A review of

Disavowals

by Claude Cahun

Central question: Who will I be today?
Format: 254 pp., paperback; Size: 7-1/8" x 8-5/8"; Number of illustrations: 12; Price: $29.95; Publisher: The MIT Press, copublished with Tate Publishing in the UK; Book designer: Collaborator/lover/stepsister Suzanne Malherbe (who went by the name Marcel Moore) designed much of the original book, including the photomontages and the icons of eyes and stars separating the texts; Translated by: Susan de Muth; Introduction by: Tate curator Jennifer Mundy; Postscript by: Agnès Lhermitte; Representative passage: “Masculine? Feminine? It depends on the situation. Neuter is the only gender that always suits me.”
Claude Cahun is known mostly for her 1920s “autoportraits,” photographs that show her playing roles such as androgynous alien, flamboyant boxer, mirror-gazing dandy, masked goddess, and mistress in curls. She participated in Surrealist exhibitions and her signature can be found on several of the movement’s manifestoes, but Cahun—née Lucy Schwob, before her androgyne rebirth—really was her own movement. She was joined by the artist and designer Suzanne Malherbe, her nearly lifelong collaborator, lover, and later “stepsister,” who went by the name Marcel Moore. Their lives together were devoted to fearless activism, performance, and avant-garde theatre. While living on the island of Jersey during the German occupation they launched a two-woman resistance against the Nazis over the course of two years, distributing poetic tracts of transcribed BBC radio broadcasts that encouraged insurrection to German soldiers. This eventually led to their imprisonment, and they were briefly sentenced to death (commuted against their wishes).

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—Kate Zambreno

Kate Zambreno is a writer living in Chicago.

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