Aesthetic Allegiances : Marcel Moore and Claude Cahun

Aesthetic Allegiances : Marcel Moore and Claude Cahun


When, in 1995, the Musée d’art Moderne de la Ville de Paris presented « Claude Cahun, photograph », late twentieth-century audiences discovered a virtually forgotten artist whose work appeared to anticipate postmodern’s agendas1. Cahun, who died in 1954, had posed for the camera in culturally coded guises throughout her life. Her theatrical photographs resonated with works by artists of the so-called Pictures Generation – foremost, the conceptual photographer Cindy Sherman2. Scholars of photography, portraiture, modernism, and the European avant-gardes considered the ways the rediscovery of Cahun altered dominant art-historical narratives. Because Cahun’s masquerade images seemed to propose gender as a socially codified drag performance, they invited interpretation within feminist and queer theoretical frameworks lending impetus to Cahun’s resurrection. A string of exhibitions in museums around the world cemented Cahun’s posthumous reputation as a prescient artist3.

While these exhibitions raised awareness of an extraordinary photographic œuvre, they also distorted the historical picture. Curators and scholars contributing to exhibition catalogues typically described Cahun’s photographs as « self-portraits », a label that masked the complicity of Cahun’s lover and step-sister, Marcel Moore, in the production of most images. Emphasis on Cahun’s performances for the camera, what is more, overshadowed the literary enterprise for which she was better known during her lifetime. In addition to signing seventy-five articles, poems, editorials, pamphlets, manifestos, and works of short fiction between 1914 and 1936, Cahun wrote two books : Vues et visions (1919) and Aveux non avenus (1930). Marcel Moore illustrated both volumes, making the division of labor within the couple visible. Cahun produced texts ; Moore, a trained visual artist, produced images.

As I have argued elsewhere, it is not possible to understand Claude Cahun’s œuvre, whether visual or literary, without taking into account Moore’s collaboration4. The creative contexts that empowered their collaboration are equally important.

Schwob Family Enterprises

Marcel Moore (née Suzanne Malherbe) adopted her nom d’artiste while still a student at the École des Beaux-Arts de Nantes. Before the First World War, she produced a series of deft pen and ink illustrations for the « Chronique de la mode » of the Nantes newspaper Le Phare de la Loire, owned by Maurice Schwob, Cahun’s father and her step-father. Moore’s illustrations embellished articles contributed by Cahun that explored new, relatively liberated designs in feminine attire (Paul Poiret’s corset-free fashions, for example). Moore’s style at this time owes much to the male artists who were revolutionizing fashion illustration in the first decades of the twentieth century : Paul Iribe, Georges Barbier, and Georges Lepape, among them. This generation of illustrators rejected the stiff fashion-plate aesthetic of la Belle Époque and introduced livelier and highly stylized figures integrated into evocative settings. The decorative pochoirs and line drawings fashion illustrators of this era created for such magazines as Vogue and Gazette du Bon Ton became collectable artworks. Moore, one of the few female fashion illustrators debuting at this time, may well have had a successful career in the developing industry. However, Schwob’s newspaper suspended its coverage of fashion, deemed inappropriately frivolous, at the war’s onset in 1914 and Moore’s career took a different turn.

Allied Arts

Moore and Cahun were drawn to creative arenas where the visual and literary arts converged. The illustrated book Vues et visions (Paris, Georges Crès & Cie, 1919) was one such place. Here, Moore frames Cahun’s verses within elegant pen and ink drawings that bring to mind the black-and-white images Aubrey Beardsley created for Oscar Wilde’s play Salomé. The title Vues et visions describes the book’s textual and visual structure. One page presents a realistic « view » of contemporary life that triggers, on the facing page, an imaginary response, a « vision » of Antiquity. Each pair of Moore’s illustrations forms a sort of proscenium converting the two-page spread into a theatrical space where everyday experience reveals, through poetic transformation, new (manifestly homoerotic) perspectives on the classical past. The book contributes to the legacy of a homophile classical revival initiated by aesthetic-movement poets (Wilde among them) of the preceding generation. This album’s publication could be viewed as Moore and Cahun’s artistic coming out. It brought their names together in a free-standing publication for the first time. The book’s decadent aesthetic and homophile iconography inscribed Cahun and Moore in Wilde’s lineage while raising their public profile as a creative partnership and affirming their same-sex bond.

