A soldier without a name

June 24, 2010


Mightier than the sword – photograph by Liz Mathews ( detail from her artist’s book ‘Boon, blessing’, text FB)

In the ‘Identity’ exhibition at the Wellcome Collection recently, one of the identities on display was Claude Cahun, the surrealist photographer whose self-portraits express gender ambiguity, masks and disguises, performative selves and personal mythologies, like a demented lesbian Cecil Beaton crossed with Cocteau. Cahun and her partner Marcel Moore were good examples of self-invention, (if not mythomania), and also – in an exhibition probing the sources of creativity – of artists who made their lives into their art. Cahun’s life and work has been rediscovered, and her association with the surrealist groups in Paris during the 1920’s and 30’s acknowledged in various exhibitions, but this one also showed some of the work she and Moore made during the Occupation of the Channel Islands, as warriors of art.

The work of the surrealists was condemned as decadent by the Nazis, so the women’s previous work wouldn’t have endeared them to the occupying forces, any more than their sexuality and Jewish backgrounds. But rather than keep a low profile, they embarked on a personal resistance campaign against the Nazis. Although possession of a camera was punishable by death, they took clandestine photographs of the occupation in action, and also spread anti-war propaganda among the German soldiers. (Their acts of resistance are detailed in Barbara Hammer’s film about Cahun, Lover Other, which shows some of the forbidden photographs of Nazi soldiery on parade on the beach outside Cahun’s house, or on the streets of the once-British island.)

When they were eventually caught, both women were condemned to death and six years in prison, for the propaganda and the photography. On hearing the sentence Cahun asked which would come first, the execution or the jail term? The severity of the sentence, and the deadly seriousness of the prosecution, gives an idea of propaganda on a large scale; sabotage of morale by means of printed leaflets, subversive photographs, a big security breach.

Instead, the exhibition cabinets displayed little scraps of paper, offcuts almost, shakily inscribed with faint pencil-words; lines from Goethe or Schiller about peace and universal love. There were one or two more conventional ‘our leaders have betrayed us’ type messages from ‘a soldier without a name’, a few child-like cartoons of war or quotes from the BBC, but most of the documents were just little snippets of German poetry. These flimsy, improvised statements of resistance seemed intensely moving, within the context, rather like being condemned to death for doodling a peace symbol on the back of an old envelope. What courage, yet at the same time what a tiny gesture!

Cahun and Moore didn’t die for their acts; they spent the remainder of the war in prison under sentence of death, but the liberation came in time to save them from execution. After the war, they continued to work with photographs, making some strange images to mark their private victory, such as Cahun celebrating over Nazi war graves. These later images, as well as the subversive surrealist fantasias, are a reminder of why totalitarian regimes always fear art, just as they fear laughter.

The death sentence was a kind of recognition of the unquantifiable results that a scrap of poetry might have on a free mind, of the way in which even the idea of a dissident soldier without a name might work on the imagination of the others. It seems that the act of defiance hadn’t been so small after all, that far from being an over-reaction death was the only possible way to silence these artists who were naive enough to believe that the pen was mightier than the sword, and might change everything.

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