Working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic, Annie O’Hehir writes an open letter to the late French Surrealist photographer Claude Cahun (1894–1954) #MuseumFromHome
I have no idea if this will reach you. Who knows what happens after we die? Nothing. Something. Lots of us have what can only be a stab in the dark guess that we are sure is right. We’re such strange beasts…
For expediency’s sake let’s assume that you are floating off in another dimension – quite high I’d imagine after that brave life you led – sitting around chatting with Marcel (I’m going to write Marcel instead of Suzanne because I imagine that was how you referred to each other, just like they used Claude instead Lucy), or maybe some of your posse. I love to imagine an extraordinary bunch of you, getting together and ‘chewing the fat’ as my boss Shaune likes to say. Maybe all the once-were writers have dropped in – maybe Virginia, Mary Ann and Sylvia – and I interrupt your discussion.
Truth be told, I feel a bit awkward writing to you. It’s awkward because your writing is so complex and reflective of how learned you were – coming as you did from such a famous literary family with your beloved uncle Marcel Schwob who died so young. I’ve only been able to read your work that has been translated into English, your French is much too complicated for my basic French – so hard to get a feel for all that playing you do. But I get a sense of it in translation – the mercurial, sophisticated nature of it. So, I feel a bit cloddy writing to you.
I can’t help wondering how you feel about all the attention you get these days. There’s actually a term for your fans – Cahunians! Your photographs feel so private. The things you made with and for Marcel – I’ve always thought, that was like part of erotic play between the two of you – that message on the front of your jersey, in one of your well-known works: ‘Don’t kiss me. I’m in training’. A provocation if ever I saw one!
‘with black humour, provocation, defiance — to force my contemporaries out of their complacency’
The photos that you made so privately are now in collections, exhibitions and books, and all over the internet. You wanted to challenge people’s minds, ‘with black humour, provocation, defiance — to force my contemporaries out of their complacency’.
People love your photos – those little scraps of things – they’re sold for crazy high prices at auction now, unlike that first auction after Marcel’s death when many of your possessions were quite literally swept up into tea chests and sold for a pittance. And why not? Each photo so endlessly inventive, multi-layered and fun. But above all that, it’s you and how you lived your life that inspires people now.
But above all that, it’s you and how you lived your life that inspires people now.
I feel I can’t quite get a handle on you. Lots of things are known about you, probably more than you would feel comfortable with. People have long realised that despite your name, you weren’t a man and didn’t die in a concentration camp somewhere. There’s a real pile of books that continues to grow – biographies and exhibition catalogues, even a whole book just about Aveux non Avenus – that’s been building since the 1980s when you were ‘rediscovered’. But I feel that people, sort of, write around you and I get the distinct feeling that you haven’t given up your secrets. I’m glad for that.
Talking of things we’ll never know – I would love to have been the proverbial fly on the wall the day, three years after you’d started being a couple, that your dad told you that he would be marrying Marcel’s mum, making you stepsisters. You don’t know what The Bold and the Beautiful is, but that is, I would have to say, a Bold and the Beautiful moment. Just a bit weird. I’ve always wondered how you reacted. Maybe you were horrified? Maybe you both thought it was hilarious?
But I feel that people, sort of, write around you and I get the distinct feeling that you haven’t given up your secrets. I’m glad for that.
If you are still around in spirit, I guess you know. You’re a real hero to the trans community. How exactly you would define yourself these days is something no one can completely know for sure. I saw Jill Soloway share on Instagram a little while back, ‘when I realized there was a word for feeling male, female, both and neither, I finally started to feel at home in my body. I share my journey today for all of those without the safety or privilege to claim their pronouns’. I thought of you. One hundred years after you had the extraordinary courage to do so – to ask that you be thought of as neither male or female but as a third sex – like Jill, both and neither. Always fighting, arguing, hoping! to advance the notion that our gender identity need not be defined as binary. I think too of Nina Simone’s Mississippi Goddamn – ‘you don’t have to live next to me, just give me my equality’.
