Can you imagine the audacity of a female-born artist adopting a gender-neutral name, shaving her head or dyeing her hair vibrant colors, wearing trousers, dressing as a man, and experimenting with gender-neutral appearances in her art—all a century before it became a broader conversation?

The protagonist of today's In Focus episode is the extraordinary Lucy Schwob, better known by her pseudonym—Claude Cahun.

Born in 1894 into a Jewish family, this French artist was remarkably ahead of her time and incredibly versatile in her creative ventures, exploring gender and national identity through the lens of surrealism, employing photographic self-portraits, collages, theater, and performance art, writing articles and essays, and even hosting extravagant salons.

Her existence was a play of mirrors, theatrical masks, and perpetual transformations, blurring the lines of Claude Cahun's true identity.

In her early years, Claude's mother was institutionalized, leading to her father's remarriage. This brought Suzanne Malherbe—French illustrator and designer, also known as Marcel Moore—into Claude's life as a stepsister. Their relationship quickly evolved beyond familial ties, with Marcel becoming Claude’s lover and lifelong creative partner. Their collaboration was so profound that the pseudonym Claude Cahun can almost be seen as representing both artists: they lived and worked in tandem, with Moore often being the unseen photographer behind Cahun's renowned self-portraits.

In 1918, Cahun relocated from her relatively small hometown of Nantes to the vibrant and diverse metropolis of Paris, where she lived with Marcel Moore for several years. Beyond writing and photography, Cahun graced the theatrical stage as an actor, while Marcel Moore crafted costumes and decorations for the plays. In the 1930s, Cahun became a member of the “Association of Revolutionary Writers and Artists” and joined the Surrealist group, participating in their exhibitions in Paris and London. In 1937, Cahun and Moore moved to the island of Jersey, where they continued their artistic ventures in photography, collages, and creative experiments.

During World War II, Claude and Marcel produced thousands of anti-fascist booklets, posters, and leaflets aimed at intimidating the Germans, urging them to desert and abandon the war effort. They affixed these materials to walls, doors, and parked cars; concealed them in newspapers and magazines at newsstands; and left them in mailboxes, churches, and residences occupied by Nazis. They even left handwritten notes on cigarette packs! This activity led the Nazis to believe that a large-scale, organized resistance group was operating on the island. When they arrested the artists, they were incredulous that such widespread actions were the work of just two individuals. Cahun and Moore were imprisoned and sentenced to death but, fortunately, were released at the end of the war in 1945.

Cahun's identities shifted like masks: dandy, sailor, child, aviator, boxer, alien being, "a woman dressed as a man, dressed as a woman." Cahun bravely tried on different roles, multiplied and fragmented images of her face, combining them into whimsical compositions, incorporating mirrors, landscapes, still life compositions into photo montages, sometimes treating herself as an inanimate object or museum exhibit.

Unfortunately, much of Cahun and Moore's work was lost or destroyed during the war. But, luckily for us, Cahun's photographic archive was miraculously discovered by accident in the mid-1980s in… a thrift store!

Despite this, a significant portion of Claude Cahun's oeuvre remains unknown to us. However, today we have the opportunity to embark on a Midjourney, allowing us to envision how her lost works might have appeared. We can also explore how she might have voiced her perspective on contemporary issues using modern tools, such as color film, or by collaborating with other prominent artists she has never met, crossing paths she never could have in her lifetime.

Claude Cahun in Midjourney

Midjourney recognizes Claude Cahun primarily as a photographer. The AI faithfully echoes Cahun’s distinctive style, the vintage essence of her monochrome photographs, and the hallmark features of her artworks: large pronounced eyes, circular shapes (found within settings, as props and patterns, and as facial elements), masks, androgynous figures, extravagant costumes, floral arrangements, and hands frequently posed near the head.

And switching to non-photographic genres, Midjourney neatly reincorporates these signature features into other forms and mediums.

Adding Color

Claude Cahun's artwork, historically captured in monochrome, leaves us to only speculate about the true colors of her sets, costumes, and masks. However, with Midjourney, we have the unique opportunity to reimagine her works in color!

Unexpected Applications

Imagine if Claude Cahun had ventured beyond photography to explore her fluid identity through other art forms such as puppetry, origami, 3D art, or manga. How thrilling that exploration would have been! Midjourney excels at translating Cahun’s distinctive style into unexpected prompts, letting her pioneering spirit manifest in novel and surprising ways.

Blending Styles

Midjourney beautifully merges Claude Cahun's essence with other artists and styles, seamlessly integrating her signature elements into the final creations. The name Claude Cahun can even serve as a photographic filter, infusing images with a vintage aesthetic.

Claude Cahun's pioneering work continues to inspire artists to this day. Her art, marked by extraordinary courage and the fearlessness to embrace her true self, challenged societal norms and redefined perceptions of the “abnormal.”

Now, you, too, can experience Cahun’s groundbreaking legacy firsthand and see how her fearless exploration of identity and expression paved the way for future generations.

Until next week!
—Maria

/discuss

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All samples are produced by Midlibrary team using Midjourney AI (if not stated otherwise). Naturally, they are not representative of real artists' works/real-world prototypes.

We'll be grateful for shares and backlinks!

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