“I will never be finished lifting off all these faces.”
“You could call her transgressive or you could call her a cross dressing Man Ray with Surrealist tendencies. I find this work really quite mad, in the nicest way.”
Part I: The Images
Photographic Self-Portrait: Claude Cahun dressed as a kind of science-fiction angel or ethereal insect, oval wings fashioned from aluminum foil. Painted-on Ziggy Stardust makeup. Kneeling, bare thigh exposed above stockings and high heels. Cahun’s defiant expression, daring you to define her, to pin her identity to a corkboard, to detain her strange silver carapace before she hovers off into the troposphere.
The word escape derives from the Latin Excappare, translating roughly as “narrowly evading one’s pursuer, leaving only one’s cape in their grasp.”
Escape, then, implies a kind of wardrobe change, a shape shifting.
Also a reveal—a becoming more naked before those in pursuit.
Less camouflaged, more vulnerable.
I want to change skin, Claude Cahun writes, tear the old one from me.
Photographic Self-Portrait: Claude Cahun performs an ambiguous posture in a three-piece business suit, right hand curled elegantly over the hip, left hand balled into a fist.
Cahun’s artistic medium was her own self—her fluid gender and identity—with a camera as recording device.
Cahun described her photographic self-portraiture as a kind of prismatic “hunt.”
Though largely ignored in her time, contemporary critics admire her self-portraits’ kaleidoscopic qualities, their prescient amalgam of mystery and multiplicity and gender-nonconforming exuberance.
Shuffle the cards, Claude Cahun writes, Masculine? Feminine? It depends on the situation. Neuter is the only gender that always suits me.
Photographic Self-Portrait: Stark silhouette of Cahun’s shaven head, emaciated body, her sharp aquiline nose, chin thin as a crescent-moon. Eyes darkened, lined with kohl. The artist appears emaciated, wracked by hunger and despair. A prophesy of what was to come in Europe post-1940.
I get in my shadow’s way quite horribly and can’t escape him, Cahun writes, We’ve been handcuffed.
When Cahun was school-aged, her mother was institutionalized.
Severe depression and suicidal ideation also plagued Cahun as young woman, perhaps throughout life. Likely due to genetics, witnessing her mother’s illness, and perhaps an antisemitic episode that took place during high school.
The Latin root word “cap” means “of or pertaining to the head.” As does the longer word “Capital.”
Thus the word escape may also carry the connotation of exiting one’s head.
Not exiting as in psychosis, but in an attempt to flee the ego and its ravages.
Perhaps of resisting what Michel Foucault called the “inner fascist”—one who, in many cases, wishes us dead. Thus rendering Cahun both an escape artist and a freedom fighter from an early age.
Each time Cahun performed a new persona, she felt she was entering a “dream.” She longed to live there permanently.
Anyone who’s endured a period of severe depression and/or anxiety understands the panicked desire to escape one’s thoughts.
To be someone—anyone—else.
In some—any—different situation.
Cahun writes, I have spent thirty-three years of my life wishing passionately, blindly, that things would be other than they are.
To inhabit a mind not perpetually at civil war.
To shed one’s heavy, coal-gray cape.
Photographic Self Portrait: Cahun in the Lotus position, thumbs and forefingers forming a circle, bare legs crossed beneath a shimmering robe. Three strands of pearls around the neck, a bindi on the forehead. Expression of tentative serenity. Posing as a Buddhist monastic Cahun belies the sorrow of sitting with only one’s thoughts for company. And that ever-present sliver of hope for transcending the quotidian, our imperfect bodies, the tangled riggings of our minds.
Part II: The Actions
Paris, 1937, two years before Nazis will tankroll into Paris, shivering the streets.
In these years leading up to the occupation, Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore participate briefly in the Surrealists’ “Contre-attaque,” against fascism. Born Jewish, though, the stakes are infinitely higher for Cahun. And now in her early fifties, she feels slighted by the Parisian art world, which largely ignores her photographs and her impressionistic memoir, Disavowals. Together with Moore, she retreats to Isle of Jersey, known to Parisians as a remote bohemian outpost.
Not long after, the Nazis invade Jersey (their sole occupation of any territory in the Commonwealth), turning the island into a training ground for new recruits.