Given the metaphoric power of Moore’s visual contributions, it seems appropriate that Cahun’s first lines of text (the book’s dedication) should acknowledge the artist’s complicity. « Je te dédie ces proses puériles », Cahun writes, « afin que l’ensemble du livre t’appartienne et qu’ainsi tes dessins nous fassent pardonner mon texte5 ». [I dedicate this childish prose to you, such that the book in its entirety belongs to you and in this way your artwork permits us to forgive my text.] The interlacing of possessive articles here, like the interdependence of text and images in the book, describes a model of co-creativity that Moore and Cahun would elaborate throughout their long life together.

Understandably, they found the interdisciplinary and relatively open-minded theatrical milieu attractive. Moore’s short career as a fashion illustrator positioned her to try her hand at stage and costume design. Surviving sketches for costume designs as well as many of the portraits Moore painted as a young adult affirm her theatrical affiliations as well as her artistic models. The gouache portraits of stage idol Édouard de Max, among others, evidence the artist’s successful efforts to synthesize formal vocabularies across disciplines and genres. The flat planes of color and simplified forms evoke art deco graphics ; the emphatic black outlining aligns her with expressionism ; attention to pattern and texture reveals her apprenticeship in fashion ; serpentine lines carry forward a symbolist heritage, resonant of decadent aestheticism.

Gay Paris

After their move to Paris in 1920, the couple’s sphere of creative engagement expanded. They became part of the capital’s literary and theatrical life. The Comédie-Française character actor Marguerite Moreno – who was married to Cahun’s uncle, the symbolist author Marcel Schwob – introduced them to her milieu. The actor Édouard de Max, who routinely appeared with Moreno on stage, held particular fascination for the couple. De Max enabled them to imagine a different life than the one for which their birth into the bourgeoisie Nantaise had destined them6. A monstre sacré of the French theater, De Max openly avowed his homosexuality and performed with flamboyance both on-stage and off-stage7. Young homosexual artists paid him court. André Gide wrote the play Saül for the actor in 1898. (Due to its homoerotic plot no theater dared produce it until 1922.) In 1908, De Max launched the career of the nineteen-year-old Jean Cocteau by organizing « une matinée poétique » at the Théâtre Fémina on the Champs-Élysées8. Cahun emulated the strategy adopted by De Max and some of his acolytes for defying the bourgeois regime : do not hide, but rather flaunt your difference. During these years, Cahun caused commotions by appearing in public with a shaved head, or hair died in bright gold or pink.

Cahun et Moore were also captivated by the grandiose spectacles of the Ballets Russes at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. The impresario Sergei Diaghilev, who introduced Vaslav Nijinsky and a string of other brilliant male dancer protégés (Serge Lifar, Léonide Massine…) created a sort of homophile enclave in the arts that attracted gay collaborators and fans9. The « queerness » of the ballet added to its exoticism and heightened the frisson experienced by mainstream audiences. Contributing to the broad appeal of the spectacles, Diaghilev recruited fine artists to design costumes and sets. Cahun and Moore treasured the special issues of Comœdia Illustré that served as Ballets Russes souvenir programs. (They conserved these illustrated documents for the rest of their lives.) These documents contained sumptuous color plates of set designs and costume drawings. Also, the photography of performers, costumed and striking evocative poses, established a new photographic genre. Moore undoubtedly studied the costume designs and photographs ; she would master these genres.

Moore’s photographs of Cahun, staged at home during this period, are among the most theatrical of their œuvre. (Cahun often poses against a curtain-like backdrop, costumed, masked, and wearing stage makeup.) Apparently, Cahun and Moore found in theater not only a relative sanctuary from oppressive social norms but also a serviceable model for collaborative artistic experimentation.

Russian Immigré Alliances

During their first few years in Paris, they had several opportunities to pursue professional theatrical careers. These doors opened as they penetrated further into Russian immigré communities and cultivated relationships with dancers, actors, directors, and cineastes. The filmmaker Viktor Tourjansky invited Cahun (and perhaps, by association, Moore) to design the costume for his wife, the actress Nathalie Kovanko, star of his film La Dame masquée (1924). Moore created a portrait of the director Georges Pitoëff and the actress Ludmilla Pitoëff (his wife) performing leading roles in Liliom by Ferenc Molnár. She also portrayed Georges Pitoëff playing Hérode in Wilde’s Salomé. Pitoëff expressed interest in auditioning Cahun. The silent film actor Ivan Mosjoukine encouraged her to perform as well. Cahun feared that she was out of her depth, however, and backed away. « Ce qui me donnait ce trac était inavouable. Je prenais conscience de la nécessité d’être disponible n’importe quand et pour une période indéterminée10. » [I was unable to confess what frightened me. I became conscious of the necessity to make myself available at any time and for an unlimited period of time.] Aware of her « goûts de dilettante11 » [dilettante proclivities], she wanted to preserve the freedom to indulge her restless curiosity.

