The Life and Works of Claude Cahun
Distributed for Reaktion Books
The Life and Works of Claude Cahun
In the turmoil of the 1920s and ’30s, Claude Cahun challenged gender stereotypes with her powerful photographs, montages, and writings, works that appear to our twenty-first-century eyes as utterly contemporary, or even from the future. She wrote poetry and prose for major French literary magazines, worked in avant-garde theater, and was both comrade of and critical outsider to the Surrealists. Exist Otherwise is the first work in English to the tell the full story of Claude Cahun’s art and life, one that celebrates and makes accessible Cahun’s remarkable vision.
Jennifer L. Shaw embeds Cahun within the exciting social and artistic milieu of Paris between the wars. She examines her relationship with Marcel Moore—Cahun’s stepsister, lover, and life partner—who was a central collaborator helping make some of the most compelling photographs and photomontages of Cahun’s oeuvre, dreamscapes of disassembled portraiture and scenes that simultaneously fascinate and terrify. Shaw follows Cahun into the horrors of World War II and the Nazi occupation of the island of Jersey off the coast of Normandy, and she explores the powerful and dangerous ways Cahun resisted it. Reading through her letters and diaries, Shaw brings Cahun’s ideas and feelings to the foreground, offering an intimate look at how she thought about photography, surrealism, the histories of women artists, and queer culture.
256 pages | 100 color plates, 80 Halftones | 7 1/2 x 9 3/4 | © 2017
“As a Jewish, gender-nonconforming artist living amid the rise of fascism and widespread anti-Semitism, Cahun’s artwork challenged social norms of the time. The new book Exist Otherwise . . . features her photographs, sculptures, and illustrations along with diary entries and writing clips that have never before been translated in English.”
"Claude Cahun may not be particularly well known outside the art world, but this highly readable biography of the twentieth-century French writer, artist, and photographer ought to help change this situation. Shaw has written a fascinating book about a gender-bending lesbian intellectual who challenged ideas of gender and sexuality in both her life and art. . . . Filled with reproductions of photographs and detailed descriptions and analyses of her writings, Exist Otherwise is a comprehensive introduction to Claude Cahun’s art and writing. With any luck it will bring readers back to her unique body of work."
Gay & Lesbian Review
“In this first full biography of the pseudonymous visual artist and writer Claude Cahun, Shaw is intensely responsive to Cahun’s life and work (verbal, visual, political). In the process of examining and commenting on Cahun’s unique life, Shaw travels across time and across surrealism, Dada, a world war, and the anti-fascists and their effect on art and life in Paris, Jersey, and Germany. . . . Homosexuality is an important focal point, as are the anti-fascists and the active rebellion of the modern against the traditional. Shaw writes that as an outsider woman, lesbian, and Jew, Cahun ‘trumpeted her role.’ This book deserves a wide readership. . . . Highly recommended.”
“Shaw has written the first full biography of Cahun in English. . . . The originality of Shaw’s approach lies in her situating Cahun’s work and thought within contemporary Symbolist and Surrealist aesthetic and political positions, while drawing on recent feminist theory, unlike Leperlier, who tends to bypass Cahun’s lesbianism, and unlike some recent scholarly work which, in seeking to integrate Cahun into the corpus of women artists of the late twentieth century, can risk losing sight of her historical and cultural specificity. . . . This study is a richly documented and well-balanced account of a major twentieth-century artistic figure, in which Cahun’s life and work are interwoven in such a way that they illuminate each other.”
“Exist Otherwise is elegantly written and beautifully illustrated with artwork, and includes an appendix with short, translated excerpts of Cahun’s writings. . . . In Shaw’s telling, Cahun models how to practice radical art and action during politically fraught times like hers—and our own.”
"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 | CAA Reviews
“Shaw has crafted mounds of archival information—including memoirs, letters, press clippings, rare books, and photographs—into a story of Claude Cahun’s life and works. Exist Otherwise: The Life and Works of Claude Cahun, a highly readable page-turner, nevertheless engages fully with the complexities that make Cahun one of the twentieth century’s most intriguing artist–activists and an inspiration to today’s culture makers.”
Tirza T. Latimer, California College of the Arts
“Claude Cahun’s writings and artworks tell the story of her own critical self-discovery, and Shaw follows suit, placing the works at the center of her gripping biography of Cahun as a woman artist and lesbian who managed to ‘exist otherwise’ long before transgender and gay rights. In the graceful flow of Shaw’s prose, Cahun’s photographic projects illuminate and amplify her life, from the French provinces to Surrealist Paris to the occupied island of Jersey, where her guerilla anti-Nazi art led to harrowing arrest and near execution. Shaw calls Cahun her hero, and convinces us that Cahun should be ours as well, in our moment of Brexit and Trump.”
Christina Kiaer, Northwestern University