We live in a world where Caitlyn (formerly Bruce) Jenner has been named Woman of the Year and terms like 'gender neutral' and 'trans' have made their way into dinner table conversation. When the famous Patsy from hit television series Absolutely Fabulous comes out as transgender, nobody really bats an eyelid, sweetie darling.
Discussions about the nature of gender and identity have been bubbling away throughout history, and our perceptions change from age to age. In the National Gallery in London, you can find a portrait of the Chevalier d’Eon, a French transvestite diplomat and soldier who was happily accepted as a woman in 18th Century Britain and eventually gained a celebrity-like status.
To me, the portrait pre-empts and somehow even resembles the Turner Prize-winning transvestite potter Grayson Perry, whose life and work make us question notions of gender. Another artist to break these taboos is Claude Cahun – born Lucy Schwob in Nantes, France in 1894 – so often overlooked, but so forward in her thinking. Her artwork challenged gender roles in a society where these were rigidly enforced. A transgender Jewish lesbian (she and her stepsister were lovers) and anti-fascist artist, she sounds like a headline from the Daily Mail. In the 1920s and ‘30s, Cahun created a series of theatrical self-portraits that David Bowie later described as “really quite mad, in the nicest possible way”. She seems about 100 years ahead of her time – which is maybe why you’ve never heard of her.
Shuffle the cards. Masculine? Feminine? It depends on the situation – Claude Cahun
Cahun described herself as ‘neuter’, putting herself outside the usual categories of gender. Her adopted name helped: Claude is one of the few names in French that can be used for women and men with the same spelling and pronunciation. But Cahun is often considered through a transgender lens, as a biologically born woman who portrayed and embodied the tropes of conventional masculinity. In her autobiography, Disavowals, she wrote: “Shuffle the cards. Masculine? Feminine? It depends on the situation. Neuter is the only gender that always suits me.” Even though she was adamant about eschewing labels and categories, it is difficult to separate her life from her art, which was so centred around the idea of identity.
Cahun was part of the Surrealist set, known for their forward-thinking and norm-bending tendencies. When we think of Surrealism we think of Dalí and his melted clocks, dripping over landscapes like softening ice cream, the eerily illogical images of Magritte and the drug-induced scribbly forms of André Masson's automatism. But Cahun explored the complexities of our human selves through sensual self-portraits in a variety of costumes – from testosterone-filled weightlifter to bashful Red Riding Hood. Her adopted personas prefigure the work of Cindy Sherman, but the artist of her own time she most resembled was Marcel Duchamp, who created an alter-ego ‘Rrose Selavy’ to pose for Man Ray in a smoky photograph in which he looks like a siren of the silver screen.
In her Self Portrait from around 1920, Cahun with shaved head and near-death gauntness, is angled to look frail and ill, like a premonition of an Auschwitz survivor. She gazes ahead with furious lips, and not at the viewer, so as not to be consumed as the object. She is not gendered and she is definitely not sexed.
Then there's the iconic photograph of Cahun, taken in 1928, in which she is swathed in a cape befitting Philip the Bold but curiously decorated with masks. It is a theatrical reminder that identity is a construct, a mask we wear. “Under this mask, another mask,” Cahun wrote. We could even think of her work as a comment on race, as she frequently inverts colours and plays with contrast in one photograph. With her head shaved, holding her collar as if to hide from our gaze, seemingly tanned or edited to seem so, with her image duplicated by the mirror next to her – reinforcing the duality or multiplicity of identity, and the roles we play.
Though Cahun's photography focuses on herself, there's more to the picture. Cahun was not the solitary genius we often imagine an artist to be. She experimented with identity, gender and the body in her work from a young age, but who pressed the button on the camera to create these puzzling snapshots? Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore were stepsisters and lovers, and they collaborated to create art. They met as girls but by the time their parents had tied the knot they were already in love. Throughout the ‘20s they moved in Surrealist circles in Paris, and in 1937 they moved together to Jersey, off the coast of Normandy. When the island was invaded by German troops in 1940, they contributed to the Resistance, creating and distributing anti-Nazi propaganda which they distributed in disguise. The two women were caught, imprisoned and sentenced to death, but spared when the Allies liberated Jersey in 1945.
Claude Cahun would have been the perfect artist for our times
Cahun’s life and work are incredible – so why is she so little known? Perhaps it is because her inner thoughts and her world are a mystery to us, especially now time has passed. Like anyone, we only know her exterior shell – her outer self – and even then she is playing peekaboo with the camera. For a story to make waves and reach the distance we must be able to relate to it. In the recent past, this wasn’t so. But at a time when Miley Cyrus shouts from the rooftops about being gender-neutral, and when television series' such as Orange is the New Black welcome transgender characters into their billings, perhaps this is that moment. Claude Cahun would have been the perfect artist for our times. She shook the foundations and helped – alongside many other figures throughout history – sow the seed for the idea to challenge the binaries of gender.
Claude Cahun was championing the idea of gender fluidity way before the hashtags of today. Cahun was exploring her identity, not defining it. Scholars and historians move freely between gender pronouns in their writings about the artist and even in current times we're still figuring it out – exploring still.
Perhaps, instead of thinking of Cahun as a transgender icon, we should think of Cahun as an alchemist: full of discovery, forever changing.
This story is part of our Sexual Revolutions series on our evolving understanding of sex and gender.
If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Culture, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.
And if you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter, called “If You Only Read 6 Things This Week”. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Earth, Culture, Capital, Travel and Autos, delivered to your inbox every Friday.