The reality of queerness in the time of the Third Reich is something I think about a lot. What was that like? What forefathers and foremothers and family members were lost at this time? Unlike the Stonewall Riots later in the twentieth century or the Orlando shootings last year, these deaths were in the thousands. This loss is only eclipsed by the AIDS epidemic.
Yet, during all struggles as such, art prevails in the stress. The story of agender artist Claude Cahun is shining example.
Cahun was a photographer and collage artist who created self-portrait based work that questioned identity, of what it meant to be male or female or neither. Cahun was sentenced to death by the Nazis for their resistance and radicalism but came out from the era unscathed, liberated in 1945. Despite making it out with their life, much of Cahun’s work was destroyed by the Nazis. Cahun died in 1954.
Cahun’s story is the recent subject of a fantastic profile from Timeline that contextualizes both the identity and work at such a troubled time.
By the age of 18 she was already making self-portraits and identifying as androgynous under a series of pseudonyms, eventually settling on “Claude” for its gender ambiguity in French. She identified as agender in a time before neutral pronouns, and used photography to channel her complex relationship to the binary of public and personal identity. These are familiar concepts in a world after Cindy Sherman and Leigh Bowery, but for prewar France they were progressive to the point of incomprehension.
Cahun’s photos truly do capture an alien, otherworldly existence that so many queer persons inhabit. Many of the works cast Cahun as a canvas to represent so many identities and personhoods while retaining a fantastical aesthetic element that appears to be both Nosferatu and La Planète sauvage. Such is what happens when you’re so isolated and so pushed out by the world.
Cahun’s work was entangled in politics. This wasn’t simple selfie taking to log the self but an act of defiance at a time when you literally could be killed for just being. “If there is horror, it is for those who speak indifferently of the next war,” Cahun said. “If there is hate, it is for hateful qualities, not nations. If there is love, it is because this alone kept me alive.”
Like so many other queer persons lost at the time, like so many persecuted persons lost from slavery or the Holocaust and beyond, you can’t help but wonder who else we would have today if such colossal hate didn’t exist. What would the world be like? Who would we be today? The work of Claude Cahun is a reminder of both alternate realities and the need to defy, to fight, to stand and be seen despite what society tells you.