I Know a Woman: Claude Cahun

Kate Hodges graduated from the University of Westminster with a BA in Print Journalism. She has over 20 years writing experience on magazines, having been a staffer on publications including The Face, Bizarre, Just Seventeen, Smash Hits and Sky, and written for many more, including The Guardian, Kerrang! and NME. Her new book, I Know a Woman, creates a gigantic web of womanhood which celebrates the relationships between the world’s most inspirational and influential women. This excerpt tells the story of Claude Cahun, a photographer, sculptor and writer.

Excerpt from I Know a Woman-Claude Cahun

Way ahead of its time, Claude Cahun’s surreal art is firmly fixated on Claude Cahun. But if you were a Jewish, Marxist lesbian in love with you rstepsister in the early twentieth century, your art would probably be surreal and self-reflective too.

Claude Cahun was born Lucy Schwob in France into a family beset by mental illness. She went to school in the south of England, then on to the Sorbonne. During her teens, her father remarried, and Claude found herself sharing a house with Suzanne Malherbe, later to become Marcel Moore. The two girls were immediately obsessed with each other; it was to become a lifelong love. Claude was gender neutral, or “neuter” as she described it: ‘Shuffle the cards. Masculine? Feminine? It depends on the situation’

Claude and Marcel were more than lovers – they were everything to each other. They held Paris salons together and collaborated on their art. Cahun was primarily known as a writer during her life, but her visual work is her true legacy. She bound the aesthetics of surrealism to narcissistic self-portraits: a circus strongman, a little girl with hair in ribbons, a vampire, a Japanese puppet.

Claude and Marcel’s art was on the very fringes of the mainstream – they exhibited in the surrealist show at Galerie Ratton in 1936 but they didn’t get the publicity accorded to others, which frustrated them. In 1937, the stepsisters upped and moved to Jersey. They continued creating art, but the shadow of war engulfed the island in 1940, with the invasion of the Nazis, and the pair’s  focus turned to the resistance.

Claud and Marcel’s self-contained resistance movement went beyond art to politics. The ybranded themselves ‘Der Soldat Ohne Namen’, ‘The Soldier Without a Name’, and created inflammatory flyers and collages. Then, disguised as little old ladies, they left their propaganda in the pockets of soldiers and in cigarette packets, and tossed it through staff-car windows. In 1944, they were caught and arrested, and sentenced to death. Luckily liberation was around the corner. In 1945 they were released. Claude died in 1954.

The high point of Claude’s career was exhibiting some heavily symbolic objects in the Exposition Surrealiste d’Objects show at Galerie Ratton in 1936. Also in attendance was Salvador Dali, a friend and surrealist compadre of Claude’s who mixed in the same circles. Like Claude, Dali was also a keen collaborator, deeply inspired by his muse Gala Dali, about whom he once said, ‘It is mostly with your blood, Gala, that I paint my pictures.’

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I Know a WomanBehind every great woman… is another great woman. Here, the extraordinary achievements, relationships and secret histories of 84 pioneering women are revealed in inspirational stories which together show the indomitable strength of womankind. From ground-breaking scientist Marie Curie to political activist Malala Yousafzai, from feminist author Virginia Woolf to the game-changing Billie Jean King; I Know a Woman creates a gigantic web of womanhood which celebrates the relationships between the world’s most inspirational and influential women. Threading tales from across the globe and throughout history, the lives of innovative aviatrixes, gun-toting revolutionaries and women with incomparable intellects are revealed. Each woman is connected to the next, discovering the women behind the scenes; those who didn’t get the credit for scientific discoveries, sporting achievements or acts of bravery when they were alive. Some names will be familiar, some might not, but all are equally important. With compelling story-telling and beautifully illustrated portraits, I Know a Woman is bold and engaging with a unique purpose: to uncover the links between 84 pioneering women. Featuring Michelle Obama, Gala Dali, Emma Watson, Nina Simone, Frida Kahlo, Coco Chanel, Greta Garbo, Eleanor Roosevelt, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and many more pioneering women who have shaped the world we live in today.