Risking their lives, Cahun and Marcel launch their own secret,
Surrealist campaign—a final “hunt.”
Militant Surrealist Action #17, Island of Jersey, 1943: In a poorly insulated attic, Cahun’s lifelong partner Marcel Moore (born Suzanne Malherbe) translates a BBC resistance radio broadcast into German. (Long sobs of autumn violins). Acrid-warm smoke from their Gauloises Bleues, the smell of rain-wet wool. When Moore fills up a page with translations, Claude cuts and collages the text onto anti-Nazi pamphlets and hand-drawn posters, fingers rouged with cold. Édith Piaf ghosts up from the parlor Victrola, barely masking the sound of goose-stepping boots out on the avenue. On the rooftop: crows chiseling.
I will desert your armies, Cahun writes, I will freely circulate in the intermediate space. We’ll see if your gods or bullets can drive me out of it.
Militant Surrealist Action #45: Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore invent the persona of “The Soldier With No Name,” a Nazi recruit who foments rebellion by mocking his commanders and musing on the stupidity of war.
This imaginary rebel soldier now lives underground, ice-handed, hungry, but free in spirit. Days he prints posters with his image and escape story, nights he wheatpastes them on alley walls while smoking the last of his Gauloises. In disguise as elderly women, Cahun and Moore pitch his anti-fascist literature through open windows of parked military vehicles. They fold his messages into half-full cigarette boxes, or slip them into the pockets of young Nazis-in-training.
Militant Surrealist Action #52: Cahun and Moore spend half-an-hour scrubbing ink off their hands, then dress up as a straight married couple. Cahun in a tidy mustache drawn from eyeliner, Moore in an elegant evening gown.
They mingle under flickering chandeliers in St. Brelade’s Hotel, though Moore (dressed as the wife) does the talking. Does she introduce Cahun as her mute husband? Do they charm any of the officers in their guise as eccentric local artisans or businesspeople? Does flattery work with Nazis? Or perhaps they gravitate toward the new recruits—the loners, the bookish, those lingering out on the ocean-view terrace. The ones in spectacles, the thin one with the trembling hands, who keeps a leatherbound notebook filled with poetry written in a secret code known only to him. Does Moore whisper—through the salt air, over the wave-crush—the German word for freedom in his ear, while Cahun slips a collaged note into his pocket? Later that night, alone on his bunk, strange note in his fluttery hands, does he begin plotting his own escape?
Buffeted by so much Allied propaganda, the Nazis imagine the Jersey resistance as a basement packed with a dozen ink-stained Brits.
They pound on doors, detain witnesses.
In the end the Nazis are shocked to discover that the entire resistance campaign consists of two puzzling French specimens, middle-aged and of ambiguous gender, working from their home attic.
The Reich sentences Moore and Cahun to six years imprisonment for the listening to the BBC, and to death for inciting rebellion. With typical deadpan humor, Cahun asks which sentence will be carried out first.
Though they’d never fought in a single battle, in prison Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore are treated as heroes. Incarcerated ex-Nazi deserters rip badges from their uniforms and gift them to the artist agitators.
Does Claude Cahun transform her prison suit into monastic garb? To ward off melancholia, does she imagine herself a member of an austere religious order? How does the prison cot feel beneath her crossed legs, her bare feet? Having perhaps shed her fear of death, yet suffering physically, does she experience moments of internal liberation?
Circa 1945 the Nazis schedule an execution for the renegade Surrealists.
Fortunately the Allies liberate the island just in time to spare Cahun and Moore the firing squad.
A self-portrait from this era—one of her last—depicts a defiant Cahun—perhaps the most unsung artist/activist of the mid-twentieth century—gripping a Nazi badge between clenched teeth, celebrating her release from a long captivity.
Justin Hocking teaches creative nonfiction at Portland State University. He is the author of The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld: A Memoir (Graywolf Press), which won the 2015 Oregon Book Award and was a finalist for the PEN USA Center award for creative nonfiction. His writing has also appeared in The Rumpus, Orion Magazine, The Normal School, Poets & Writers, and elsewhere. “Captives” is excerpted from a larger collection-in-progress entitled Flight Risk: Essays.