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“My Partner Wrote…With My Own Hand:” The Subversive Collaboration of Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore

Written by Brigitte Pawliw-Fry
Edited by Aimée Tian

Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore first met as schoolgirls in Nantes, France, in what they described as “une rencontre foudroyante” (a lightning-strike connection),” [1] thus beginning the artistic and romantic partnership that would span most of their lives. In Aveux non avenues, Cahun wrote of Moore: “My lover will no longer be the subject of my drama, [she] [2] will be my collaborator.” [3] Indeed, the artists practiced a collaborative, cohesive art process that challenged masculine modes of art production, including the mythology of the lone, male genius and his muse. Their collaborative work, including Veus et Vision, their photographs, and Aveux non avenues, subverted traditional conceptions of authorship, deconstructed the self, and critiqued the canon’s conception of women and creativity. Yet, art scholarship has largely obscured their subversive collaboration and instead celebrated Cahun’s individuality. Thus, this subject is important for further investigation.

Men have largely dominated the realm of high art, and denied women entry and self-representation. [4] To justify this exclusion, two concepts were often invoked: genius and dilettantism. [5] The former was associated with masculinity and the latter with femininity. [5] Men were considered to have “monopoly over genius,” with their masculinity as the key to the vault of creativity. [6] By the fact of their biology, women were thought to be “second-rate imitators of male achievement,” lacking the gendered traits to create art. [7] For example, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, the German Expressionist painter, perpetuates this mythology in his 1910 Self-Portrait with Model. [8] Kirchner looms in the foreground, aggressively consuming the space of the canvas, and positions the paintbrush, the symbol of his creativity, in the place of his phallus. This location serves to conflate creation with masculinity and virility, reifying its construction as distinctly male. In the background, Kirchner has painted a diminished, shrinking female subject, sexualized through her state of undress and her hand’s placement upon her genitalia. She gazes at the artist, transfixed by his creation, and directs the viewer’s eye to Kirchner, placing further importance upon the artist. The model decorates the painting as a sexualized figure, and observes his act of creation, yet has no apparent agency. Thus, Kirchner’s Self-Portrait with Model (Fig. 1) maintains the canon’s figuration of art and creation as inherently masculine, while simultaneously objectifying and diminishing the female figure.

Figure 1. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. Self-Portrait with Model, 1907/26, oil on canvas, 150.5 x 100 cm
(Hamburger Kunsthalle)

Yet, the lone, male genius has not always dominated art. Early societies often focused on collectivism, with art as the product of a communal or religious impulse. [9] Beginning in Roman antiquity, however, the myth of the male artistic genius flourished, reaching a greater height in the age of industrialization. [10] Amid industrialization and standardization, artists sought to differentiate themselves from “superficial” consumerist society. [11] Rather than drawing on historical or allegorical figures, perhaps a hero or an everyman, artists began to represent individuals shaped by a specific time and place. [12] Christine Battersby argues in Gender and Genius that the Romantic approach to genius of the 19th century involved the “most exclusionary and damaging treatment of women artists and would-be artists,” as it gendered genius as male, venerated feminine traits such as creation, while vehemently excluding women. [13] Battersby contends that “the work of female artists and the evaluation of its meaning and quality, have been obscured by women’s exclusion from the realm of genius.” [14] Thus, individualism and the male genius acquired a “cult status,” in modernity, as a response to industrialization and Romanticism — relegating women to the realm of dilettantism. [15]

Further, the high art canon configured women as muses, beautifully inspirational creatures without interiority of their own, that serve the male artist.  It paired “creativity and desire,” which Jennifer Shaw historicizes in her essay, ‘Singular Plural: Collaborative Self-lmages in Claude Cahun’s Aveux non avenus.’ [16] She notes that this elision “remained the dominant paradigm for art making” in the “late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.” [17] In this construct, art “emerge[d] from the inspiration provided to a male artist by the beauty of his female muse.” [18] Even among the surrealists, who declared themselves subversive and liberal, female muse and male artist relationships dominated. [19]

