It’s an intriguing coincidence that Cindy Sherman was born in the same year, 1954, that Claude Cahun died. Sherman became internationally famous for a series of pictures made between 1977 and 1980 called ‘Untitled Film Stills’, in which the photographer herself is the model in a variety of staged scenes that explore the ways in which women are represented. People often believed this series to be ground-breaking, the first of its kind.
But fifty years earlier, in the 1920s and 1930s, Claude Cahun had made a large number of astonishingly original photographs of herself in various guises – a doll, a pilot, a body builder, a vampire, a dandy, a vamp, a puppet, a nymph, and more – in which she wittily and satirically explored gender identity. A natural surrealist herself, she met Andre Breton in the early 1930s, and became part of the Surrealist movement.
Claude Cahun – born Lucy Schwob in Nantes, France in 1894 – was a trans-gender Jewish lesbian, a writer, photographer and sculptor. She and her stepsister, who had met before their parents married, were lovers and artistic partners till Cahun’s death.
In 1937, the couple left France for Jersey. When the Germans occupied the island, the two risked their lives producing and distributing anti-Nazi fliers containing critiques of the regime and information from banned BBC radio reports. Cahun was arrested in 1944 and sentenced to death. Although Jersey was liberated before the sentence could be carried out, her health never recovered from her treatment in prison.
Cahun was overlooked for forty years after her death, but since an exhibition in 1994 at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, she has been increasingly appreciated as a highly original artist. Her photographs, writings, and general life as an artistic and political revolutionary have influenced many photographers, including Gillian Wearing, Nan Goldin – and, of course, Cindy Sherman.