The artist-writer Claude Cahun was born Lucy Renée Mathilde Schwob in 1894. She grew up in a middle-class family in Nantes. In some respects her childhood was conventional – financial security, good education – but Cahun (as she called herself from 1919 onwards) felt disturbed by undercurrents at home, which intensified over the years. Her father was Jewish at a time when the Dreyfuss affair was dividing the nation. Her mother was mentally ill and for some of the time confined a mental asylum. Her mother was finally committed to an asylum permanently, with family visits forbidden. She and her brother were moved between relatives who were not always affection or considerate towards them.
Slight of build, not pretty, burdened with a Jewish surname at a time of anti-Semitism, disturbed by the emotional extremities of her parents and troubled by the spectre of hereditary madness, Cahun developed feelings of inadequacy. She found refuge in books. She had access to the books in her father’s office (a journal publication house) and read the classics to her blind grandmother, which gave her unusually broad exposure to literature. She began to write fiction. While a teenager she began a lifelong love affair with Suzanne Malherbe, who later changed her name to Marcel Moore (called Moore hereafter). The two women would be inseparable companions and collaborate in the production of books, photographs and artistic projects. Despite certain misgivings, their families tacitly approved of the unconventional relationship.
Cahun went to study philosophy and letters at the Sorbonne and Moore studied fine art in Nantes. Cahun conceived of herself as a failure in any of the available roles open to women of the time. In 1919 she changed her name to Claude Cahun partly to use as a nom de plume but also as a way of breaking with femininity. She shaved her head. She took as her heroes the Symbolist and Decadent writers, as well as André Gide. Their subjects of forbidden homosexual love, the morbid and grotesque, the renegade and flâneur, struck a chord in her. Her admiration for Oscar Wilde, Lord Alfred Douglas and John Addington Symmonds was related to her Anglophilia. The family holidayed in Jersey, she was schooled in England for a time and spoke English fluently. (When, a few later, Malherbe adopted the name “Moore” it may have been a conscious expression of affiliation for non-French culture.) Moore’s illustrations for Cahun’s first book (a restrained, stylised story about forbidden love) are derived from Aubrey Beardsley.
Moore was providing illustrations to journals and Cahun at that time was writing journalism. Cahun was following the Dada movement, which blew away the cultivated cobwebs of decadence. She dabbled in Buddhism and Eastern spirituality, something that was particularly current in the inter-war period, when people disgusted with the horrors of war turned their back on the traditions of their parents. Cahun became friends with Henri Michaux, René Crevel and André Breton. She met Gertrude Stein, Natalie Barney and Chana Orloff, as well as visiting Sylvia Beach’s Shakespeare & Co.
The most important work of the 1920s was the commencement of a series of photographs of Cahun by Moore. It is this for which Cahun has become recognised posthumously. It seems that both Cahun and Moore worked to arrange the striking images, with Cahun alone as the subject in various incarnations: as a marionette, schoolgirl, clown, androgyne, mime, swimmer, dancer, Buddhist nun, scientific exhibit and other less identifiable types. Most of the photographs were only seen after Moore’s death, found as unprinted and untitled negatives. Some prints were marked with crop lines, others exist in unedited sequences. Some were published and displayed during Cahun’s lifetime – some in collage form – but it seems closer to a private project that occasionally bore fruit only to be exposed selectively. How serious are these works? What degree of importance did Cahun and Moore accord to them? The very fact that these questions are so important yet so unanswerable makes the asking significant.
The authorship issue is pertinent. Whose work is this: the subject’s or the photographer’s? Who came up with the ideas? Cahun and Moore are given joint credit but it is Cahun’s name on the book. Shaw points out that in early publications and posthumous exhibitions Cahun was credited as sole creator. “The perception that Disavowals [Aveux non avenus] and all of the photographic work associated with Cahun were the product Cahun’s singular vision was, for a long time, reinforced by the fact that the photomontages and photographs were attributed solely to Cahun in museum entries, catalogues and essays.”
More elaborate photo-collages (using original photographs, found photographs and handwritten texts) from the Aveux non avenus (1930) Shaw attributes to Cahun and Moore together, though she acknowledges that other experts believe Cahun was the principal creator. Shaw attributes to Cahun solely the photographs of temporary assemblages and miniature dioramas. They show serio-comic figures, toys, trinkets, plants and so forth in improvised settings. The photographs are jaunty and unsettling, adding a touch of the uncanny to assemblages that are childish. Other than photographs and photo-collages, the only other art Cahun produced were a few drawings and objects.
