most remembered for her highly-staged self portraits and tableaux that incorporated the visual aesthetics of Surrealism.
In 1937 Cahun and Malherbe settled in Jersey. Following the fall of France and the German occupation of Jersey and the other Channel Islands, they became active as propagandists. Fervently against war, the two worked extensively in producing anti-German fliers. Many were snippets from English-to-German translations of BBC reports on the Nazis’ crimes and insolence, which were pasted together to create rhythmic poems and harsh criticism. The couple then dressed up and attended many German military events in Jersey, strategically placing them in soldier’s pockets, on their chairs, etc.
Also, fliers were inconspicuously crumpled up and thrown into cars and windows. Cahun and Malherbe’s resistance efforts were not only political but artistic actions, using their creative talents to manipulate and undermine the authority which they despised. In many ways, Cahun’s life’s work was focused on undermining a certain authority, however her specific resistance fighting targeted a physically dangerous threat. In 1944 they were arrested and sentenced to death, but the sentences were never carried out. However, Cahun’s health never recovered from her treatment in jail, and she died in 1954. She is buried in St Brelade’s Church with Malherbe.
This biography appears on the Jersey Heritage website Stepsisters Lucy Schwob (1894 – 1954) and Suzanne Malherbe (1892 – 1972) were members of a wealthy publishing family from the city of Nantes in France. In their youth they had spent ejoyable holidays in Jersey – snapshots record trips to the beach, and the sister’s friendship with the Colley family who ran the St Brelade’s Bay hotel.
By 1916, Suzanne Malherbe had already established herself as a graphic artist under the pseudonym of Marcel Moore. In Paris a graphic style developed as a result of the importance of fashion illustration which spread to other areas of the arts. Fashion export had been officially recognised as part of the French war effort and the new style that emerged mirrored the post-war social restlessness.
Suzanne Malherbe’s illustrations are typical of this type of work, reflecting the influence of the dynamic fine art scene and a growing interest in non-Western cultures, especially that of Japan. She illustrated books and magazines and produced publicity material for leading figures in the avant-garde theatre and dance. Her work was exhibited in important venues such as the Salon d’Automne.
Lucy Schwob was meanwhile establishing herself as a writer and photographer under the name of Claude Cahun. By the age of 19 her work had been published in leading literary journals alongside writers such as Guillaume Apollinaire. In the 1920s she was attracted to the ideas of the Surrealist Movement and, through her participation in the Association des Ecrivains et Artists Revolutionnaires, she met Andre Breton in 1932.
She became active in Contre-Attaque, a left-wing political group formed by a number of people involved in Surrealism as a response to the rise of Hitler in Germany, and the spread of Fascism in France. Surrealism is the best known art movement from the inter-war years. It was a movement in art and literature which valued the liberation of the creative subconsious mind rather than rational thought or reason. Initially this idea was used by a group of artists and writers who gathered in Paris in the early 1920s. The poet and essayist, Andre Breton, the unofficial leader of the group, had trained as a doctor and became fascinated br Freud’s theories of the unconscious, when he was treating people with psychiatric theories, coupled with his interest in thepolitical philosophies of Hegel and Marx produced and art form which Breton hoped would be “…….in the service of revolution”.
In time Surrealism became an international movement and it’s followers employed a wide variety of creative media such as “found objects”, collages, writing, theatre, photgraphy and paintings to explore their ideas.
At the same time as Surrealism was developing in the art world, Europe was experiencing a period of political extremism and growing nationalism. Many artists shared an unease about these political developments and, in particular, the more politically orientated Surrealists wanted to act to stem the rise of Nazism and Fascism. These artistic and political ideas were to dominate Schwob’s work for the next 30 years. Her work explored three types of photography and much of it focuses on representaions of the artist’s own identity. In her photomantages she cut and stuck together photographs and pieces of text. She made or arranged objects in order to photograph them – often surprising juxtapositions of familiar things.
