Saturday, September 17, 2016

Surrealist Sisters: Artistic Resistance to Nazi Occupation

by Mark Patton

In an earlier blog-post, I introduced the topic of the German Occupation of the Channel Islands during the Second World War. Jersey, Guernsey, Alderney, Sark and Herm were the only parts of the British Isles to fall under Nazi control. Armed resistance of the sort that took place in the occupied territories of France, Belgium, and the Netherlands was really not possible on such small islands, but the residents, both native Channel Islanders and a handful of immigrants, did what they could to undermine the occupying forces and their morale. By the time the Germans arrived in 1940, most men of military age had already joined the British forces, and all but a handful of the islands' Jewish population had taken refuge on the UK mainland.

The artists, Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore, were not native islanders but Frenchwomen, and they were also Jewish. Cahun had been born Lucy Schwob; Moore as Suzanne Malherbe; they met as teenagers, became a lesbian couple, and adopted deliberately gender-ambiguous names. Their families, both from Nantes, knew each other well, and, when Cahun's father married Moore's widowed mother, they became, technically, step-sisters.

Claude Cahun, by Marcel Moore, Jersey Heritage Collections
(reproduced under fair usage protocols).

Marcel Moore, by Claude Cahun,
Jersey Heritage Collections
(reproduced under fair usage protocols). 

Before the outbreak of war, Cahun and Moore had lived in Paris, where they collaborated in the creation of art-works that combined photography, poetry and performance. Instinctively attracted to the Surrealist movement, they struggled against the misogyny and homophobia of many of its leading members, but participated in the International Surrealist Exhibition at London's New Burlington Gallery in 1936. They were also actively involved in Contre-Attaque, a group of artists and intellectuals protesting against the rise of Hitler, and the spread of fascism in France.

Flyer for the International Surrealist Exhibition (image is in the Public Domain). Organisers included Henry Moore, Paul Nash, Andre Breton and Man Ray. "Happenings" occurred all across London: Salvador Dali donned a diving suit to give a lecture, almost suffocated, and had to be rescued by the poet, David Gascoyne, who used a spanner to remove the helmet. 

In 1937, Cahun and Moore moved to Jersey, where they had enjoyed family holidays in their youth, buying a property in Saint Brelade's Bay, close to the hotel in which they had previously stayed. As war loomed, they made the brave and surprising decision, despite their Jewish ethnicity and their sexuality, to remain on the island.

Saint Brelade's Bay, Jersey. Photo: Snapshots of the past (licensed under CCA).
This is a pre-war postcard: the Germans later built a concrete tank-proof wall,
and a series of fortifications, along the top of the beach.

Bob Le Sueur, a native islander who taught me at secondary school, and who, as a young man on the island, helped to hide Russian and Spanish slave-workers escaping from the Nazis, said of the two women: "They lived as art ... everyone knew they were Jewish, but nobody turned them in." He described watching from a distance as they walked a cat on a leash along the beach, the creature squealing as the waves swept closer.

In the final year of the war, with the islands cut off from the continent, and both the German garrison and the local population on the brink of starvation, they embarked on a programme of active, but non-violent, resistance: producing leaflets and distributing them to German troops. The leaflets included excerpts from BBC broadcasts, and encouraged troops to mutiny. Karen LeRoy Harris, who curated a recent exhibition of Cahun's work in London, wrote:

"Moore spoke fluent German, a secret kept from the Nazis. The leaflets were written as if by a German officer, and signed 'The soldier without a name.' They distributed the notes themselves, on buses, in soldiers' pockets, in staff-cars ..."

In October, 1944, they were arrested and sentenced to death, but the sentence was never carried out: by this stage it was obvious that Germany was losing the war; and senior officers, fearful of prosecution as war criminals, did not want to be caught with the blood of civilians on their hands. They spent the remaining months of the war in prison, and were liberated by British troops on the 9th of May, 1945. Cahun died in 1954, her health, many believe, broken by her treatment in prison. Moore committed suicide in 1972. They are buried together in Saint Brelade's Churchyard, close to where they lived.

The grave of Lucy Schwob and Suzanne Malherbe at Saint Brelade.
Photo: Man Vyi (image is in the Public Domain).

In the aftermath of the war, Cahun's and Moore's artistic works were largely forgotten. All this changed when, in the early 1990s, a local collector on Jersey showed some of their works to my then colleague, and Curator of Art at the Jersey Museum, Lucy Marder. She organised a major exhibition: "Surrealist Sisters - An Extraordinary Story of Art and Politics;" and the museum went on to acquire a substantial body of their work, which has formed the basis of subsequent exhibitions in the UK, France, and the USA.

The cover of a book by Louise Downie (Lucy Marder's successor as Curator of Art at the Jersey Museum).
Most works by Claude Cahun will remain in copyright until 2024:
a Google search will reveal many of them, but they may not be reproduced.

In 2007, Claude Cahun received this tribute from David Bowie, who exhibited reproductions of some of her works in the United States:

"You could call her transgressive, or you could call her a cross dressing Man Ray with surrealist tendencies. I find this work really quite mad, in the nicest way. Outside of France, and now the UK, she has not had the kind of recognition that, as a founding follower, friend and worker of the original surrealist movement, she surely deserves."

Mark Patton blogs regularly on aspects of history and historical fiction at His novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King, and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon. He is currently working on The Cheapside Tales, a London-based trilogy of historical novels.


  1. Excellent article, as always! Such brave, strong women and on so many levels.

  2. What an interesting footnote to the 'great events' of 1939-45; such courageous women who lived their art.


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