Yet Cahun and Moore offered an alternative to this tradition and subverted it through their mode of production. Unlike traditional lovers of male artists, Moore was an active participant in creation, not simply its inspiration. Some scholars have construed her as a technical assistant to Cahun, and many exhibits feature Cahun’s work as ‘self-portraiture’ or as the result of one artist. [20] But Moore occupied a significant imaginative and collaborative role in their work, seen in Veus et Vision, their photographs, and Aveux non avenus. [21]

Cahun and Moore visually represented their collaboration in their artistic signature. Traditionally, a signature stakes a claim to individual process and authorship, yet Cahun and Moore subvert this and combine their names to form, what Tirza True Latimer calls, a “duogram.” [22] The symbol merges “the pivotal letter “S” with the letters “L” and “S,” referring to their birth names, Lucy Schwab and Suzanne Malherbe. [23] In pronouncing the ‘L.S.M’ out loud, Latimer notes, one intones “elles s’aiment,” meaning, ‘they love each other.’ [24] From this “duogram”, Cahun and Moore posit a new kind of art practice that combines love and artistic partnership between women artists. They also gestured to this in their early Nantes years, when their signature for the newspaper Le Phare de la Loire was the initial ‘M.’[25] The letter is ambiguous as it could refer to either Malherbe, Moore, or Cahun’s middle name, Matilde. [26] Therefore, their ambiguous initial established a shared authorship, which challenged the individualized and masculinized notion of creation.

Figure 2. Claude Cahun. Untitled (“duogram”), ca. 1919. Jersey Heritage Collections.

They also represented their collaboration in their photographs, a medium central to their work. An early 1915 photograph reveals their subversion of individual authorship (Fig. 3). Cahun is positioned in the center of photograph while Moore’s shadow as the implied photographer falls upon the bottom right corner — a space typically reserved for the artist’s signature. The shadow confuses the authorial status of the work — a move which Tirza True Latimer calls the “device of doubling,” as it registers their collaboration on both literal and metaphorical levels. [27] The shadow itself represents Moore’s presence in the work, while its location in the authorial corner metaphorically suggests their collaboration, and her intellectual guidance of the work. Latimer identifies this “doubly indexical mark” as the “artistic contract that the couple would honor for nearly forty years.” [28] Thus, Cahun and Moore visually represented their collaboration through subverting and playing with traditional emblems of individual authorship.

Figure 3. Marcel Moore. Circa 1915. Jersey Heritage Trust Collection.

Beyond interventions into traditional displays of authorship, their work also performs the transformations and transgressions of self and other, which result from romantic and artistic partnership. Aveux non avenus, (also referred to as Disavowals), published in 1931, combines the writings of Cahun and ten collaborative photomontages. In it, Cahun writes: “I am one, you are the other. Or the opposite. Our desires meet one another. Already it is an effort even to disentangle them” (‘you’ being an address to Moore). [29] She suggests a strikingly different notion of self from the conception of a lone, male genius, fixed and separate in his creation. Instead, Cahun describes the permeation of boundaries between lover and artist, in which their desires have merged. “Singular Plural,” a section halfway through the text, further suggests this new artistic and lived experience, which mirrors the images and texts of Disavowals itself. [30] Cahun writes: “I make a copy of this exercise (which my partner wrote in the desired time with my own hand) in order to demonstrate how we seek to draw the boundaries of our characters.” [31] Cahun performs the disintegration of the self, and imagines the possibility of physical transgression, in which Moore can write with her own hand. She desires the boundaries between artist and lover to disintegrate, and asserts the importance of Moore in their art.

