Behold the brilliant self-portraits of Claude Cahun (née Lucy Renee Mathilde Schwob), French surrealist who it’s now believed identified as transgender. Rediscovered in the 1990s, these photographs explored non-binary identity and gender-fluidity long before such terms existed.
Cahun was born in 1894 in Nantes, France, the daughter of prominent Jewish publishers. By the age of 18 she was already creating agender self-portraits under a series of pseudonyms, eventually settling on Claude for its gender ambiguity in French. She identified as agender in a time before neutral pronouns. These are familiar concepts in today’s world, but they were unheard of in the male-dominated art world of prewar France.
In 1937, Cahun and her partner Marcel Moore decamped to the Channel Islands to escape the anti-semitism of wartime Paris. Moore and Cahun were technically stepsisters — Moore’s widowed mother had married Schwob’s divorced father — allowing them to cohabitate without drawing attention. The two became active in the French resistance as members of the Association des Écrivains et Artistes Révolutionnaires, wearing disguises to infiltrate pro-Nazi gatherings, where they’d distribute propaganda they’d created.
In 1944, Cahun and Moore were caught, jailed, and sentenced to death for subverting Nazi authority. Much of Cahun’s work was confiscated and destroyed, but they were rescued when the war ended and Jersey was liberated in 1945. Cahun continued to make images until her death in 1954.