Union des Amis des Arts Ésotériques

That curiosity would lead Cahun and Moore from one scene to the next throughout the 1920s. They were drawn to a charismatic older woman who would reorient their cultural interests : the American expatriate author, actress, and initiate of Eastern religions, Grace Constant Lounsbery. A good twenty years older than Cahun and Moore, Lounsbery had created roles for such stars as Moreno, De Max, Sarah Bernhardt, and Georgette Leblanc. A translation of her stage adaptation of Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray, which had premiered at the Vaudeville Theatre London in 1913, played to a full house at the Comédie-Montaigne in Paris in 1923. With her international social connections, and a solid reputation in theatrical and literary establishments in Paris, London, and New York, Lounsbery further broadened the couple’s horizons of creative possibility and shifted the center of their social life.

Lounsbery, a practitioner and popularizer of Buddhist meditation, was founder of the Union des Amis des Arts Ésotériques. She convened Sunday salons at her hôtel particulier overlooking the Jardin du Luxembourg, a prestigious address she shared with Lottie Yorska (née Charlotte Stern), an American expatriate author and performer of Jewish Russian ancestry. Lounsbery’s salon attracted European « free spirits » who – looking to Eastern cultures and Russia (Europe’s « domestic Orient ») – sought alternatives to the dominant values of Western industrial capitalism. Lounsbery advocated what she called « free spiritual research » as an alternative for those « discouraged by the failure of materialism and the burden of imposed dogmas12 ». A « vieille et charmante chapelle13 » on Lounsbery’s property served as a private theater where she hosted soirées of music and poetry, and produced obscure theater pieces. Moore contributed drawings to the playbill for one performance. (It was printed in Nantes by the commercial press Maurice Schwob owned14.) Cahun and Moore – having a longstanding interest in symbolist literature, trends in dance, mysticism, Buddhism, yoga, meditation, and total-art initiatives – would have felt quite at home in the environment Lounsbery created, a veritable rendez-vous for artists of every discipline with a penchant for the metaphysical. They were certainly stimulated by the convergence of music, poetry, and dance performed chez Lounsbery, and the exposure emboldened Cahun to overcome her inhibitions and appear in public performances. Photographs (taken by Moore) picture her posing as Buddha in Lounsbery’s chapel-theater at 12, rue Guynemer.

Théâtre Ésotérique

Lounsbery also introduced Cahun and Moore to the Société Théosophique, at 4 square Rapp. Theosophists, by reading a broad range of mystical teachings and the « Key to Theosophy » provided by the cult’s founder, the nineteenth-century Russian mystic and psychic, Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, sought « divine wisdom » through study and philanthropic acts that affirmed the doctrine of « brotherhood15 ». The Theosophist center housed a library devoted to mysticism and occult practices, a vegetarian restaurant, and a small theater, la Salle Adyar (named after the site of the Centre International de la Théosophie founded by Blavatsky in Adyar, India). The theater was available to society members who wished to organize cultural events. It was home, most notably, to the Théâtre Ésotérique, a company founded by actor-playwright-directors Berthe D’Yd and Paul Castan.

The Théâtre Ésotérique specialized in the interpretation of symbolist and Orientalist works for the stage and Lounsbery’s plays figured prominently in their repertoire. Their first season, in 1924, opened with Lounsbery’s play, Le Sage. A journalist invited to a dress rehearsal on 29 December 1923 described the piece as « un tableau dramatique qui fait songer par sa couleur précieuse et raffinée à la Salomé d’Oscar Wilde » [a dramatic tableau that makes one dream by its precious and refined ambiance of Oscar Wilde’s Salomé]. D’Yd explained the theater’s overarching philosophy, « Le mot ésotérique est employé ici dans le sens le plus large. Nous allons vers le symbolisme, la vision transfigurée et embellie de l’existence16 ». [The term esoteric as we employ it has the broadest possible meaning. We are drawn to symbolism, a vision of existence transfigured and aestheticized.] Under the wing of Lounsbery, Cahun and Moore participated vigorously in the life of the Théâtre Ésotérique from 1925 to 1928 and deepened relationships with other members of the playwright’s close circle.

