There are many words to describe Claude Cahun: feminist, political activist, Surrealist artist, poet, writer, photographer, actress. However, the word thought-provoking seems to say it best.
Born in 1894 as Lucy Schwob in Nantes, she began practicing her most well-known form of creative expression, self portraits, at 18 years old. Produced under her pseudonym and playing between the extremes of androgyny and hyper-femininity, Cahun’s images express the idea that gender and sexuality perhaps aren’t always an A or B answer.
Involved in a life-long romantic and artistic partnership with her stepsister, and as a member of Georges Bataille’s left-wing organisation Contre-Attaque in Paris, Cahun was no stranger to controversy. In protest against the fascist regime of WWII, she distributed oppositional pamphlets combining governmental critic and poetic rhythm among the soldiers.
At a time where not even religious freedom was granted, Cahun’s defiance of political, gender, sexual and aesthetical conventions within society is remarkable. In her anti-realist, autobiographical work Aveux Nos Avenus, she wrote: “I will follow the wake in the air, the trail on the water, the mirage in the pupil … I wish to hunt myself down, to struggle with myself.”
This internal struggle, both emotionally and on the artistic surface, helped make Cahun not only an intriguing artist, but also an inspirational legend.
Entre Nous: The Art of Claude Cahun is on display from February 25 to June 3 at The Art Institute of Chicago.