Where, for heaven’s sake, did you find the audacity to go against society’s expectations in such spectacular fashion – to look like an androgynous 1980s New Romantic, to cut off your hair, to dye that little buzz cut gold? You said you tried every way to fly under the radar, to be studious and good. Hardly surprising considering the difficult childhood you had – your mother in and out of institutions before disappearing, then you tied to a tree by those beastly school kids for being Jewish at the time of the Dreyfus affair. Children can be horrendously cruel to each other – Lord of the Flies scenarios in a blink of the eye.
Maybe meeting Suzanne when you were young was your ‘rencontre foudroyante’ moment – your lightning encounter. You knew Suzanne/Marcel always had your back, and you found the courage to grow into your authentic self. Something so many of us are unable to do. How lucky you were to have found each other – a relationship that would last until the end of your life. From heady exciting days in Paris through the 1920s and 30s, and all those great friendships with actors, writers and artists. I suspect Marcel might have been a quiet force, the one who grounded you. And of course, you did work in collaboration, probably more than is acknowledged. It is after all Marcel’s name that appears on the bottom of our collage. We are still, despite everything, too much in love with the idea of individual genius to want to acknowledge collaboration.
Another thing that might surprise you – the people of Jersey, where you lived the last decades of your life, haven’t forgotten you. They hold your archive, which is cool. When you lived there, the people of Jersey might have thought you and Marcel a bit strange as you walked the cats on leads up and down the streets – the crazy French stepsisters. But they now acknowledge you and Marcel for the heroes you were as part of the Resistance against the Germans. You used the power of the word, through persuasion – those little notes left in the German soldiers’ shoes and jackets. You were completely crazy, brave and fearless! You and Marcel must have known that eventually you would be arrested and sentenced to death. It was only by luck that you escaped that fate.
But then if anyone is proof that life is strange, unpredictable, extraordinary and full of surprises, it’s you.
It pains me to think of those wretched months that you spent in prison, isolated for the most part from your beloved Marcel, fully expecting to be sent to a concentration camp or put to death after the attempt that you both made to take your own lives failed. The soldiers couldn’t believe that two sweet middle-aged French sisters could have carried on such an audacious campaign. Seemingly so fragile. You were always underestimated. André Breton might have said to you privately that he thought you were one of the most ‘curious spirits’ of your age. But it still didn’t stop him getting up and making a hasty retreat when you and Marcel came into your favourite café. Let’s be generous and imagine that he was probably a bit scared of you.
Finally, I just wanted to tell you that, alongside a copy of the book, the original artwork for the frontispiece that you and Marcel made for Aveux non Avenus is in a Gallery in Canberra. It’s what? I know. It’s bonkers. Canberra was only a few buildings, paddocks and some grand plans when you were writing the book. It is sadly the only original artwork for the illustrations to that crazy, strange, wonderful book that weren’t destroyed I’m afraid – left behind in Paris perhaps when you fled to Jersey? (If there are other collages in an attic somewhere maybe you could just tell me in a dream or something. Just me. Secret.) They are in a display at the Gallery at the moment – at a strange time when the Gallery is closed to visitors. All the works of art wait patiently to be seen again. It’s a shame because the collage in particular is looking grand – Andrea Wise, one of the paper conservators at the Gallery, has toiled away bringing it back close to how you and Marcel must have seen it when you made it all those years ago. It just shines off the wall – looking so fine, as enigmatic, sophisticated and magical as ever. It might be strange that it has ended up in a gallery all the way across the world. But then if anyone is proof that life is strange, unpredictable, extraordinary and full of surprises, it’s you.
Please if you can, give my best regards to Marcel. I’m so glad that Marcel was there for you, to cherish you and look after you, and to be such a great companion through your life.
Je vous embrasse! (I would if I could, but there is this thing called ‘social distancing’ at the moment …)
Annie O’Hehir is a Curator of Photography at the National Gallery of Australia.