Strange selfies of Claude Caon - a scandalous photo artist of the 20th century who has been looking for a balance between male and female all her life
Strange selfies of Claude Caon - a scandalous photo artist of the 20th century who has been looking for a balance between male and female all her life
Claude Caon is a scandalous photographer of the 20th century who has been looking for a balance between masculine and feminine all her life

She took selfies and experimented with gender even before it became mainstream. She destroyed the canons and fought against Nazism. She made many attempts at suicide and at the same time … loved life. She embodied the image of a being outside of gender, outside of race, outside of culture. Her photographs are frightening and mesmerizing. This is a story about Claude Caon - without exaggeration, the brightest photo artist of the first half of the 20th century.

Claude Caon photographed herself in frightening images

Her name was Lucy Schwab, but she chose a different gender-neutralizing name. She was born in 1894 into a wealthy Jewish family, received an excellent education (Oxford and Sorbonne), and from childhood was in the circle of famous writers and philosophers. From her youth, Lucy was distinguished by fragile mental health, and was repeatedly treated for mental disorders. Her mother was also ill and spent most of her life after the birth of her daughter in a psychiatric clinic.

Claude Caon in her works revealed the secrets of her soul

Lucy's biography is replete with failed suicide attempts: the lust for life turned out to be stronger. But not only emotional instability and rich imagination distinguished her from those around her: Lucy Schwab's love preferences also did not find understanding in her environment. In 1908, her uncle, a well-known writer in those years, Marcel Schwab, married the widow of his best friend. And Lucy … realized that she fell madly in love with her half-sister and childhood friend Suzanne Mahlerbe.

Suzanne Malherbe is a half-sister, childhood friend, companion and lover of Claude Caon

She reciprocated and became her lover, companion, companion for the rest of her life. Together they left their native Nantes and moved to Paris, choosing new names for themselves - Claude Caon and Marcel Moore. In Paris, their life was incredibly busy. Marcel Moore made a living as a book illustrator. Claude Caon became interested in photography. She often photographed her beloved and friends, creating mystical portraits in the spirit of then fashionable surrealism - reflections, mirrors, two-headed people, numerous repetitions … But the main model of Claude Caon was herself.

Claude Caon photographed her friends in the surrealist style

Claude naturally possessed an androgynous appearance and used this extensively in her work. She spoke of her gender as something neutral; in our time it would be called androgynous or agender. She called the search for the balance of male and female the meaning of life.

Experiments with gender were the main theme of Claude Caon

She shaved bald and posed in a man's suit. I used masks and thick makeup. She surrounded herself with strange objects, which she often did herself, painted her face, depicted a puppet or a doll.

Claude Caon changed images and masks in front of the camera

Claude Caon was not the only artist of the time who experimented with gender - for example, the Dadist Marcel Duchamp (who drew a mustache for Mona Lisa and exhibited a urinal as an art object) created his female alter ego. However, Claude Caon has created an incredible number of self-portrait photographs, where she explored her place between male and female identity.

Claude Caon appeared in

There is a version that Marcel Moore created some of the photographs attributed to the authorship of Claude Caon, and Caon herself was the author of ideas and images. In any case, their work was closely intertwined.

This photograph is often credited with the authorship of Suzanne Mahlerbe

Also in her work, the motive of the fatal double, duality is widespread.It was believed that meeting with his diary portends misfortune, but for Claude Caon, a split is another way to know himself and paradoxically declare his uniqueness. The mirrors, which she loved so much, serve the same purpose. Claude Caon has also achieved success in product photography, collecting crazy still lifes from random objects. Here she explores the themes of death and destruction. Claude Caon's still lifes are truly "dead nature", where skulls, dry grass, earth, broken dolls and mirrors seem to scare the viewer.

Still lifes Claude Caon - reflections on death

Her favorite creative trick is changing masks and roles. She often posed in theatrical makeup or with the attributes of folk theater characters. She said that her forms and masks are endless. The work of Claude Caon is called the manifesto of narcissism. Modern critics argue that in some of Kaon's works, references to her homosexuality are encrypted, but this is a “text for the initiate,” for those who are familiar with the symbolism of the LGBT culture of that time.

Claude Caon's photographs contain many symbols that are understandable only to the initiated

However, Claude was not only engaged in photography. She wrote a lot as a critic and writer, participated in exhibitions, played in the theater, created art objects. The leader of the French surrealists, André Breton, who generally disapproved of women in art, wrote to her: "You have amazing magic … you yourself know that I consider you one of the most curious spiritual phenomena of our time." The literary works of Kaon and Moor are associated with the “shifters” of the stories of fairytale heroines.

Hands are also a frequent motive in Claude Caon's art

In 1938, her friends left secular Paris and settled in Jersey. They ironically called their house "A farm without a name." But the happiness was short-lived. The Second World War began, and German troops entered France. Caon and Moor took an active part in the Jewish sector of the French Resistance. They created and distributed anti-war leaflets, sometimes throwing them into German cars or stuffing them into soldiers' pockets. In 1944, they were arrested by the Nazis and sentenced to death - Jewish women, members of the Resistance, lesbians, they seemed to have no chance of surviving. Claude tried to commit suicide, but again to no avail. They were miraculously saved in May 1945. However, they did not return to Paris: Claude Caon's health after the Nazi captivity was rapidly deteriorating. Most of the works of Claude Caon were plundered, and the negatives were destroyed, and only a small fraction of her crazy and mesmerizing creativity survived.

Many of Claude Caon's works were destroyed during the war, and she herself miraculously survived

The friends spent the last days at the "Farm without a name". In 1954, Claude died. Marcel-Suzanne tried to continue living after death took her beloved. She committed suicide in 1972. They are buried together, under the same headstone.

Claude Caon and Suzanne Malherbe are buried together, on the tombstone are six-pointed stars, a symbol of the Jewish people

In 2007, singer David Bowie created a multimedia exhibition of Kaon's work at the gardens of the General Theological Seminary in New York.

Text: Sofia Egorova.

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