Exist Otherwise: The Life and Works of Claude Cahun By Jennifer L. Shaw
London: Reaktion Books, 2017, 256p., 100 color plates, 80 halftones, $45.00, hardcover
Reviewed by Irene Gammel
On November 16, 1944, two French women, Lucy Schwob and Suzanne Malherbe, stood before a German war tribunal on Jersey, one of the English Channel islands near the coast of Normandy, just a short distance from Vichy France. The pair, who were better known under their artistic pseudonyms, Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore, were collaborators in radically queered photography and photomontages. They stood accused by the Nazi regime of having acted as “irregular soldiers,” as Cahun writes, paraphrasing the accusations of the officer in charge, Oberst Sarmsen. “[W]e had used spiritual arms instead of firearms”—an offense punishable by death.
So what crime did they commit, exactly? Using scissors and glue, prohibitively expensive during war time, the pair created tracts, collages, photomontages, and symbolic objects to instill doubt about the war and the Nazi regime among the German soldiers. Moore, who was fluent in German, created the German texts, which they signed Der Soldat ohne Namen (the soldier without a name), a nom de guerre that implied an entire network of agitators lurking among the enemy soldiers. The pair used simple objects, such as coins, as Cahun described their unrelenting inventiveness in 1943: “I painted them meticulously with nail polish … and managed to write very clearly on them Nieder Mit Krieg [down with war].” These coins they placed in public sites, ensuring they were in plain sight where they would be found and read. Despite the daily danger, the pair practiced their subversive art for several years before they were caught, tried, and sentenced to death, though they were eventually pardoned in 1945.
These harrowing experiences and courageous acts about an art practice both dangerous and playful are recounted in Jennifer L. Shaw’s fascinating book, Exist Otherwise, which casts Cahun and her partner as heroines. As Shaw writes, “[T]he resistance work that [Cahun] and Moore undertook during the Nazi occupation of Jersey shares more with our contemporary ideas of performance art and conceptual art than it does with the anti-Nazi propaganda of Cahun’s own time.” However, I would add that employing satire and even laughter in resisting tyranny is a longstanding tradition. Using a number of sources still unpublished or unavailable in English, and lacing Cahun’s voice throughout the biography, Shaw tells the story in four parts, each describing an artistic practice that functions as a counteraesthetic to the era’s dominating thought and revealing the multimodal flexibility of Cahun’s oeuvre.
Part One, “Views and Visions: Nantes, 1894-1920,” takes us inside the explosive trauma of growing up in a tension-filled household. Cahun was born Lucy Renée Mathilde Schwob in 1894, the daughter of Maurice Schwob, the Jewish publisher of Le Phare de La Loire, (The Lighthouse of the Loire), and his Catholic wife Mary-Antoinette, “an ‘Aryan’ mother,” in Cahun’s words, “obese … struck by mental illness,” whose volatile, violent, disordered personality left her daughter traumatized. Tiny and brainy, Lucy emulated her mother’s independence, intellectualism, and subversion, and embraced her father’s Jewish identity, positioning herself as an outsider in anti-Semitic France. At the age of twelve, she recalls, she was “tied with jump ropes to a tree in the schoolyard” and “stoned with gravel,” because her father advocated the release of Major Alfred Dreyfus, a victim of anti-Semitic persecution, from prison. Searching for alternative identities, Cahun pursued the classical education reserved for boys and dove into homoerotic symbolist literature, including that of her famous writer-uncle, Marcel Schwob. She also embraced a homosexual identity. At the age of fourteen she met Suzanne Malherbe, who would become her life partner, collaborator, and stepsister (her parents divorced, and her father married Suzanne’s mother). The pair adopted sexual and artistic pseudonyms, and Lucy Schwob asserted her maleness and Jewishness by naming herself Claude Cahun. The last name, a riff on Cahun/Cohen, was a particularly bold one to take in an anti-Semitic society. Malherbe became Marcel Moore.
In Part Two, “Heroines, Theatre, Masquerade: The 1920s in Paris,” Cahun and Moore are confronted with the rappel à l’ordre (return to order) that followed the cataclysmic Great War. This conservative ideology called for natalism and motherhood, hearth and home, inciting opposition among the feminist and lesbian circles of Paris, which included Gertrude Stein, Natalie Barney, Sylvia Beach, and Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap, friends of Cahun’s. This collective resistance also led Cahun and her partner to formulate their most radical innovations, performing gender in ways that anticipated Judith Butler’s philosophical formulations and Cindy Sherman’s artistic practice decades later. Like Sherman, Cahun used make-up and props, including wigs and body painting. She applied hearts to her cheeks, used lipstick to create a Clara Bow-type mouth, painted nipples on her dress. She transformed herself into an exaggerated doll-like figure, head tilting, body swaying, eyes staring boldly at the camera.
Cahun included many of these photographs in photomontages in her most famous book, Aveux: Non Avenues (1930), translated as Disavowals: Or Cancelled Confessions (2008). In this difficult, multivoiced text, Cahun transposes her whimsical deconstruction of femininity into experimental literary strategy. She did something similar in Héroïnes (1925), translated as “Heroines,” (in Inverted Odysseys: Claude Cahun, Maya Deren, Cindy Sherman ). Héroïnes playfully rewrites western mythology and fairy tales, recasting figures like Eve, Penelope, and Cinderella. In “Sappho the Misunderstood,” Sappho refuses to kill herself as she does in the traditional stories, explaining, “‘I am no fool! It was only a mannequin … pushed into the violet sea. (They do the same thing in the movies.)’” As Cahun sees it, the most important objective for the woman is not to love, but to create.
