Exhibit features the lives of two women who spoke against Nazis
They were heroines, no matter which way you look at it.
Two discreet and loving lesbian ladies in their late 40s, they tooled around the German-occupied Isle of Jersey in wigs and other disguises, distributing to the German army barracks and clubs anti-Nazi flyers they had written and also translated BBC war news under the pseudonym “der Soldat ohne Namen”—“the soldier without a name.”
For this, they were arrested by the Gestapo, clapped in the island’s St. Helier Prison, and condemned to death, but the liberation of Jersey in 1945 saved them.
Their own names—lifelong pseudonyms of quite another sort—were Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore, but the handles they’d been born with were Lucy-Renée Mathilde Schwob (aka Cahun) and Suzanne Malherbe (aka Moore).
They were stepsisters. Lucy Schwob, born in the French port city of Nantes on Oct. 25, 1894, was the daughter of a wealthy Jewish newspaper publisher and the niece of Maurice Schwob, a French Symbolist critic who had been a friend of Oscar Wilde.
When Schwob was 12 years old, her divorced father married Malherbe’s mother, and the two girls who had more or less grown up together became lovers and remained lovers, and artistic colleagues, until Cahun’s death in 1954, in part from complications incurred while in prison.
One crucial product of their artistic collaboration is a cryptic, surrealistic book of autobiographical words, aphorisms, and photographs by Cahun, montages and drawings by Moore, printed in Paris in 1930 by Editions du Carrefour under the title “Aveux non avenus,” which translates variously as “Disavowed Confessions,” “Unavowed Confessions,” “Canceled Confessions,” or “Avowals Not Admitted.”
Seventy-four years after the first publication of “Aveux non avenu,” New York gets a look at it—or at 13 images from it—in an exhibit through May 28 at Pool New York.
The most striking of all those images is a 1928 photograph of Claude Cahun in shorts, a dumbbell in her lap, her face made up as a Pierrot, and across her chest a sign that says “I AM IN TRAINING DON’T KISS ME.” That is also the title of a film script about Cahun and Moore by Alix Umen, the New Hampshire-born Brooklynite who curated the “Aveux” exhibition.
As early as 1925, in the magazine L’Amité, Cahun wrote: “My opinion about homosexuality and homosexuals is exactly the same as my opinion about heterosexuality and heterosexuals. All depends on individuals and circumstances. I claim a general freedom of behavior.”
In 1925, Cahun put her hand to a monograph in which, according to an Internet correspondent who signs herself Tee A. Corinne, “she writes of Sappho, of Ulysses as a cuckold, and of Cinderella’s prince as a foot fetishist.”
In 1929, Cahun translated sexual pioneer Havelock Ellis’ “Study of Social Psychology” into French; she was active in avant-garde theater; she wrote about Oscar Wilde; she photographed herself in many guises, including that of a Buddha with a shaved head; in Paris she photographed Sylvia Beach, the owner of Shakespeare & Co. Bookstore and an out lesbian; she was an admirer of poet/journalist Henri Michaux; above all, Claude Cahun was a friend and colleague of Surrealism’s André Breton and, because of him, first joined, as did Marcel Moore, the Association des Ecrivains et Artistes Revolutionnaires, then quit it, as did her companion, when Breton was expelled from that Communist-dominated group.
Did she know Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, whose marriage, if you will, paralleled that of Claude and Marcel?
“I’ve read Claude’s phone book,” said filmmaker/curator Umen, “and they were in it. Practically everybody was in it.”
Umen makes the point that there were very few women in the Surrealist movement—“and for the ones that were, it was, again, the muse/mistress thing. And Cahun and Moore were neither. I think that’s why they were lost to history. This is one of the longest committed lesbian relationships on record—40 years. Amazing.”
It is Alix Umen’s ambition to restore the two women to history through this exhibit and through the movie she hopes will someday be made from her “I AM IN TRAINING DON’T KISS ME” script.
“I’d like to see them brought to the forefront both as a lesbian couple and as an artistic couple that worked together—and also as a couple that resisted the Nazis,” Umen said.
Her own previous short films, seen around the world, include “Mad About the Boy,” in which “young women with very short hair tell stories about being mistaken for boys”—Umen’s own black hair is cropped pretty short but not scalped—and “Billy Tipton,” about a real-life Oklahoma-born woman (and so-so jazz musician) “who lived many years as a man and had four or five wives, all of which only came out at her funeral in 1989.”
Umen had never heard of Cahun, when, in 1996, in London, she wandered into a photo show and saw a couple of double-gendered images
“At first I didn’t notice the year, then I looked and couldn’t believe it,” she recalled. “Taken in the ‘20s, they could have been from the ‘80s or ‘90s. They were from plates made for the ‘Aveux’ book.”
There wasn’t much else to go on.
“Not many people had heard of her [or of Marcel Moore, the designer/illustrator who was born in 1892 and died in 1972], and what information existed was primarily in French,” Umen said.
Then, in 1997, a biography came out, “Claude Cahun: Masks and Metamorphoses,” by François Leperlier and Liz Heron (Blackwell Verso), and Umen interviewed Leperlier.
“The trouble was, he’s an academic, and interested in politics, from a white male straight psychological point of view,” Umen said.
Umen’s research took her to the Isle of Jersey, a little bit of Britain off the French coast.
“Very beautiful. I talked with some people who had known them,” she said. “One guy had been a boy of 16 or 17 in prison with them. There’s a shrine to them as resisters, whereas in the rest of the world, they’re known for their artwork. I went to see their house. Beautiful, beautiful, right on the ocean. It’s now split into condos—of course. Jersey? It’s known for Jersey cows, jersey fabric, as a palm-treed vacation spot—and also for its potatoes.”
How on earth had Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore ever survived being in the hands of the Gestapo?
“Oh, the Nazis didn’t care about lesbians, only about gay males,” she responded.
Remember, it was a woman who told you that.