Overlooked No More: Claude Cahun, Whose Photographs Explored Gender and Sexuality

Overlooked No More: Claude Cahun, Whose Photographs Explored Gender and Sexuality

The photographs are by far her most compelling work. At first, scholars thought of them as self-portraits. But the gathering consensus is that Cahun choreographed and posed for the photos, and that her romantic partner, Marcel Moore, who was born Suzanne Malherbe, often pressed the button. It was a collaboration.

Cahun died on Dec. 8, 1954, at age 60, on the tiny Channel Island of Jersey off the Normandy coast of France. Hardly anyone noticed. “Disavowals,” her most heartfelt book, had not been well received. And she had never exhibited the photographs.

In the 1990s, however, she received a rush of attention as gender issues were gathering steam around the world. “Suddenly,” said Vince Aletti, a New York photography critic and curator, “she seemed incredibly of the moment.”

A French writer, François Leperlier, published a book on Cahun and helped organize the first exhibition of her work, at a museum in Paris. An English edition was published as “Claude Cahun: Masks and Metamorphoses.”

Professors and graduate students in art history and in feminist and gender studies began writing about her. Art museums wanted her work.

Cahun’s photographs have been displayed in group shows in the last two years in nearly a dozen museums in London, Paris, Washington, Melbourne, Warsaw and elsewhere. She is featured in a group exhibition running through early July at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco. Another group show opened in Bonn, Germany, in late May, and one opened in Sweden in mid-June.

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