This Gender-Bending Photographer Defied Nazi Rule

Claude Cahun with her cat Kid, 1927. Photo: Jersey Heritage Trust

In Paris between World Wars I and II, the French photographer Claude Cahun joined the surrealist art movement, producing a series of portraits that captured her self-discovery from age 18 into adulthood. 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: The Life and Works of Claude Cahun, out today from Reaktion Books, features her photographs, sculptures, and illustrations along with diary entries and writing clips that have never before been translated in English.

Her longtime lover, stepsister, and muse Marcel Moore (a pseudonym), was the subject of much of Cahun’s work. Together, they were known as eccentrics — their androgynous clothing, relationship, and even the alliteration of their gender-ambiguous names challenged elevated male and female stereotypes of the era. The two were notorious anti-war propagandists and surreptitiously slipped their illustrations into the pockets of German soldiers. Their resistance on both political and personal levels informed their own artistic collaborations, as well as the work of other avant-garde artists. Cahun and Moore lived in the Nazi-occupied Channel Islands as political activists until they were imprisoned and sentenced to death. They were released of those charges when the war ended.

Cahun’s photographs and self-portraits give her subjects a chameleon-like character. Portraits like Cahun Sitting in Diamond-Paned Window show physical and emotional constraint, depicting Cahun behind a barbed-wire window. Another photo of Cahun called Untitled (Cahun as Soldier Without a Name) was a collaboration between Cahun and Moore — Cahun wears traditional menswear, holding a small skull in the palm of her hand and a cigarette in her mouth. She cocks an eyebrow at the camera and stands next to floral scenery, both embracing and rejecting femininity. Click ahead to preview the book.

Exist Otherwise: The Life and Works of Claude Cahun by Jennifer L. Shaw

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This Gender-Bending Photographer Defied Nazi Rule