Artists are often outsiders and transgressors, but few of them embody as many boundary-defying qualities as Claude Cahun: lesbian Surrealist, dissident Marxist, non-Jewish Jew, photographer, poet, critic and resistance activist. Long overlooked in standard accounts of Surrealism—she rates only a footnote mention in Maurice Nadeau’s canonical Histoire du surréalisme (1945)—Cahun’s work has recently been rediscovered by exhibition organizers and art critics alike, as part of a wider reassessment of the movement over the last decade that has often brought attention to previously neglected figures. Now acknowledged as the only significant female photographer in the Surrealist group—Lee Miller and Dora Maar having only an ephemeral relation to it—Cahun is today best known for her disquieting self-portraits, in which her striking, stern features are crowned by shaved hair or hidden beneath a disguise, and her eerie montages of objects and body-parts. Her writings, however, have until now remained out of print or dispersed. François Leperlier, author of the first serious study of Cahun in 1992, has gathered a beautifully presented selection containing both her published work and much previously unavailable material from her autobiographical notebooks. Together, these provide the first overall view of her literary and political evolution, offering rare insights into the thinking of this enigmatic figure.

Cahun was born in Nantes in 1894 as Lucy Schwob, into a well-to-do Anglophile family with numerous literary connections. Her grandfather, George Schwob, was a schoolmate of Gustave Flaubert and friend of Théophile Gautier and Jules Verne; her great-uncle Léon Cahun was an Oriental scholar and novelist with connections to the Symbolists, with whom her uncle Marcel Schwob—author of Livre de Monelle, one of André Breton’s favourite works—was still more closely involved. Cahun’s father owned the newspaper Le Phare de la Loire, and it was here that her first writings—a fashion column and cinema reviews—appeared in 1913. By 1916 she had settled on Claude Cahun as her pseudonym, combining reference to her Jewish background—Cahun, her grandmother’s maiden name, is a variant of Cohen—with a sexually ambivalent first name. In 1909 she met Suzanne Malherbe, forming a childhood friendship that would grow into a life-long love attachment; in 1917, when Cahun’s widowed father married Malherbe’s mother, her companion also became her step-sister.

Cahun and Malherbe moved to Paris in the early 20s, where Cahun became active in theatre—the spur for many of her costumed self-portraits, which were the key element of the photographic repertoire she began to develop more intensely as of the mid-twenties. Towards the end of the decade she befriended the Communist editors of the journal Philosophies, and maintained close relations with writers such as Robert Desnos—expelled from the Surrealist movement in 1929—and Georges Ribemont-Dessaignes. But there is little in Cahun’s writings up to this time that points towards either Marxism or Surrealism. One could perhaps identify a distaste for capitalist civilization in the fascination with ancient Greece and Rome displayed by Vues et visions (1919), a series of Symbolist-inspired narratives magnificently illustrated with decadent line drawings by ‘Marcel Moore’, Malherbe’s pen name. Cahun’s dense, elliptical autobiographical work of 1930, Aveux non avenus (perhaps best rendered as ‘Cancelled Confessions’), contains no reference to any political commitments; but despite its narcissism, a sort of radicalism emerges in statements such as ‘I would like to sew, sting, kill, only with the extreme point . . . To travel only at the prow of myself’. There are moments, too, when wider aspirations are conveyed: ‘I have spent 33 years of my life desiring passionately, blindly, that things be different from how they are’.

The reasons for Cahun’s belated shift to Surrealism and revolutionary politics around 1932 remain somewhat opaque. Though she rarely comments on her sexuality in her writings, it is possible that her status as ‘sexual dissident’ played a role in her radicalization: a staunch non-conformist, Cahun would undoubtedly have sympathized with movements that challenged traditional morals and the established forms of the family. The global conjuncture would surely also have influenced her thinking, with capitalism in crisis and communism seemingly the only force offering a bulwark against fascism. At any rate, her writings from this time indicate a progression from the idealist ethical and metaphysical positions of Symbolism, via a radical pessimism inspired by Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, to a heterodox version of historical materialism. In some autobiographical notes written after the Second World War, for instance, Cahun stated that she had discovered historicity around 1931, as ‘the Sphinx’s essential answer to my personal enigma’.

At the end of 1932, both Cahun and Malherbe joined the Communist-dominated Association des Écrivains et Artistes Révolutionnaires (aear), and soon aligned themselves with the Trotskyist opposition inside it, known as the ‘Brunet group’. Cahun’s decision to join the aear may have been connected to her growing sympathy for Surrealism, since André Breton and his circle had finally been admitted to the organization in October 1932, following a change in Communist cultural policy. Her name appears, together with those of the Surrealists, among the signatories of two important aear tracts from 1933—one denouncing the triumph of fascism in Germany, and another entitled ‘Against Fascism but also Against French Imperialism!’ But dissident stances soon became impossible within what Cahun called ‘the Stalinizing aear’, and when Breton was expelled in June 1933, Cahun and the rest of the Brunet group followed.

For the next three years, Cahun would be passionately committed to Surrealism, and to Breton in particular. The two had met early in 1933, and if Cahun was magnetically attracted to Breton, the fascination was at least in part returned. Writing to Cahun in September 1938, Breton declares that ‘it is quite probable . . . that you are endowed with a very extensive magic power’; he encourages her to write, saying that ‘you know very well that I consider you one of the most curious spirits of our times’. Such an assessment would no doubt initially have been confirmed by Cahun’s provocative dress-sense: she would dye her close-cropped hair pink or gold, and would often wear a suit and a monocle. Her eccentric appearance could be regarded as the expression of a rebel queer consciousness, rejecting assigned identities in favour of a constant re-invention of self. But it was, at first, greeted with mixed feelings in Surrealist circles—reactions perhaps tinged, in some cases, with homophobia.

Attitudes began to change, however, after the publication in 1934 of Cahun’s pamphlet Les Paris sont ouverts (literally, ‘The Bets are Open’, or ‘It’s Anyone’s Guess’). First produced as an internal report for the literary section of the aear in January–February 1933, it is a passionate defence of poetic autonomy against bureaucratic attempts to force art into ideological conformity. During the next few years, Les Paris became the main reference point for the Surrealists on the controversial question of poetry’s relation to revolutionary politics, and was extensively quoted by Breton in his Qu’est-ce que le surréalisme? (1934). Cahun proposes a distinction between two main forms of influence poetry can have on its readers: direct action, either by repeated affirmation or provocation, and indirect action, which leaves readers to reach their own conclusions. Examples of the former would be revolutionary songs, catechisms, prayers, proverbs, axioms and ‘commercial and ideological advertising’; propaganda poetry in this mode, Cahun argues, amounts to nothing more than ‘revolutionary masturbation’. In her view, only a poetry that ‘keeps its secret’ can be effective and artistically legitimate. Indirect action ‘leaves something to be desired’, in Breton’s words; it can work dialectically, by provoking a contradiction, as in Marx’s praise for the achievements of the bourgeoisie, or when Rimbaud ventriloquizes a rabid ruling class: