Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 31, 2019
Jennifer L. Shaw Exist Otherwise: The Life and Works of Claude Cahun London: Reaktion Books, 2017. 256 pp.; 100 color ills.; 80 b/w ills. Cloth £30.00 (9781780237282)

“I’m obsessed with the exception. I see it as bigger than nature. It’s all I see. The rule interests me only for its leftovers with which I make my swill. In this way, I deliberately downgrade myself. Too bad for me” (102). This quote from Claude Cahun, drawn from Cahun and Marcel Moore’s 1930 publication, Aveux non avenus (Disavowals), appears about three-quarters of the way through Jennifer L. Shaw’s Exist Otherwise: The Life and Works of Claude Cahun. However, its resonance is deeply felt throughout this rich chronological biography of the French Surrealist artist, intellectual, and activist. For many years relegated to the margins of art history, Cahun has surfaced in the last decade through committed scholarship by Shaw and a few others, including Tirza Latimer and François Leperlier, as a subject more than worthy of book-length study. In Shaw’s biography, readings of the intermingling arenas of Cahun’s personal, political, and artistic lives point again and again to the artist’s lifelong instinct to work against the grain.

Combing through and presenting excerpts from writings and correspondences that, before this book, had never been translated into English, Shaw pieces together Cahun’s trajectory through the early twentieth century until her death in 1954, combining family history, intellectual and political climate, and personal and artistic developments to provide a portrait of Cahun’s complex existence, which bridged the two world wars. Beginning with a sketch of her early life, Shaw outlines Cahun’s unconventional and radical upbringing. Her father, Maurice Schwob, was a prominent Jewish intellectual; her mother, Mary-Antoinette Courbebaisse, suffered from mental illness and was institutionalized; her relationship to her life partner, Marcel Moore, was eventually sanctioned as one of “sisters” following the marriage of Cahun’s father and Moore’s mother. This is a richly detailed account of the family’s intellectual background and Maurice’s waning concern about Cahun (formerly Lucy Schwob)’s gender and sexual identity, which came to be tacitly accepted. Thus unhindered by the social mores of the time with regard to femininity, and reading feverishly at a young age—Shaw points to Cahun’s unusual access to an extensive library of Symbolist literature via her uncle, Marcel Schwob, a prominent Symbolist poet, and to the influence in particular of André Gide—Cahun, Shaw seems to suggest, was permitted entry at an early point into the radical intellectual cultural spheres typically only accessible to women from upper classes, of which Cahun was a part. Of particular note is the influence of the Symbolist poets not only on Cahun’s artistic practice, but also on her identity as she searched to either align with, reject, or ameliorate the conditions and trends attended to by her forebears. As Shaw details, strategies of imitation and mirroring of the styles and personas of figures such as Gide, Oscar Wilde, and Lord Alfred Douglas appeared in Cahun’s literary performances (under various names in homage to her influences until she finally settled on “Claude Cahun”) at the same time that Cahun was rejecting the traditional signifiers of femininity in her outward appearance, opting for androgyny in her clothing and self-styling.

Much of Shaw’s attention is oriented toward analyzing Cahun’s life through both the significant and lesser-known works in her oeuvre, including photography portraits, illustrated manuscripts, sculptures, poetry, polemics, and performance documents. Shaw tests Cahun’s literary output against her artistic output, reading the visual through clues embedded within the text as to Cahun’s thinking and influences at a given time. Through a chronological telling of the artist’s life in relation to the social and political upheavals and crises of the 1920s and 1930s, Shaw considers these works, amply describing them in relation to Cahun’s environmental and social relations. Shaw seamlessly blends biographical and art historical scholarship, as if to make an implicit argument that the two cannot be separated; indeed, as she explains in the book’s introduction, she is drawn to the study of Cahun “not only as an art historian, but as a person.” Likewise, the relationship between Cahun and Moore is one that is recounted here as deeply and inextricably intertwined, and Cahun is revealed as the rare artist who insisted on shared authorship—a testament to her lifelong communion with Moore and the nebulous and shapeshifting qualities of Cahun’s production. It seems premature to argue that there are “canonical” works by Cahun (bearing in mind that only a handful of scholars have taken up study of her work in any committed way); however, for those already versed in Cahun’s practice, it will be refreshing to see how Shaw takes up the more well-known works, such as her collaborative mirror portraits with Moore or the performative photographs (including the probably most recognized, Claude Cahun, 1927, by Cahun and Moore, which features Cahun dressed as a bodybuilder with the phrase “I AM IN TRAINING DON’T KISS ME” emblazoned on her shirt, between two drawn-on nipples), alongside more obscure works, including modernist photographs of sculptural assemblages, Surrealist drawings and photomontages, and photo-illustrations of children’s books.