Cahun played a minor role, « Une Femme », in the Théâtre Ésotérique revival of Lounsbery’s play Judith in the spring of 192717. Moore created the décor for Judith. Lounsbery praised Moore’s work to a journalist from Comœdia, describing the décor as « particulièrement soigné18 ». Although no visual documentation of the sets and costumes has survived, Moore’s promotional materials enable us to imagine the ambiance she created. One black-and-white graphic pictures Judith, clutching a sword to the dark folds of her cloak, eyes locked to those of the viewer in a ferocious stare. The diminutive figure of Judith stands out against a towering Holofernes, who appears only dimly aware of her presence. His attention is focused elsewhere, on some authoritative proclamation.


Critics were not as enthusiastic about Lounsbery’s play, whose inspiration they found outdated. They also generally agreed that the play lacked dramatic structure. However, in addition to Moore’s décor, there was one other redeeming quality they recognized : the dancer Nadja, although she performed in a relatively minor role, nevertheless held the stage. Nadja had already attracted attention with her interpretations of Lounsbery’s « Poèmes vécus » in private performances at 12, rue Guynemer. Nadja’s performances completely captivated Moore and Cahun, who passionately followed her career for several years. A close and enduring friendship allied the three women for the rest of their lives. Moore created a series of fliers, postcards, and posters for Nadja, distilling the dancer’s serpentine movements into expressive frieze-like poses.

This is unquestionably some of Moore’s best graphic work, as the American journalist Golda M. Goldman, writing for the Chicago Tribune in 1929, affirmed. In her « Who’s Who Abroad » column, Goldman ranked Moore’s contribution to the development of this graphic genre high.

In order to appreciate to what extremely decorative lengths the art of poster design can be carried one must study a group of pictures by the young French woman who signs her work simply « Moore ». To call such work « poster work » is almost a misnomer, for in it Mlle. Moore shows a capacity for portraiture, a mastery of line both delicate and strong, a great pictorial effectiveness19.

She somewhat dismissively describes Moore’s striking black-and-white illustrations for Cahun’s 1919 book Vues et visions as « clever », insisting that Moore only realized her « real capacity for ingenious and individual creation20 » after moving to Paris in the early 1920s. Goldman singled out Moore’s « group of paintings of Nadja, the Oriental dancer21 », portraits of Ballets Russes performers and striking images of Edouard de Max as the boldest examples.

Moore’s exquisite promotional materials undoubtedly enhanced Nadja’s standing at the forefront of the aesthetic dance movement. Dancing in ensemble pieces as well as solo performances set to music or poetry, the artist synthesized developments in the arena of modern dance, drawing on gestural vocabularies codified by interpreters of Salomé (Alla Nazimova, Maud Allan, Ida Rubinstein), pioneers of « natural dance » (Isadora Duncan) and « absolute dance » or Ausdruckstanz (Mary Wigman). Between 1929 and 1931, as her star continued to rise, Nadja published two volumes of poetry (Episodes and More Episodes) and a book laying out her theories on dance (Rhythm for Humanity). All three were written in English but published in Paris and sold at English-language bookstores – Sylvia Beach’s Shakespeare and Company, for one. Building on her reputation, she opened the Nadja Bureau, a non-profit agency for young American girls aspiring to careers in dance. This mentorship « mission », which expanded her influence in the world of dance, earned her the status of Officier, Ordre des Palmes Académiques, for her contribution to Franco-American cultural exchange. The charity also aligned with her Theosophist spiritual practice of cultivating brotherhood (or in this case, sisterhood). During these years, career engagements abroad distanced her from the Theosophist Society headquarters. As for Lounsbery, her escalating engagement with Buddhism occupied most of her time and attention and she, too, disappeared from the scene she had helped to create at 4 square Rapp.

Le Plateau

It was an entirely different scene, an avant-garde scene, that Cahun and Moore discovered in their absence. It was almost certainly at the Salle Adyar that Cahun and Moore met Pierre Albert-Birot, another of the Theosophist Society’s members. Albert-Birot was an accomplished poet, typographer, editor of the journal Sic, and playwright whose pieces for puppet theatre contributed to an important area of avant-garde experimentation. His desire to implement new theatrical forms eventually led him to found his own company, Le Plateau22. Albert-Birot had envisioned mounting a production in the Salle Adyar theatre in 1926, but for reasons that remain mysterious, the event never took place. Perhaps the Orientalist ethos that predominated at the cultural center did not accommodate his artistic vision23. After one or two other false starts – he tried and failed to launch a marionette theater, La Tête en Bois, in the back room of a Montparnasse brasserie – Albert-Birot’s Le Plateau finally made its debut in 1929 at Les Pinsons, 99, rue Saint-Dominique. This undertaking fully enmeshed Cahun and Moore from March 1929 to June 1929 (the full life-span of the company).

