Jennifer L. Shaw, Exist Otherwise: The Life and Works of Claude Cahun
In her 1930 masterpiece Disavowals: or Cancelled Confessions (French title: Aveux non avenus), Claude Cahun offers her reader the following provocation: “Only with the very tip would I wish to sew, sting, kill. … Only ever travel in the prow of myself.” As in the poses she takes in her photomontage self-portraits that illustrate the book’s surrealist text, Cahun stares down her readers in this passage, daring them to follow her on this journey fraught with surprise and danger. Jennifer L. Shaw takes up this challenge in Exist Otherwise: The Life and Works of Claude Cahun, the first book-length critical biography of the artist in English, a richly illustrated volume appended with translations of lesser-known texts by Cahun.
The artist who would become Claude Cahun, a Surrealist co-traveler with other artists and writers, such as Henri Michaux, Robert Desnos, René Crevel, and André Breton, was born Lucy Renée Mathilde Schwob in Nantes in 1894. She grew up in a family with an illustrious literary history: Her Jewish father was the inheritor of the prominent newspaper Le Phare de la Loire, and her uncle was the well-known Symbolist writer Marcel Schwob. Equally important to her development was the political turmoil of the time: in December of the year of her birth, Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish member of the French military, was unfairly convicted of treason, framed for colluding with the German government. The Dreyfus Affair divided French society for the next decade, triggering a period of increased anti-Semitism in France that so aggravated Cahun’s experiences at school that her parents sent her to England to escape.
There were other problems closer to home that made escape attractive: Cahun was particularly uncomfortable with the gender norms that defined French girlhood, and her mother, Mary-Antoinette, whom she called Toinette, suffered from mental illness. Eventually, her mother retreated to a psychiatric clinic in Paris, and Cahun had little contact with her again before her death around 1930. The separation of her parents, however, brought her closer to her most intimate friend from adolescence, artist Suzanne Malherbe, who would eventually take on the name Marcel Moore. Between 1909 and 1917 the two became increasingly close, and eventually lovers, before Cahun’s father and Moore’s widowed mother wed in 1917, making the two stepsisters and sealing their partnership in art and life. Cahun moved to Paris in 1918, settling on her famous pseudonym by the following year. Moore joined her in the capital in 1920, where they participated in experimental theatre and produced work in poetry, prose, and photography.
Though the degree to which Moore collaborated with Cahun on specific texts and photographs is in many instances unknown, scholars increasingly discuss the two as a collaborative duo. Tirza True Latimer uses the theater-inflected metaphor of “co-production” to understand the relationship of Cahun and Moore to their artwork. The exhibition catalogue Don’t Kiss Me: The Art of Claude Cahun & Marcel Moore (Jersey Heritage Trust/Tate Publishing/Aperture, 2006), edited by Louise Downie and including an essay by Shaw, makes the strongest case for the inseparability of Cahun and Moore as an artistic duo. Exist Otherwise, while including Moore as a vital character in Cahun’s life and work, tempers the emphasis placed on the pair’s collaboration by remaining focused on Cahun as the privileged artistic and biographical subject, attesting to the singularity of Cahun’s image and literary voice.
Shaw draws out the themes of gender, sexuality, and political engagement that marked Cahun’s life and work. Much of her research here is indebted to François Leperlier, an art historian who rescued Cahun’s reputation from obscurity in the early 1990s; his 2006 French-language biography of Cahun informs a great deal of Shaw’s narrative, and letters written by Cahun to her friends which Shaw mines for their details about Cahun’s life originally appeared in Écrits, a magisterial 2002 collection of Cahun’s writing edited by Leperlier. Many of the previously untranslated Cahun texts that Shaw includes in an appendix also were collected in Écrits. In one of the texts newly translated for this biography, Cahun writes, “my opinion on homosexuality and homosexuals is exactly the same as my opinion on heterosexuality and heterosexuals.… I call for the general freedom of morals.” Cahun was responding here to a survey sent to a range of literary and cultural figures after the French government’s banning of the homosexual journal Inversions in 1925. Cahun—who moved with Moore in prominent lesbian social circles in Paris (with friends including Adrienne Monnier and Sylvia Beach, and with invitations to Gertrude Stein’s salon) and idolized the work of many gay writers (including Oscar Wilde, André Gide, and her uncle, Marcel)—found a particular affront in any efforts to restrict individual liberty. This devotion to a sense of individual liberty not only translated into Cahun’s defense of homosexual or queer life, but also into a fierce anti-nationalist and anti-imperial worldview sensitive to the effects of anti-Semitism and racism. “Cahun was not ideological, dogmatic or fanatic about anything other than basic human decency and freedom of expression in both the personal and artistic realms,” Shaw writes.
