Recent years have seen a renewed interest in the work of Marcel Moore and her partner, the gender-neutral Jewish political radical Claude Cahun. It is difficult to think of two characters more deserving of public interest. As figures in the Surrealist movement, both were known for their prescient — and advanced — interventions into discussions of gender, sexuality, and self-representation. As residents of Jersey in the 1940s, they were active opponents of Nazi occupation. Decades later, their work remains just as provocative.
Cahun and Moore — born Lucie Schwob and Susette Malherbe at the end of the nineteenth century — met as teenagers in their hometown of Nantes in 1909. They quickly became romantically and artistically intertwined, while the marriage of Moore’s mother and Cahun’s father allowed the two to live together as ‘sisters’ without the ostracisation that the discovery of their relationship may have led to.
The couple moved to Paris in 1920. Despite the fact that Cahun’s uncle, Marcel Schwob, was a favourite of Surrealist luminary Andre Breton and influenced Guillaume Apollinaire — the man who coined the term ‘Surrealism’ — the artistic avenues for queer women during this period were incredibly limited. The majority of esteemed Surrealists were men, with the work of prominent male Surrealists described by the critic Richard Easton as having a ‘tendency towards heterosexuality’ and ‘conventions of male domination and sexual domination’. More sharply, Cahun later described the early Surrealist movement as a ‘man’s club’.
Moore and Cahun’s work, which was mainly photographic, served as a rejection of these patriarchal and heteronormative attitudes. Cahun, the subject, refused to be defined by conventional standards of beauty, choosing instead to embody traditionally masculine tropes in photographs. Wearing ‘male’ clothing, they often shaved their heads and eyebrows to rebuff presuppositions of gender.
‘Under this mask,’ Cahun wrote, ‘another mask — I will never be finished removing all these faces.’ Determined not to be ‘captured’ by a single image, Cahun is almost physically unrecognisable from one photograph to the next.
As a convinced Marxist, Cahun never engaged fully with Paris’ inter-war ‘bourgeois’ lesbian milieu, but they did contribute to publications such as Inversions, the explicitly queer journal published in 1924 that described itself as ‘for homosexuality’. Cahun’s ‘Heroines’, published in Mercure de France in 1925, was an opposing take on the lives of historically-consequential female figures in literature and myth such as the Virgin Mary, Helen of Troy, Eve, and Sappho.
Cahun’s seminal work was their exploration of identity, relationships, gender, and form in the anti-memoir Aveux nos Avenues. The book was largely commercially and critically ignored after its publication in 1930, but its visionary ideas mean it has seen a revival in recent times. On gender, Cahun wrote: ‘Shuffle the cards. Masculine? Feminine? It depends on the situation. Neuter is the only gender that suits me.’
The text is challenging, and there is little clarity on the meaning of its fragmented, poetic essays. The work includes descriptions of psychological states, snippets from dreams, and intertextual references that work to obfuscate, rather than clarify, much of Cahun’s thought. Aveux is accompanied by an impressive — and, at the time, expensive — series of illustrations, photographs, and photomontages by Moore.
Ultimately, the sexual investigation of Aveux was broadly sidelined as the rise of Fascism across Europe captured the attention of Cahun and Moore. Cahun’s first explicitly political text, Les paris sont ouverts — translated as ‘place your bets’ — was an attempt to deal with the question of the role of the artist in times of great political volatility.
Against the Surrealist poet Louis Aragon, who argued that artists must submit their cultural production to serve the working class and its political expression — the Communist Party of which Aragon was a member — Cahun answered that propaganda that crudely pushes for revolution would never be effective at achieving it. Unconscious provocations were the terrain of the artist because, in Cahun’s words, ‘the most indirect blows are sometimes mortal.’
Cahun and Moore found themselves in the minority of artists in this debate, and joined Contre-attaque, an embittered alliance of writers and artists established by Georges Bataille to combat both the growth of Fascism and the Popular Front alliance of left-wingers. However, as the writer Gavin James Bower pointed out in his biography of Cahun, it is ‘doubtful that workers paid much attention to this most arcane of endeavours’.
In 1938, the couple moved to Jersey, where they lived in a farm called ‘La Rocquaise’ — a name that can be loosely read in French as a pun for a strong woman. Following the Nazi takeover of the island in the summer of 1940, they launched a campaign against the occupying forces. They used a radio set, which was banned on Hitler’s Jersey, to follow the war and began writing anti- fascist pamphlets.
Moved by their conviction that ‘the working class should be linked by international solidarity and not nationalism’, Cahun and Moore published 2,450 leaflets under the pseudonym ‘Der Soldat ohne Namen’ — the soldier with no name. These included photomontages, poetry, and imagined dialogue from a Wehrmacht perspective which encouraged soldiers to desert or revolt. One example attempted to psychologically undermine the Nazi war machine:
Alarm. Alarm. Why? While Berlin burns, while our towns fall in ruins, while the foreign workers and refugees plunder our villages.
ALARM. What for. So that the officers when frightened like in Stalingrad and Tunis want you to protect them with your lives, so they can escape.
ALARM. What for? So that you don’t have time to think.
WHY . . . WHY . . .
SPECTRE . . .
Because you have all been ‘brainwashed’. Yes we were in 1918 and this time it will be longer and more bitter than ever.
Read every week the paper for soldiers without a name.
Dressed as middle-aged women, Cahun and Moore distributed the leaflets and pamphlets in areas of Jersey that were popular with German troops. They were slipped into the boots of German soldiers in clubs, into cigarette boxes on sale, and even scattered at the cemeteries where soldiers would bury their war dead.
The occupation authorities were paranoid about soldier morale, and were aware of collusion between conscripted Communists and Social Democrats in the Wehrmacht and local Communist resistance fighters, as well as Russian prisoners-of-war and Spanish Republican slave labourers. As the pendulum of the war shifted towards the Allied forces, an extensive investigation in 1944 unmasked Cahun and Moore.
The two were arrested and sentenced to death. Though their sentences were commuted just before the liberation of the island, Cahun’s health had deteriorated from the experience of incarceration and died on 8 December 1954. Moore continued to live in Jersey after Cahun’s death, living in relative isolation until her suicide in 1972.
Recently, there has been a growing number of exhibitions featuring the work of Moore and Cahun, which has led to a reexamination of their aesthetic and political attitudes. Gavin James Bower wrote a poignant short biography of Cahun in 2013, and Rupert Thomson’s 2018 novel Never Anyone But You masterfully recreated their lives.
That year, a street in the Saint-Germain-des-Prés district of Paris was renamed in their honour. Nearly eighty years on, Moore and Cahun’s work — on internationalism, the fluidity of sexuality, of reasserting the self against regulation, and imposition — still resonates. It deserves a broader audience on the left.