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intern with diplay of books in the reading room
Adelaide Willis shares a curated selection of books she has researched on Cahun in the European Reading Room, Photo courtesy of Erika Hope Spencer, who mentors Adelaide

Pride and Belonging: A Journey to Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore in the European Reading Room

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This is question and answer guest post by Adelaide Willis — an intern in the European Reading Room. In honor of Pride Month, Adelaide wanted to share what brought Adelaide to the French language, the European Reading Room and an appreciation for the creative genius of Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore, a romantic pair of French artists whose collaborative photography, writings, and montages play with gender, surrealism, and self-portraiture.

Tell us about your experience with books and learning.
Books and learning have always been something that my family celebrated, but I was slow to love reading. It took the collected works of Calvin & Hobbes for me to truly see the potential of what reading had to offer: beautiful, wild, wacky worlds different from my own. From that point onward, I threw myself into reading and finding as much knowledge as I could get my hands on. As a girl living in a very small rural town, my local library was my pathway to what the wider world offered. French came later.

So why French and where has your experience of learning this language taken you?
I wanted to be an artist, and most of the artists I knew were French. While my desire to be an artist faded with time, my love for the French language persisted and grew through its challenges. What kept me motivated was remembering the thrill and satisfaction I felt once I began to read books in French. My copy of Le Petit Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery was filled with question marks, definitions, and grammar reminders, but the beautiful story helped me rise above the frustration and focus on the personal reward.

"Le petit prince" by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (1900-44) with original artwork by author. San Diego: Harcourt, [2001?]., https://lccn.loc.gov/00012999 .
“Le petit prince” by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. Artwork by author.
Once I settled on studying international relations in college, there were more reasons for me to continue studying French. The language offered me a pathway to understanding diverse regions around the world in much more depth and breadth than with English alone. Even so, satisfying as it was to study and read French, I felt frustrated by the plateau I reached in learning it from the United States. I had never been to a French-speaking country to experience the ease and fluidity that comes from being completely immersed in another language every day. That opportunity came for me through the Boren Scholarship program, which is designed for people interested in government. This program pays for intensive language and cultural immersion programs throughout the world. The French program is based in Dakar, Senegal.

Ariel photo of city
Ariel view of Dakar, Senegal, courtesy of Adelaide Willis

For six months—three in Florida and three in Dakar—I took daily classes in French on language, culture, history, and literature. I lived with a host family, had regular language partners, and took trips to several important cities and locations within Senegal. One of the books that stuck with me was La ventre de l’Atlantique by Fatou Diome. The protagonist, a Senegalese immigrant in France, describes vivid and profound sensations of loneliness born from not quite belonging anywhere. These feelings of loneliness have resonated with me at different points in my life. I felt something similar, for instance, attending a small high school in a rural town, moving to a big city for college, studying abroad in a place where I was immediately recognizable as an outsider, and figuring out my individual queerness as I realized why I felt differently than most people around me.

My throughline for these feelings of loneliness and estrangement has always been more books, more learning, and more knowledge. Learning that other people have expressed these feelings and these differences in so many beautiful ways has helped me feel more connected to others while simultaneously being more at ease with myself. I think the reason I am drawn to library science as a profession results from the endless possibilities libraries provide for discovery and sharing. My internship in the European Reading Room at the Library of Congress enables me to pursue my dual love of French language and exploring knowledge.

Tell us about Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore: How has their work inspired you?
Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore, born respectively as Lucy Renée Mathilde Schwob and Suzanne Malherbe, developed a rich body of creative work that showcased surrealism, androgyny, and an exploration of societally imposed “masks” of femininity and masculinity. Some of their first artistic collaborations, Les jeux uraniens and Vues et Visions, encoded queer language in classical allusions that would be apparent to other queer readers but fly under the radar of a more general audience.

Cahun and Moore are well known for staged “self-portraits” of Cahun, taken by Moore, which play with and distort the body, gender, and gender-presentation, as well as the surrounding environment and props. Cahun’s 1930 memoir, Aveux non avenus, or Disavowals in English, also challenges the structure of the memoir with its addition of poetry, essays, political critique, fictionalized dialogues, explorations of dreams, and photo collages created in collaboration with Marcel Moore. This mix of creativity paints a fuller and richer portrait of the author and the personal questions and political concepts that animated Cahun’s thinking.