In 1930s Paris, with fascism on the rise across Europe, Cahun’s twin moral and political guideposts of human decency and freedom of expression led her not only to direct collaboration with the Surrealists but also to participation in the leftist political groups that the Surrealists started and populated. Cahun and Moore together signed manifestos by the Association des écrivains et artistes révolutionnaires (AEAR) and Contre-Attaque, founded in 1935 by Georges Bataille in opposition to capitalism, nationalism, and the bourgeoisie and in favor of sexual liberation. A 1934 pamphlet by Cahun, The Bets Are Open (Les Paris sont ouverts), carved out a political use for her poetry and art, in a description of what she called the “indirect action” of poetry, while also hewing to her sense of intellectual and artistic individuality. “Her writings,” Shaw describes, “are not so much taking sides with someone in particular as working against stated positions, while attempting to make a space for poetry and art that could challenge its audience—asking readers to question without asking them to agree.” For art to catalyze social change, in other words, Cahun believed that the work should offer opposition to received ideas of the social and artistic status quo and inspire action without telling audiences what to think or do.
In 1937, Cahun and Moore left Paris for Jersey, in the Channel Islands, where they had spent family vacations as children. Cahun’s health was fragile throughout her life, and the move offered the opportunity to escape the increasingly dangerous political situation in France, as Cahun became ever more convinced that war with Hitler’s Germany was inevitable. Cahun and Moore continued to produce photographs in Jersey, often posing in their estate’s garden overlooking the sea. Friends came to visit, including Breton’s wife Jacqueline Lamba, his daughter Aube, and Michaux. But the Nazi invasion of the island in 1940 cut the two off from their ties to the continent and brought them back to direct political engagement.
Determined to fight the Occupation, Cahun and Moore devised a collaborative German persona, whom they named the Soldat ohne Namen, or “soldier without a name.” Dressed as country gentlewomen so as not to rouse suspicion, they distributed around the island anti-Nazi propaganda written in German by Moore and signed by their unnamed soldier. The tracts included fake news reports or news reports that had been blocked by newspaper censors, imagined anti-war confessions by dismayed soldiers, and invitations to clandestine meetings in difficult-to-reach locations along the rocky coast. One of the few surviving tracts includes a drawing of a sailor waving madly from a sinking Nazi vessel, named “Das Reich,” while sharp-toothed sea creatures await the sailor in the waves; the accompanying text is a modified version of Heinrich Heine’s famous poem, “The Lorelei,” about a siren who lures sailors to their doom. Worsening conditions on the island as Hitler’s defeat approached compounded Cahun and Moore’s efforts to chip away at the morale of the occupying army. By the time of their capture in 1944, the Nazi authorities were incredulous that two old women could have pulled off such an extensive operation on their own, and once imprisoned, Cahun and Moore met German soldiers who recounted finding the propaganda tracts they had left in packs of cigarettes, newspapers, and magazines, or on windshields. The two were condemned to death but survived, despite several of their own prison suicide attempts, until the liberation of the island on May 9, 1945. Cahun died on Jersey in 1954, and Moore ended her own life on the island after a period of declining health in 1972.
Shaw’s final chapter, on their lives in Jersey, reads with the kind of excited intrigue one may expect from tales of anti-Nazi resistance and heroism. For Shaw, their actions were a type of performance art, enacted through poetic tracts and interventions, like installing fake grave markers in a section of the cemetery used to bury German soldiers. As Shaw notes, Cahun and Moore kept careful documentation of their activities in a journal, aware of the import of their sabotage to history.
These acts of resistance also privilege collaboration. As Shaw describes the collaborative impulse in Disavowals, “Here the photograph is a ‘magic mirror’. It does not straightforwardly reflect the self like a mirror. Instead, it suggests a different kind of portrait, an image in which self is dissolved and ‘the exchange, the superimposition, the fusion of desires’ can be imagined.’ For Cahun, the partner in this exchange was always Moore. A diptych of recent films by British filmmaker Sarah Pucill, Magic Mirror (2013) and Confessions to the Mirror (2016), restages Cahun and Moore’s portraits and photomontages with voiceover narration taken from Cahun’s texts. The films suggest the power of Cahun and Moore’s work to inspire collaboration with future generations of artists and audiences, just as their lives culminated in a collaborative persona meant to speak to the everyman soldier of the German infantry—an everyman soldier whom Cahun imagined, in her compassion and sympathy for human decency, as another victim of Hitler’s Nazism, and thus susceptible to the Soldat ohne Namen’s artful persuasion to resist.
PHILLIP GRIFFITH is a writer, editor, and scholar living in New York City.