In the opening photomontage of the Aveux non avenus (Fig. 4), Moore and Cahun envision this disintegration of self, and assert the possibilities of collaboration in love. [32] First, they include several hands that are unincorporated from the body. The hands hold a series of symbols important to their work: the eye refers to insight or creation, the mirror suggests the doubling and exploration of self, and the map implies mobility. Cahun’s image is reflected four times in the mirror. Yet, in the disarray of hands, figures, and objects, there is no singular self onto which the viewer can latch. As opposed to the single paintbrush of Kirchner, the various hands suggest the dual artistic production of Moore and Cahun (the signature in the work is ‘Moore,’ in a book ‘authored’ by Cahun). This image introduces the tone of Aveux non avenus, which asserts the closeness of their collaboration, and the possibility of the self to extend beyond traditional bounds. Jennifer Shaw argues that these proposed and actualized “models of desire and creativity based in collaboration” are constructed to “replace the unequal relationship between partners assumed by the heterosexual norms of both the dominant culture and some Surrealism.” [33] As a deliberate move to confront traditional norms of male artistic production, they explore the possibilities of collaboration in love and art, and asserts their same-sex partnership as a model of equality.

Figure 4. Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore, photomontage, Aveux non avenus, Plate I, 1930, 15.2 x 10.5 cm. Collection Fonds Albert-Birot, Paris.

Their collaborative photographs appear ostensibly as self-portraits. The most widely recognized of her works, Cahun’s Self-Portrait of 1928 (Fig. 5), seems to construct a singular, self-fashioned identity, expressed through androgynous dress. [34] Cahun poses in a mirror and confronts the viewer with her gaze, which first reads as a declaration of singular identity. But upon closer inspection, this photograph complicates, rather than maintains, traditional notions of a fixed, separate self – inherent to lone artistic creation. As writer Susan Sontag observed, “we learn to see ourselves photographically.” [35] Yet, the Self-Portrait implies two selves, as Cahun is splintered by the mirror, resulting in two perspectives. The assumed self-fashioned identity of Self-Portait is further complicated by Moore’s role as photographer, the mediator of the work. Rather than establishing a ‘real’ self, the image is filtered through the gaze of Moore, and through the mirror’s splintering of Cahun’s ‘self.’ The accompanying portrait of Moore, posed with the same mirror, further affirms this fragmentation as it mirrors and doubles their identities, refuting “the idea of a unified self.” [36] These images are, as Amber Smith writes, “the result of collaboration, a mode of authorship that has in all other arenas never sought to refer to or disclose a self, but functioned as a challenge to and critique of the authority of conventions.” [37] Therefore, this pair of photographs complicates traditional artistic creation, positioning the artist and lover in a similar position, and confuses the sense of a static self. [38]

Figure 5. Claude Cahun, Self-Portrait, c. 1928 black-and-white photograph. Musée des Beaux-Arts de Nantes

Moore and Cahun’s collaboration also dismisses the notion that women create through childbirth only, offering evidence that women are also artistic creators and able to politically and critically engage with their times. For example, plate nine of Aveux non avenus portrays various ‘selves’ of Cahun, with her face reproduced in multiple visibilities and disguises throughout the work (Fig. 6). [39] In the bottom left corner, Cahun’s crescendo of faces resembles a phallus, an elaborate juxtaposition between a female artist’s head, the signifier of intellect and interiority, and male genitalia, the signifier of virility and creation. By placing Cahun’s faces in this position, they subtly critique, as Jennifer Shaw has established, the “paradigm in which male desire for a female muse defines creativity.” [40] This photomontage constructs and actualizes female creativity, not as dilettante or inferior, but as critical and intellectual. They oppose the male artist’s monopoly on creation through their dismemberment and occupation of the symbol of his virility and artistic production – and demonstrate their own ability to engage and enact their creative visions.