At the beginning of Disavowals, Cahun famously writes:

“No point in making myself comfortable. The abstraction, the dream, are as limited for me as the concrete and the real. What to do? Show a part of it only, in a narrow mirror, as if it were the whole?…Until I see everything clearly, I want to hunt myself down, struggle with myself. Who, feeling armed against her own self, be that with the vainest of words, would not do her very best if only to hit the void bang in the middle.” (Disavowals, Claude Cahun, 1)

Cahun and Moore’s photographic work successfully challenges the idea that “truth” is more meaningful or revealing than fiction. The “truth” of the memoir or of the self-portrait is just as limited and false as the masks or false narratives that they don and document. For me, this work exemplifies some of the complexities of writing about queer history even though Cahun and Moore never explicitly defined themselves in their work as homosexual, lesbian, nonbinary, or any of the other terms that we might use today in describing them. Nonetheless, the nuances of queerness—sexuality, love, pride in queer identity, and the ambiguities and limitations of self-representation they express are crucial to understanding their work.

Learning about Cahun and Moore in college was like a breath of fresh air for me: They were unapologetically queer, outsiders, and committed to representing themselves in many ways and with many different personas. Cahun and Moore created a body of work that is singular in its ability to connect gender performativity, surrealism, and self-portraiture in tangible expressions of queerness. Their work succeeded in defying categorization and facile interpretations of identity. In that vein, it seems less important to try to corral Cahun or Moore with exact labels, and far more important to proudly celebrate their ability as artists to articulate queer and create beautiful, defiant, and meaningful art as a means of self-representation. To learn more about Cahun and Moore, check out the further reading below.

 

Further Reading
Aldrich, R. (2012). Gay lives. Thames & Hudson.
Aliaga, J.V., & Leperlier, F. (2011). Claude Cahun. Jeu de Paume.
Cahun, C. (2007). Disavowals: or cancelled confessions. MIT Press.
Caws, M. (2001). Surrealist painters and poets: an anthology. The MIT Press.
Chadwick, W. (1998). Mirror images: women, surrealism, and self-representation. MIT Press.
Chadwick, W., & Latimer, T.T. (2003). The modern woman revisited: Paris between the wars. Rutgers University Press.
Downie, L. (2006). Don’t kiss me: the art of Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore. Aperture Foundation.
Doy, G. (2007). Claude Cahun: a sensual politics of photography. Routledge.
Egger, A. (2015). Claude Cahun, l’antimuse. Les Hauts-Fonds.
Howgate, S. (2017) Gillian Wearing and Claude Cahun: behind the mask, another mask. National Portrait Gallery Publications. Princeton University Press.
Jackson, J.H. (2021). Paper bullets: two women who risked their lives to defy the Nazis. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.
Knafo, D. (2009). In her own image: women’s self-representation in twentieth-century art. Fairleigh Dickinson University Press.
Latimer, T.T. (2005). Women together/women apart: portraits of lesbian Paris. Rutgers University Press. •
Leperlier, F. (1992). Claude Cahun : l’écart et la métamorphose : essai. Jean-Michel Place.
Leperlier, F. (2002). Ecrits / Claude Cahun. Jean-Michel Place.
Lester, T. (2002). Gender nonconformity, race and sexuality: charting the connections. University of Wisconsin Press.
Löwy, M. (2009). Morning star: surrealism, Marxism, anarchism, situationism, utopia. University of Texas Press.
Marcetteau-Paul, A. (2015). Claude Cahun et ses doubles. MeMo.
Marcoci, R. (2022). Our selves: photographs by women artists from, Helen Kornblum. The Museum of Modern Art.
Meyers, D.T. (2002). Gender in the mirror: cultural imagery and women’s agency. Oxford University Press.
Nathanaël. (2009). Absence where as: Claude Cahun and the unopened book. Nightboat Books.
Rice, S. (1999). Inverted odysseys: Claude Cahun, Maya Deren, and Cindy Sherman. MIT Press.
Rowe, K. (2023). Liberated: the radical art and life of Claude Cahun. Getty Publications.
Shaw, J.L. (2017). Exist otherwise: the life and works of Claude Cahun. Reaktion Books.
Shaw, J.L. (2013). Reading Claude Cahun’s Disavowals. Ashgate.

Comments

  1. I really enjoyed reading this, thank you!

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