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Claude Cahun, Symbolism and Surrealism: The Importance of Historical Contextualisation



Claude Cahun was a female Symbolist and Surrealist artist of The French Third Republic. Born under the name Lucy Schwob in 1894, Cahun moved to Paris in 1922 where she became close with Andre Breton and the Surrealist circle. Her artistic output is eclectic and includes creative writing, photographic self-portraits, photomontages and found objects. Many of her works and writings play on seemingly modern and postmodern themes of gender, sexuality and identity. This essay explores the way in which the historiography has developed since the publication of the first substantial piece of research, a biography by Francois Leperlier, in 1992. I discuss how subsequent analyses by feminist and gender historians endlessly replicated the themes outlined in Leperlier’s work and argue that this created a limited understanding of the topic. Many of these historians use poststructuralist deconstructions to explain Cahun’s work, make assumptions about her knowledge and ignore the necessity of thorough historical contextualisation. I argue that by resituating Cahun within the socio-cultural and political context of The Third Republic we will improve our understandings of her artistic output and of the sites of resistance from which minorities could refuse dominant republican and conservative ideas.