Dressed in a variety of costumes, her self-portraits often reappear as elements of the photomontages. Both in her photography and in her writing she expressed her aspiration for a new social order, freed of the social and sexual conventions of the society she had grown up in. Although many women were actively involved in the development of the Surrealist movement, the close nucleus around Andre Breton was very much male dominated. The men saw themselves as the pioneers of the movement and expected their female colleagues to provide support and inspiration. The relative position of men and women in Surrealist circles fed into the art and literature which emerged from it.
Lucy Schwob was remarkable among women associates of the Surrealists for explicitly challenging this relationship in her work. The two sisters collaborated in producing some works. As so little was known about the two artists, at one time it was suggested that Suzanne Malherbe’s signature “Moore”, which appears on the photomantages in her sister’s book Aveux non Avenus, might have been a tribute to the British sculptor Henry Moore. Another myth which arose from their move to the relative abscurity of Jersey was that although Claude Cahun’s work and name were known, it was thought for some time that the artist was a man who died in a Nazi concentration camp.
Although this was,of course, untrue, the sisters did indeed suffer imprisonment during World War II. This was not, however, on the continent but in Jersey. In 1937 the sisters bought La Rocquaise, an impressive granite house close to St Brelade’s Parish Church, overlooking the bay. Apart from their time in prison, they lived there throughout the Occupation and afterwards until Lucy Schwob’s death in 1954. This was the place they chose as their home, far from the cosmopolitan whirl of the Paris avant-garde.
Until the war made such contact impossible, the sisters maintained their friendships with members of the avant-garde, such as Breton and his wife, the painter Jacqueline Lmaba, the poet Robert Desnos (who was killed by the Nazis) and the painter and poet Henri Michaux. If anti-Fascism had been one strand of the sister’s life in France, it became central to their activity during the Occupation. The sister’s typed tracts on fine tissuepaper, with texts in German, inciting troops of the occupying forces to munity and shoot their officers. Thousands of these were deposited in the pockets of passing soldiers or rolled up and tossed into staff cars parked outside the Church during funeral services.
The war transformed the churchyard at St Brelade into a cemetery for the German military, and the sisters used the Church and the graveyard as the basis of activities designed to further unsettle those Germans who had doubts about the validity of the Occupation – for example they hung a placard above the alter proclaiming “Jesus is great but Hitler is greater, for Jesus died for men whereas men died for Hitler”.
They concealed a boat and an escaped Russian slaver worker at La Rocquaise. At the root of many of their actions was the belief that many of the soldiers of the occupying forces must harbour feelings of dissent and be dissatisfied with the Nazi regime and the acts carried out in its name. Their chief aim was to produce propagnda for the benefit of those German soldiers who were unhappy with the situation. As they had skilfully concealed the fact that Suzanne Malherbe spoke perfect German, they avoided suspicion for a considerable time. However, in 1944 they were informed upon, apparently by the woman who sold them the tissue paper which they used for their tracts.
The sisters were both arrested and charged with listening to the radio and with inciting the troops to rebellion. The sentence for the first charge was six years and for the second charge, death. Apparently on hearing the sentence Lucy Schwob asked the judge which sentence they should serve first. However, the death sentence was commuted and they were imprisoned. While the sisters were in the Gloucester Street prison, their house was requisitioned and,most of the works of art in it were confiscated and destroyed. Apparently the collection included work by internationally important artists such as Max Ernst and Joan Miro.
Lucy Schwob’s health suffered during her time in prison and she never fully recovered. She died in 1954 at the age of 60. Suzanne Malherbe moved to a smaller house at Beaumont where she lived until her death in 1972. Fortunately a local collector with an interest in Surrealism acquired many of the photgraphs and objects which were left by Suzanne Malherbe and they were subsequently purchased by the Jersey Heritage Trust in 1995.
Recently there has been a revival of interest in the work of Lucy Schwob, or Claude Cahun. There have been exhibitions in Jersey, Paris, London, New York, Miami, Tokyo, Sydney, Munich, San Sebastion, Valencia and Vienna. Her work has been represented in many other exhibitions including the Tate Modern’s Surrealism Unbound in 2001.