Albert-Birot dreamed of staging performances for life-sized body puppets. However, his giant puppet prototypes for the play Barbe Bleue disintegrated in their first minutes on stage24. Resigned to working with human actors, he urged his players to subordinate their egos and perform as if they were living marionettes. Following Alfred Jarry and E.G. Craig, Albert-Birot imagined « un acteur en carton… qui ne soit pas un homme. Celui-ci seulement sera magnifiquement humain. Celui-ci ne jouera pas un rôle, il sera le personnage25 » [a cardboard actor… who is not a man. Only this performer will be magnificently human. He won’t play a role, he will be the character]. Albert-Birot recruited Cahun on « l’intuition qu’elle serait une bonne comédienne26 » [on the intuition that she would be a good actor]. Cahun, who had no formal training on stage, had no theatrical affectations to unlearn, and, in the eyes of Albert-Birot, this gave her an enormous advantage.

Moore photographically documented several Le Plateau productions, including the three plays (Barbe Bleue, Banlieue, and Les Mystères d’Adam) in which Cahun performed. Cahun’s body language as she poses for photographs in her Barbe Bleue costume conveys something of the exacting marionette-like choreography that characterized Albert-Birot productions. One reviewer compared the performers to trapeze artists, who prepare « une pièce avec une précision aussi intransigeante que des acrobates préparant l’exercice le plus dangereux, une erreur de rythme, une erreur de distance, et on se casse les reins27 » [a play with the exacting precision of acrobats preparing for the most dangerous of feats, one error of timing, one error of space, would be deadly]. Another critic mocked Albert-Birot’s perfectionism : « Mademoiselle Cahun, votre main levée est dix centimètres trop haut ! Stop !28 » [Mademoiselle Cahun, your raised hand is ten centimeters to high ! Stop !] This clockwork precision would have been all the more challenging given that the stage was constructed at a slant, tilting towards the audience. This structural innovation rendered everything on stage starkly visible, from the orchestra seats as well as the balcony. At the same time, the tilt disoriented the architectural reference points that anchor the imaginary fourth wall of naturalist theater, which separates the actors on stage from the audience – and the real world beyond the theater.

Breaking the Fourth Wall

Albert-Birot’s efforts to break down the fourth wall and expose cultural constructions of the « natural » to critical scrutiny struck a deep chord with Moore and Cahun. When the director declared, « Nous dénonçons le réalisme parce que celui que l’on nous propose est faux29 » [We challenge realism because the realism we are given is false], the « we » included Cahun and Moore. However, this position, and its articulation on stage by Albert-Birot’s troupe, were not embraced by the theater-going public. Some evenings the cast performed before an audience of only one or two people. Nevertheless, when Le Plateau disbanded after its first and only season, Cahun pronounced herself « … heureuse d’avoir été l’une de ses créatures et d’avoir pu lui plaire sous un masque de fard plus beau que notre peau trop humaine30… » [Happy to have been one of his creatures and, under a mask of makeup more beautiful than our too human skin, to have been able to please him…] Cahun and Moore shared Albert-Birot’s commitment to embodied forms of artistic experimentation and cultural dissidence – as did, for that matter, De Max, the Ballets Russes, Lounsbery, Nadja, and the Théâtre Ésotérique, despite significant divergences in style and inspiration. After the curtain had fallen on the theatrical careers of Cahun (on stage) and Moore (behind the scenes), what they learned about the political necessity of performing alternatives to « reality » continued to serve them well. Theater, if not the principal site of Cahun and Moore’s creative engagement, provided a vital paradigm of artistic alliance and collaborative social critique. The tactics of resistance to « the real » they carried forward from theater for deployment in subsequent arenas (surrealism in the 1930s, military invasion and occupation in the 1940s) earned the admiration of their avant-garde peers and continue to inspire creative practitioners today.

Tirza True Latimer
California College of the Arts, San Francisco

Pour citer cette page

Tirza True Latimer, « Aesthetic Allegiances : Marcel Moore and Claude Cahun », dans Héritages partagés de Claude Cahun et Marcel Moore, du XIXe au XXIe siècles. Symbolisme, modernisme, surréalisme, postérité contemporaine, <> (Page consultée le 12 juillet 2024).