The same plate also critically engages with their era’s emphasis on domesticity and maternity – refuting an idealized notion of motherhood. In the upper sphere of the work there are startling images of nesting doll fetuses, in varying states of gestation. These dolls are located next to a banner that reads, “La Sainte Famille,” which alludes to France’s “idealized visions of romantic love that reduce women’s “creativity” to childbearing,” [41] and the pronatalist desire to renew the nation through reproduction. [42] They also render a family unit, pictured in the upper portion of the photomontage, as garish, thereby contesting women’s limitation to maternity. The mother is restricted between her husband and cherub-like child. She appears to have no hands or mobility, signaling women’s inability to create art or work when confined by motherhood. The demonic ‘family’ occupies a triangular shape, which threatens to crash upon the phallic heads of Cahun. Two of her faces watch it with dread, fearful of its proximity. Thus, they locate this emphasis on maternity as destructive to their own artistic practice. Through disassociating themselves from feminine reproduction and associating themselves with artistic production, they establish, as Shaw writes, “their rightful place in artistic creation, which can be both feminine and collaborative.” [43]

Figure 6. Claude Cahun (with Marcel Moore) Plate 9. Photomontage, 1929–1930, frontispiece for Chapter 2 “Moi-Même,” in Aveux non avenus. Private Collection, New York

Their collaboration also suggested the nature of their relationship as equal and intimate, which opposes the male artist’s oppressive use of his muse and the heteronormativity of canonical art. For example, in Veus et Visions, Cahun and Moore construct “poetic ‘visions’” from images of modernity in decay, such as worn boats tied to piers, paired with images of homosexual love atop classical ruins.[44] In this juxtaposition, Latimer argues that they forged “new levels of meaning,” such as a “homoerotic double sense,” that functions as their “artistic coming out, since it undoubtedly raised their public profile as an artistic couple and affirmed (albeit in code) their affection for each other and the legitimacy of their bond.” [45] Though they never publicly identified as lesbian, these images suggest intimacy between the artists and reject the inequality of love in creativity.

Because their collaboration challenged the canonical construction of individual creation, there was an attempt to obscure Moore’s role in Cahun’s art. In terms of scholarship and exhibitions, Claude Cahun has achieved “hyper visibility,” while Moore has only just begun to be “visible.” [46] In recent years, scholars have investigated their collaboration and granted Moore more creative autonomy, and less characterization as muse or lover. [47] Tirza True Latimer questions what “social prejudices and artistic hierarchies the erasure of Moore accommodate” [48] while Astrid Peterle argues that “the total exclusion of Marcel Moore’s contribution might have been an approach to install Claude Cahun as a genius-artist in the tradition of art historical canon-narratives.” [49] From surveying the scholarship on Cahun and on Moore, it is clear the persistence of Moore’s erasure. Cahun – like other male artists – stands alone as a figure of ‘subversion’ and does not require reference to a relationship for context. Moore, on the other hand, exists almost solely in reference to Cahun. The disjuncture between the two artists’ scholarly reception reveal the continued emphasis on artistic individuality and genius in art.

