Claude Cahun: Surviving Incarceration

The fragmented writings of Claude Cahun, writer and artist, from her time in prison awaiting execution during the Nazi occupation of Jersey, provide a chilling insight into the starvation, the freezing cells, the cuts to the body from the sharp straw stuffing of the mattress and the emotional turmoil resulting from fellow prisoners regularly disappearing to be executed.  Many of the episodes she recalls have elements of dark humour, particularly those which allude to the ridiculous logic of the authoritarian power where rules must be followed and reflection or an alternative point of view is forbidden.  When sentenced to six months for possessing a camera, and death by execution for treason, she responded by asking “which sentence must be served first (execution or six months)?”  The irony went unnoticed by the German lawyers, who responded with a factual, legal response.  As if drawing attention to the two cultures at play, through characterisation and narrative she achieves a neat juxtaposition between the ironic farcical attitude of the condemned prisoner and the ideologically driven process of the Nazis, oblivious to her mockery.

Deprived of her camera, her writing in prison assumes a cinematic quality, as if the prison environment is the set and she is directing the camera and the  cast.  A Russian work camp deserter is caught and brought to the prison. He looks like Gary Cooper in “Mr Deeds” , like an “American Aviator”, the “costume in rags”.[1] She fancies him (or is perhaps thinking of herself in a 1927 self-portrait, Beaux Arts, Nantes, cross-dressed as an aviator with camera lens goggles and wearing lipstick).

cahun aviator 1927 235 180 Beaux Arts Nantes

While other work camp deserters are long term imprisoned, “Gary Cooper”  is executed immediately. Cahun seems to ridiculously imply that he is executed because of his film star good looks and as a punishment for her desire for him.

She recounts her horror at the screams of a prisoner who has deliberately eaten rusty nails in a desperate attempt to delay his trial.  The Nazi authorities show no mercy and despite his agony, his trial proceeds and he is executed.  Cahun records her incomprehension at such optimistic yet astonishing self-mutilation.


She and her incarcerated partner, Suzanne Malherbe, (also known as Marcel Moore), would meet by the prison well in front of a horizontal wall at the end of a corridor.  They would continue their creative collaborative practice  by conjuring up  the set of a “Utrillo Ballet” (designed for the Ballet Russe). They imagine that the ballet is taking place not in a Nazi detention camp, but in “paradise, the Champs Elysee Theatre in Paris”[2]. The prisoners, with skin and rags… dusting the iron bars in the yard, watched carefully by the motionless, quiet, ornamental guard, Otto, crammed into his shorts, with his face like a “small apple”, ruminating the “work for works sake” of authoritarianism.


Utrillo, M. 1925, Design from the Ballet, “Barabau”

Cahun writes, “No date, it was a premiere! I was humming away at the good adventure looking for the musician. But the decorator’s name, no doubt it. [Utrillo]  Suzanne and I pronounced it without consulting the programme”[3]

While the imagination and circumstances failed to provide this entertainment every day, Cahun fixated on the prison wall. “The programme was not distributed every day but every day we had the wall,…[ the] incontestable low relief sculpture, the sad daylight…lent solidarity to my dreams.  That is the magical for us, these familiar horizons” which provided confidence and optimism that in the future the horizon would be “a blade of grass or into cat’s eyes. “[4]


Utrillo, M. 1911, Le café de la Tourelle à Montmartre

Gloucester Street prison, St Helier 111-f129a046ca

Sanders, P., @ 1944, Gloucester Road Prison, Jersey, Unknown photographer

Cahun’s extraordinary sense of plane and perspective, which in her photographs is used to create instability and intrigue, condenses the prison corridors and prison walls into a stage on which the prisoners and guards dance. The prison’s empty architecture and the palette of dust, rags and stone evoke the street paintings of Utrillo and the Boiffard photographs of desolate scenes in Nadja, by the founder of Surrealism, Andre Breton.

Boiffard Paris Nadja We are going to be servied outside the wine shop

Boiffard, J.A., 1928, Nadja, We went to be served outside the wine shop

While any artist deprived of materials and tools and incarcerated in austere circumstances might indulge in imaginative play and black humour in an effort to survive in an environment they cannot control, Cahun’s particular distortions of the visual plane and perspective alongside her insistence on conjuring up theatrical stages from the landscape, buildings or backdrops, is a consistent practice which interrogates the blurring of reality with artifice and contributes to the indeterminacy of her work.


[1] Cahun, C, 1944, Prison writings on toilet paper, Jersey Heritage Trust,  JHT/1995/00045/2/4, n.p.

[2] Cahun, C.,1944, opcit, n.p.

[3] ibid, n.p.

[4] ibid, n.p.

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