As the 1930s progressed greater political engagement was demanded of alert artists. Impelled by political commitment and artistic proclivity, Cahun became ever more closely involved in the Surrealist movement, specifically the circle around Breton. In 1932 Cahun and Moore joined the Association des Écrivains et Artistes Révolutionnaires, an organisation for Communist-supporting writers and artists. AEAR was anti-Fascist, pro-Communist and non-Surrealist. Relations between the PCF and the Surrealists were complicated and shifting. The Surrealists could not fully reconcile their search for freedom with the PCF and the USSR’s increasingly conservative artistic policy. Over the next few years the division between Trotsky and Breton’s position of free creativity by politically alert artists and the PCF and USSR’s directives enjoining adherence to Socialist Realism. Cahun found it difficult to align herself with a political organisation, as she admitted, and left in 1933.
In 1935 the group Contre-Attaque was co-founded by Cahun, alongside Breton, Bataille and others. It was an attempt to provide a unified front of Surrealists against Fascism. Breton and Bataille had different temperaments. Bataille has been characterised as a proponent of “Left Fascism” – essentially Socialism achieved through Fascist methods of force, not dissimilar to Strasserism – whereas Breton was a more conventional Marxist. Breton was also an authoritarian who saw Surrealism as his personal fiefdom and he mistrusted the group centred on Bataille’s Documents journal. Cahun, Moore and Breton resigned from Contre-Attaque due to the group’s “super fascist tendencies”.
Cahun seems to have been omitted from early retrospective monographs on Surrealism due to multiple reasons. First, much of her photography was unpublished and unexhibited, thus unknown to historians. The public works – seen in isolation and detached from the body of her work – might have seemed slight to critics. Second, with the exception of Man Ray, photographs have been assigned a supplementary role in histories of visual Surrealism behind paintings, sculpture and the graphic arts. Third, she did not sign many manifestoes, therefore is easy to overlook in compilations of official documents.
In 1937 Cahun and Moore moved to Jersey. In 1940 the British government demilitarised the Channel Islands as indefensible and evacuated much of the population. Cahun and Moore remained in the expectation of German occupation, with the intention of performing active resistance. Their house was requisitioned by the German army, yet still they engaged in small acts of subversion which carried a severe penalty. They distributed written propaganda to undermine occupiers’ authority and confidence; they smuggled food to starving slave labourers building defences. They retained a radio after a ban was imposed and passed on war news.
The couple were arrested whilst carrying anti-German propaganda. They attempted suicide but their overdoses were non-fatal. Their deportation to the continent was forestalled by the Allied victory in Saint-Malo. The German occupiers were now cut off from mainland Europe. They both attempted suicide again, believing the other to be dead. They were tried for listening to the radio, having a weapon and camera and distributing anti-German propaganda. Found guilty, they were sentenced to death. It seems that the Germans did want to carry out the execution and that there was no expectation that so late in the war two elderly women would be executed.
Much of the personal archive and collection of art, books and letters were burned by the Gestapo. Disillusioned by the perceived passivity of islanders to the occupation, the couple lived on in Jersey, with Cahun health failing. She died in 1954. Moore died in 1972.
Shaw is thoroughly familiar with her subject and intelligently guides us through the writing, art and life of Cahun and Moore. She is careful not to adduce an autobiographical reading of the photographs and does not over interpret the writings. She draws parallels between Cahun’s ideas and later gender theory without interpreting Cahun through that lens, though she has been and will be subject to such treatment. She summarises Cahun’s writings, which are not widely available in English. Appendices include translations of selections from Cahun’s writing. The book is thorough, sensitive, informative and absorbing. Shaw’s Exist Otherwise makes an important addition to Surrealism studies.
Cahun has in recent decades become one of the most influential photographers for a generation of artists and it is easy to see why. Alongside Francesca Woodman and Cindy Sherman, Cahun is seen as the supreme exponent of the ambiguous, elusive, disruptive photographic featuring the artist as subject. Cahun is a lodestar for women photographers, the ultimate trickster. Her collaborative mode of art creation is a very current concern, with more and more artists seeking to sublimate their identities in partnerships. Her roleplaying seems grist to the mill of gender-studies students and professors concerned with Judith Butler’s ideas of gender as performance.
Cahun’s work is liminal. It crosses boundaries between the performative and autobiographical, private and public, male and female, art and documentation, personal and political, singular and collaborative, serious and humorous, professional and amateur. It is unstable and unclear, sometimes existing in binary states simultaneously. This is why it appeals to artists and critics in the Post-Modernist age with its insistent fetishisation of boundary-breaking and genre-bending. What makes Cahun’s art better than the art that emulates it is a lack of affect, a genuine fascination with ambiguity and an absence of self-consciousness. There is a real question about whether this is art or not, whereas the knowing art students of the 1990s never intended anything other of their activities, realising that everything could be fed into the voracious, undiscriminating, unobjecting, uncritical maw of art exhibition and publication. Cahun’s art has a magical risk that is missing from the activities of the 1990s. It also has that now mocked attribute of originality.
Jennifer L. Shaw, Exist Otherwise: The Life and Works of Claude Cahun, Reaktion Books, 2017, hardback, ISBN 978 1 78023 728 2
© 2019 Alexander Adams
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