Although she was not politically dogmatic, Cahun turned her art into activism, as seen in Part Three, “To Embody My Own Revolt: Surrealism and Politics in the 1930s.” The surrealist effects are evident in a number of photographs: for example, an untitled one from 1932 shows Cahun asleep on a shelf in her wardrobe with her arm spilling over, an evocation of sleeping beauty. In another, Cahun stages her severed head disturbingly inside a bell jar, hair slicked back, eye brows painted on, lips painted full; the work is both a memento mori and a critical treatment of surrealism’s misogynist entrapment of women, as Cahun’s eyes stare at the viewer. Other surrealists wondered why an otherwise attractive woman would thus disfigure herself.
Shaw’s thesis—that women’s resistance must be read as part of their art practice—culminates into Part Four, “Spiritual Arms Instead of Firearms: Cahun and Moore on the Isle of Jersey.” The tracts, montages, and objects Cahun and Moore created during this period were not only resistance projects responding to Hitler’s racism and World War II, but were also consistent with their lifelong artistic practice. Surrealist effects can be seen in the pair’s cemetery project. They built wooden crosses that they painted black and inscribed in old German Gothic script, “Für sie ist der Krieg zu Ende (For Them the War is Over),” which they planted in the German soldiers’ cemetery in Jersey. Given the danger the pair were incurring, Cahun later called her resistance “my madman’s project,” adding, “But at least I was taking action.”
Shaw describes her book as “the first full biography of Cahun in English,” but she is quick to acknowledge a significant debt to François Leperlier, author of the pioneering Claude Cahun: L’Écart et la métamorphose (1992) (Claude Cahun: Distance and Metamorphosis). To this, it’s fair to add the work of a plethora of other recent scholars (including Elza Adamowicz, Gavin James Bower, Georgiana Colvile, Gen Doy, Therese Lichtenstein, Andrea Oberhuber, and Shelley Rice).
Readers interested in women’s multimodal art practices will find much to admire in Shaw’s book, which engages literature, performance art, surrealist sculptures, and resistance tracts. Moreover, such readers will be attracted to this story of art as it intersects with love. Cahun’s torrid affair with Moore anchored her and kept her sane (in contrast to the violent turbulence of another famous couple experimenting with photomontage, Hannah Höch and Raoul Hausmann). “Our desires meet one another. Already it is an effort to disentangle them,” Cahun writes in Disavowals. “My lover will no longer be the subject of my drama. S/he will be my collaborator,” Cahun continues, as queered desire becomes a metaphor for women’s artistic collaboration. In a letter written to Moore, excerpted in Disavowals, Cahun and Moore look together at a portrait of Cahun, which acts as a “magic mirror.” Cahun writes, “The exchange, the superimposition, the fusion of desires. The unity of the image obtained by the close friendship of two bodies—even if it sends their souls to the devil!” Cahun’s post-script, “At present I exist otherwise,” provides the title for the book.
Exist Otherwise is elegantly written and beautifully illustrated with artwork, and includes an appendix with short, translated excerpts of Cahun’s writings. Some readers may quibble with a narrative structure that, within each section, first lays out the events of a given decade chronologically, then performs a close reading of Cahun’s work during the same period; this necessitates occasional repetition and creates a sense of déjà vu. Although Shaw’s readings of the art works are deft and interesting, questions remain. What is the meaning of the 1915 photo of Cahun sitting at a little girl’s school desk? In this image, she is not a preteen but a 21-year-old adult. What was Cahun’s relationship to other leading avant-gardists in Paris, such as Marcel Duchamp, a photograph by whom is included in at least one photomontage in Disavowals? Or Man Ray, whose trademark checkered studio-floor, seen in several of his 1920s photographs, appears prominently on the bathrobe Cahun wears in the untitled mirror image (c. 1929)? Is this photograph perhaps a reference to Man Ray, who also played with mirrors, frames, gender, and Jewish identity? I also wondered about the glaring absence of dadaist Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, who famously paraded her body as art as early as 1915, and whose film stills, showing her shaved head and body, circulated in Paris via Man Ray from 1921 on.
Despite these gaps, in Shaw’s telling, Cahun models how to practice radical art and action during politically fraught times like hers—and our own. “Human beings can be destroyed from the outside,” she wrote. “They can only be built from the inside, by themselves, through the exercise of their own freedoms.” Even though Cahun’s health was fragile following her ordeal at the hands of the Nazis, and she died in 1954 at the early age of sixty, her words still resonate and even gain new significance today, as she writes about confronting authoritarianism in a tone that is nearly manifesto-like. Ultimately, hers is a remarkable story of creativity, courage, and determination. As Cahun says, “Sacrifice yourself on your own altar. You are a god: respect yourself. But do not bend, for you will be beaten.”
Irene Gammel holds a Canada Research Chair in Modern Literature and Culture at Ryerson University in Toronto. Among her books are Looking for Anne of Green Gables (2008) and Baroness Elsa: Gender, Dada, and Everyday Modernity (2002). She is the coeditor of Body Sweats: The Uncensored Writings of Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven (2011) and Crystal Flowers: Poems and a Libretto by Florine Stettheimer (2011). She is the director of the Modern Literature and Culture Research Centre in Toronto. For more, see http://mlc.ryerson.ca/ and follow her on Twitter, @MLC_Research.