Claude Cahun: An Artist Who Took the Photography World by Storm


Who was Claude Cahun?

Claude Cahun was a Surrealist photographer whose work explored gender identity and the subconscious mind.

Her notebooks, seen here in an exhibit in Paris in 2011, provided key evidence for avant-garde artists, scholars and historians. She died in poverty in Paris in 1949.

For decades, Cahun’s legacy was largely hidden until recently.

Part 2: How was Cahun part of French Surrealism?

Many of Claude Cahun’s Surrealist photos were focused on nudity, often of herself, an idea she would eventually embrace.

“I didn’t think that I had the right to be a Surrealist because I was a woman,” she said in a 1948 interview. “It’s a male-centered movement and I’m not a man.

What made Cahun different from the rest of the Surrealists?

First off, she was an artist. Of course, many of the Surrealists thought of themselves as being artists, but not all.

What else separated her from the pack?

Two things: her sexuality and her intelligence.

While many Surrealists were homosexual, her own attractions would be more ambivalent. She never lived openly as a lesbian, but in 1921, she came out as a “virgin and homosexual” in an essay for the journal Les Temps Modernes.

And her intelligence, well, that was also a hallmark. She wasn’t just skilled at camera-work; she was a gifted writer as well. Cahun started writing when she was in her mid-twenties, and by the time she died in an accident at the age of 47, she had published 20 books, mostly as essays.

Why is Cahun so important to art history?

Bernadette Murphy, curator at New York’s The Metropolitan Museum of Art, tells host Scott Simon that after her first exhibition with Coco Chanel in 1917, she’d begun to experiment with fashion photography, often styling herself in strange ways. “She was pretty fearless in exploring what looks like female posturing and playfulness, and in some ways taking the clothes from Coco Chanel, of course, but also from other well-known Parisian couturiers,” she says.

Her first husband was the surrealist painter Georges Cahun, who died in 1922. During her long relationship with the Surrealist poet Jacques de Man, Cahun experimented with androgyny and continued to take self-portraits, especially at this time in her life. “She became incredibly artistic and unique in her own image,” Murphy says.

What are some of Cahun’s most famous works?

In 1913, Cahun exhibited a self-portrait in Paris, which was titled “The Look of Lucy Schwob,” a pun on her middle name and the name of her deceased mother. In 1913, Cahun began her career as a nude photographer, and most of her images from this time were characterized by dreamlike juxtapositions of dark garments or garbed bodies against the soft light of a glowing orb.

Cahun’s partner and close friend, Yves Tanguy, would say that she “turned the camera away from reality.” Why was that?

She was driven by a sense of sexual danger, and most of her images captured these feelings, with some depicting her in different states of undress and others being entirely nude. She hoped her work would lead to audience identification with her, rather than her clothes.


Claude never quite understood why she was born and yet grew up to become an artist and took over the world of photography.

Jean Cocteau gave her the pseudonym “Claude Monet” as a child so that she could get her work published more easily. So Claude Monet eventually became Monet and the pieces of her dreams were sculpted into a brand new world.

Much of Claude’s imagery reflects what she observed around her, from the dolls in her childhood to the cubist art in her later years. She was heavily influenced by Surrealism, a movement of surrealist artists that aimed to take the “real” out of the picture and reflect in a more abstract fashion the “beyond” that was in the universe.

Claude said about her work:

“I do not see the world as it really is but only as it could be.

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