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Jewish Journal

Claude Cahun -  1920s Surrealist genderqueer Jew

by Kalil Cohen

September 14, 2010 | 11:12 pm

Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore, self-portraits, circa 1920

At last month’s TG Film Fest in Hollywood, there was a fascinating film about genderqueer Jewish artists Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore, made by award-winning filmmaker Barbara Hammer.  The lives of these incredible artists is fascinating as they were trailblazers living way ahead of their times.  It’s hard to believe that the pictures at right were taken from the 1920s through the 1940s. 
Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore were Surrealist artists, lovers, and step-sisters who had a prolific output of fascinating, magnetic photos.  The gender-bending artists lived and worked together all their adult lives, leaving Paris for Jersey Isle in the 1930s. During the 1940s they were living on Jersey Isle in England when the Nazis occupied the island during WWII.  Not only did Cahun and Moore refuse to register when all the Jews on the island were mandated to do so, but they began agitating German soldiers to resist the war.  They communicated with soldiers by placing small papers in their pockets, or under their tea cups at the soldier’s barracks across the street from their house.  These papers would have hand-written messages in German, urging the soldiers to overthrow their leaders.  Cahun and Moore organized their anti-war efforts in five languages while also continuing their artistic pursuits. 
Eventually they were imprisoned by the Nazis, accused of subversive activities, and of owning a radio and camera. It is amazing that so many of their photos survived the Nazi arrest and trial. This trail resulted in a death sentence.  To the Germans they were “the worst kind of Jews” – artists, lesbians, gender variant. They had also found erotic photos, which were destroyed.  Cahun and Moore’s lives were saved, however, by a high-ranking Jersey Isle official who pleaded the Germans to spare them.  This rare favor was granted, and Cahun and Moore lived the rest of their lives on Jersey Isle.
Along with being inspirational as artists, their organizing and war-resistance is something that I admire greatly about these genderqueer Jews.  During the war, Claude Cahun said: “If there is horror, it is for those who speak indifferently of the next war.  If there is hate, it is for hateful qualities, not nations.  If there is love, it is because this alone kept me alive.”  This film reminded me of the importance of preserving and teaching our queer history, because we are so often erased from the Official History.  In addition, they make me proud of my identities, which I think is a healthy feeling we all have a right to.  This feeling can only come as a result of knowing about those who came before you, and feeling inspired by the amazing leaders who have changed the world around them for the better.  Knowing of their legacy inspires me to continue making art that matters to me, living my life honestly and with passion, and facing the challenges around me with creativity and zeal.

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