In the mid-1980s, when the French poet and writer François Leperlier was researching a book on Surrealism, he started tracking mentions of an obscure artist named Claude Cahun on the fringes of the movement. This Cahun had signed some political tracts in 1932 and 1936 and had participated in a Surrealist show at the Charles Ratton Gallery and the International Surrealist Exhibition in London in 1936. No one seemed to know who he was, and with good reason. A some point in Leperlier’s research, it emerged that Cahun was a woman—a lesbian writer and photographer who had produced an impressive amount of work until her death on the Channel island of Jersey in 1954, a figure whom André Breton called “one of the most curious spirits of our time.”
“Is that a woman dressed as a man dressed as a woman?” we want to know. Cahun foils us every time, offering up our need to assign identities as the only answer to our questions. Her photographic oeuvre is a collection of revolutionary acts whose target is the concept of stable gender, identity, and a traditional way of viewing art.
Lauren Elkin, Reading Claude Cahun
There is too much of everything. I keep silent. I hold my breath. I curl up in a ball, I give up my boundaries, I retreat towards an imaginary center… I have my head shaved, my teeth pulled and my breasts cut off — everything that bothers my gaze or slows it down — the stomach, the ovaries, the conscious and cysted brain. When I have nothing more than a heartbeat to note, to perfection, I will have won.
Claude Cahun, Aveux non avenus