Acting Out: Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore

1892: Birth of Suzanne Malherbe in Nantes. 1894: Birth of Lucy Renée Mathilde Schwob in Nantes. 1898: Lucy’s mother, Victorine Mary Antoinette Courbebaisse Schwob, suffers serious psychopathological crisis and is committed to an asylum. 1906: Dreyfus Affair engenders anti-Semitic outbreaks in Nantes. Lucy, Jewish on her father’s side, taunted by classmates. 1907–08: Lucy withdrawn from public school and sent abroad to England to continue studies. 1909: Lucy returns to Nantes, learns Greek at the knees of her paternal grandmother, enrolls in a limited number of courses at her old school, and falls in love with Suzanne Malherbe, the daughter of family friends. 1913–14: Lucy’s first publications in the prestigious review Mercure de France, cofounded by her uncle, Marcel Schwob. First photographic portraits. Under various pseudonyms, Lucy contributes to the cultural pages of Le Phare de la Loire, published by her father, Maurice Schwob. Suzanne’s fashion drawings appear in the paper under the pseudonym Marcel Moore. Lucy enrolls in a course on “L’Explication d’auteurs philosophes” at the Sorbonne. She composes “Les Jeux uraniens” and signs the manuscript “Claude Cahun.” 1917–18: Maurice Schwob marries Marie Eugenie Malherbe, Suzanne’s mother. The “sisters” create an apartment for themselves on the top floor of the newspaper building in downtown Nantes. Moore studies at the Nantes Académie des Beaux-Arts. Cahun attends classes at the Sorbonne, volunteers at Sylvia Beach’s Left Bank bookstore, Shakespeare and Co. 1919: Publication of Vues et visions, written by Cahun and illustrated by Moore. 1920: Cahun and Moore rent their first apartment in Paris, rue de Grennelle. 1922: Cahun and Moore move to an atelier in Montparnasse, 70 rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs. 1923–25: Cahun publishes in Mercure de France, Journal littéraire, Disque vert. Lends support to the homosexual journal Inversions. Cahun and Moore among the founders of Les Amis des Arts Esotériques, collaborate with the Théâtre Esotérique. 1928: Death of Maurice Schwob. Cahun translates a volume by the sexologist Havelock Ellis into French. Intense photographic activity. 1929: Participation in Pierre Albert-Birot’s theater company, Le Plateau. Moore takes photographs of Cahun’s performances in Mystère d’Adam, Barbe Bleue, and Banlieu. With Cahun’s oversight, Moore creates the photocollages for Aveux non avenus, a nonnarrative patchwork of Cahun’s writings. Moore designs the cover for Georges RibemontDessaignes’s Frontières Humaines. Moore’s anamorphic portrait of Cahun is reproduced in the Surrealist journal Bifur. Cahun and Moore are interviewed by a columnist for the overseas edition of the Chicago Tribune. 1930: Publication of Aveux non avenus. 1932: Involvement with L’Association des Ecrivains et Artistes Révolutionaires [AEAR]. Meet André Breton. 1933: Cahun co-signs AEAR declarations against fascism and French imperialism. Contributes to Commune and Minataure. Activities within Surrealist circle escalate. 1934: Cahun publishes a polemical pamphlet about poetry and revolution, Les Paris sont ouverts (Bets Are On), and earns Breton’s respect.

1935: The Surrealist antitotalitarian faction ContreAttaque convenes at the home of Cahun and Moore. 1936: Cahun and Moore co-sign several political tracts produced by Contre-Attaque. Cahun attends lecture/demonstrations at psychiatric hospitals (La Salpêtrière, Sainte-Anne) in the company of Henri Michaux. Meets Jacques Lacan. Contributes objects to the Surrealist exhibition at the Charles Ratton Gallery. Helps Breton to organize the International Surrealist Exhibition at the Burlington Gallery in London. Publishes “Prennez garde aux objets domestiques” in Cahiers d’art. Photographic initiatives crescendo in Jersey over the summer. 1937–38: Photographs of objects created by Cahun illustrate Lise Deharme’s Le Coeur de pic. Cahun and Moore purchase a house on Jersey, La Roquaise, which they rename La Ferme sans nom (The Farm with No Name). They leave Paris and move into the house on St. Brelades Bay. 1939: Cahun joins the Fédération Internationale de l’Art Indépendant. Cahun and Moore maintain ties with friends in Paris, receiving visits from Michaux, Breton, and Jacqueline Lamba. 1940–44: Occupation of Jersey by German military forces. Cahun and Moore launch an anti-Nazi counterpropaganda campaign. After four years of successful covert operations they are apprehended, tried for treason, and condemned to death. The sentence is converted, but they serve their prison time in solitary confinement until the liberation of the island on 8 May 1945. 1946–50: Reclaim house on St. Brelades Bay, which had been requisitioned by the occupying army. Slowly undertake repairs and retrieve the affairs that were spared theft or destruction. Attempt to resume communication with the former Paris milieu. Cahun writes long repetitive letters to friends and drafts her memoirs of the war. Her mental and physical health, seriously compromised by the time in prison, further deteriorates. 1951: Thanks to Moore’s lobbying, Cahun receives the Médaille d’Argent de la Reconnaissance Française for her resistance activities.

Cahun and Moore Tombstone, St. Brelades, 2003. Black and white photograph, courtesy Tirza T. Latimer

1952–53: Dreams of resuming a life in Paris evaporate due to the fragility of Cahun’s condition. 1954: Cahun dies and Moore buries her remains in the churchyard next door to the St. Brelades house. Moore sells La Ferme sans nom and moves to a small house near St. Helier. 1972: Isolated and in pain, Moore takes her life. She shares Cahun’s grave in St. Brelades churchyard. The double gravestone bears two Stars of David.

The chronology is based on information drawn from publications by François Leperlier.

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