A writer, photographer and activist associated with left-wing Surrealists in France in the 1930s, Claude Cahun was the pseudonym of Lucy Schwob. In collaboration with her step-sister and lifelong partner Suzanne Malherbe, who adopted the name Marcel Moore, Cahun made written works, sculptures and collages that often explore gender identity. Cahun’s autobiographical essay, Aveux non avenus [Unavowed confessions], was published in Paris in 1930. This is the original artwork made by Cahun and Moore for the frontispiece.
Cahun appears in enigmatic guises, playing out different personas using masks and mirrors, and featuring androgynous shaven or close-cropped hair—as can be seen in the multiple views of her in the lower left-hand side of this collage. The image also includes symbols made up by the women to represent themselves—the eye for Moore, the artist, and the mouth for Cahun, the writer and actor. Whereas the majority of Surrealists were men, in whose images women appear as eroticised objects, Cahun’s androgynous self-portraits explore female identity as constructed, multifaceted, and ultimately as having a nihilistic absence at the core. Cahun writes: ‘Beneath this mask, another mask. I will never be finished lifting off all these faces.’
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: Ron Radford (ed), Collection highlights: National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2008