What might be viewed as an important intervention in Shaw’s biography is her flipping of the canonical narrative regarding prominent Surrealist artists, who here play supporting roles to Cahun’s critical and careful thinking—interlocutors through whom Cahun establishes her “otherwise” approach to art, politics, and radicalism. Throughout the book a constellation of social webs emerges where notable and lesser-known historical figures make cameos, particularly the heralded male artists of Surrealism (a movement often characterized by its misogynist tinge). The point of their inclusion here is to examine them in relation to Cahun’s participation in various circles, societies, and revolutionary groups, such as the Association des Écrivains et Artistes Révolutionnaires (Association of Revolutionary Writers and Artists) and Contra-Attaque, and to consider the avant-gardes both in terms of aesthetic innovation and radical political commitment. In her account of Cahun’s involvement within these groups as well as her intellectual encounters and debates with these figures, Shaw outlines how Cahun’s contrariness—springing from rigorous intellectual engagement—becomes apparent. Rather than being merely contrary, Shaw seems to suggest, Cahun seems unwilling to play the game by the rules as they are set; she questions and rearticulates the parameters of the questions she is posed, undermining what begin to seem like conventions even within the radical avant-garde, pushing past the bounds of language and employing words as part of her intellectual arsenal in the process.

A particularly dramatic section of the book describes the frightening conditions under which Cahun and Moore lived during the German occupation of Jersey, where they had gone to settle prior to the onset of the Second World War, and the fearless activist response of the women in the face of dire personal consequences, including arrests—doubly threatening for Cahun due to her lesbianism and her Jewish ancestry. Shaw details how Cahun and Moore engaged in direct actions during the occupation, deploying the textual strategies that had been so central in their artistic practice in the streets of Jersey, including the placement of secret messages intended to incite resistance on the part of conflicted German soldiers. This segment is a particular strength of the book for how it illustrates the underlying political urgencies and dimensions of Cahun’s artistic work and her commitment to anti-fascism across a vast terrain of political crises in the early decades of the twentieth century, as though her life’s work was in actuality a kind of preparation for the difficult political situations in which she would find herself.

Shaw touches on the theoretical and philosophical underpinnings of the era that would have influenced Cahun, including the sexological work of Sigmund Freud and Havelock Ellis, as well as the intellectual debates that arose within Surrealism. She also considers Cahun’s experiments with and performances of gender and sexuality as well ahead of their time, in line with the gender and queer theory that would develop toward the end of the twentieth century. The book is not heavily theoretical; rather, Shaw impressively offers an accessible entry point for understanding Cahun’s life and work as a whole through an exhaustive exploration and analysis of the works themselves. Each work that is introduced is thoroughly described and put into context in terms of Cahun’s biographical trajectory. Only occasionally does Shaw assert an opinion; for the most part, her presence is largely sidelined to make ample space for her subject. Scholars of Cahun will appreciate Shaw’s survey as a well-organized and well-researched biographical resource, as well as a compendium of Cahun’s extensive oeuvre. Exist Otherwise is a valuable contribution to the scant body of English-language scholarship on Cahun, one that hopefully opens the door to further excavations and analyses toward an “otherwise” history in the face of more dominant accounts of the era.

Erin Silver
Assistant Professor, Department of Art History, Visual Art & Theory, University of British Columbia, Vancouver