[1] Translation provided by Latimer, T. T. (2011). Claude Cahun’s mirror in the lens. The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide, 18(1), 19-22. Retrieved from  cited in François Leperlier, “L’Exotisme intérieur,” Claude Cahun, Photographe (Paris: Jean Michel Place, 1995), 10. François Leperlier, “Claude Cahun, La gravité des apparences,” Le Rêve d’une ville: Nantes et le surréalisme, eds. Henry-Claude Cousseau et al. (Nantes: Musée des Beaux-Arts de Nantes, 1995), 263.
[2] Throughout this essay, I will employ feminine pronouns as there is no evidence to suggest Cahun or Moore desired ‘they’ as a pronoun, and this is how other scholars discuss them.
[3] As quoted in Shaw, Jennifer, ‘Singular Plural: Collaborative Self-images in Claude Cahun’s Aveux non avenus’, Whitney Chadwick and Tirza True Latimer (eds), The Modern Woman Revisited; Paris between the Wars (Rutgers University Press: New Brunswick, 2003), 155-67.
[4] Hodkinson, James. “Genius beyond Gender: Novalis, Women and the Art of Shape shifting.” The Modern Language Review, vol. 96, no. 1, 2001, 103–115. 161.
[5] Ibid., 103.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Self-Portrait with Model, 1907/26, oil on canvas, 150.5 x 100 cm (Hamburger Kunsthalle)
[9] McCabe, Cynthia Jafee “Rewriting History: Artistic Collaboration Since 1960.” In. Artistic Collaboration in the Twentieth Century. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1984. 64-87
[10] Korsmeyer, Carolyn. The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 49, no. 4 (1991): 383-84. doi:10.2307/431042. 383.
[11] McCabe, 64.
[12] Watt, Ian P. The Rise of the Novel Studies in Defoe, Richardson and Fielding. University of California Press, 2001.
[13] Korsmeyer, 383.
[14] Ibid., 384.
[15] McCabe, 65.
[16] Shaw, Jennifer, ‘Singular Plural: Collaborative Self-lmages in Claude Cahun’s Aveux non avenus’, Whitney Chadwick and Tirza True Latimer (eds), The Modern Woman Revisited; Paris between the Wars (Rutgers University Press: New Brunswick, 2003), 155-67.
[17] Ibid., 158.
[18] Ibid., 159.
[19] Ibid., 158.
[20] Ibid., 159.
[21] Latimer, Tirza True. “Acting Out: Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore.” In Louise Downie (Ed.) don´t kiss me. The Art of Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore. London/Jersey. 2006. 56-71.
[22] Latimer, Tirza True. (2011). Claude Cahun’s mirror in the lens. The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide, 18(1), 19-22. Retrieved from 69.
[23] Latimer, “Acting Out,” 56-71.
[24] Ibid., 58.
[25] Welby-Everard, Miranda. “Imaging the Actor: The Theatre of Claude Cahun.” Oxford Art Journal, vol. 29, no. 1, 2006, pp. 3–24. 6.
[26] Ibid.
[27] Latimer, “Acting Out,” 1.
[28] Ibid.
[29] Shaw, 186.
[30] Ibid.
[31] Ibid.
[32] Plate 1. Claude Cahun (with Marcel Moore)
photomontage, 1929–1930, in Aveux non avenus
. Private Collection, New York
[33] Shaw, 186.
[34] Claude Cahun
 Self-Portrait, c. 1928 black-and-white photograph Musée des Beaux-Arts de Nantes
[35] As quoted in Topdjian, Carolyne. “Shape-Shifting Beauty: The Body, Gender and Subjectivity in the Photographs of Claude Cahun.” Resources for Feminist Research 32.3 (2007): 63-86. ProQuest.
[36] Smith, Amber. Upping the Anti in Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore’s Collaborative ‘self-portraits.’ September, 2008 The State University of New York at Buffalo. 64.
[37] Ibid., 65.
[38] Ibid., 68.
[39] Plate 9. Claude Cahun (with Marcel Moore) 
photomontage, 1929–1930, frontispiece for chapter 2 “Moi-Même,” in Aveux non avenus
Private Collection, New York
[40] Shaw, 32.
[41] Ibid.
[42] Ibid.
[43] Ibid., 159.
[44] Latimer, “Claude Cahun’s mirror in the lens,” 69.
[45] Shaw, Jennifer L. Reading Claude Cahun’s Disavowals. Ashgate Studies in Surrealism. Surrey, UK: Ashgate Publishing Ltd., 2013. 246.
[46] Peterle, Astrid. 2007. “Visible-Invisible-Hypervisible: Sketching the Reception of Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore,” in Indecent Exposures, ed. V. Walker, Vienna: IWM Junior Visiting Fellows’ Conferences, Vol. 22.
[47] Ibid.
[48] As quoted in Peterle, Astrid. 2007. “Visible-Invisible-Hypervisible”: Sketching the Reception of Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore. In: Indecent Exposures, ed. V. Walker, Vienna: IWM Junior Visiting Fellows’ Conferences, Vol. 22. 35.
[49] Ibid.

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