Gillian Wearing and Claude Cahun: Behind the Mask, Another Mask / Reviewed by Anna McNay / 13.03.17
Exploring gender, identity and the shifting notion of self in one’s artwork, especially through photography and the “selfie”, might be de rigueur at the moment, but a century ago, when the French artist and writer Claude Cahun (née Lucy Renée Mathilde Schwob, 1894-1954) began to do so, she was alone in the field. Although only one of her photographs was shown during her lifetime, Cahun began experimenting with photography and self-portraiture as early as 1912, working together with her partner (and later step-sister), Suzanne Malherbe (who also changed her name to the equally androgynous Marcel Moore). Fashioning masks and costumes to masquerade as women, men, and everything in between – Cahun herself wrote: “Masculine? Feminine? It depends on the situation. Neuter is the only gender that suits me” – she explored the construction of identity, decades before Judith Butler’s theorising on its performativity in Gender Trouble (1990).
After time spent in Paris amidst the Surrealist movement – André Breton described Cahun as “one of the most curious spirits of our time” – Cahun and Moore settled on Jersey in 1937, where they went on to launch a resistance movement against the Nazis, before being imprisoned and sentenced to death in 1944 for counter propaganda tracts. Both attempted suicide but were taken to hospital and survived. They were released in 1945, on the eve of liberation. Much of Cahun’s work had been destroyed by the Nazis, but she continued to experiment with photography until her death at the age of 60.
One of Cahun’s most striking images is I am in training don’t kiss me (c1927), in which she sits, cross-legged, dressed as a strongman or weightlifter, but with feminine kiss curls, painted lips, and hearts on her cheeks. In 2012, the Turner Prize winning, contemporary British artist, Gillian Wearing (b1963), whose work similarly involves making and wearing masks and exploring questions of identity and the self, made Me as Cahun holding a mask of my face, in which she has donned a mask and is dressed (nearly) identically to Cahun in the strongman image. This was the starting point for this fantastic and jam-packed joint exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. With more than 100 works, including early, never before exhibited Polaroids by Wearing and new works created specifically in response to Cahun, the exhibition offers both artists space to explore their multiple identities, and, despite Wearing’s works being larger, brighter, and having the potential to overshadow Cahun’s more intimate black-and-white offerings, care has been taken not to let this happen.
Each artist has a room of early works, a section in which they are seen dancing (Wearing’s video, Dancing in Peckham, 1994, and a wallpaper of enlargements of a tiny contact sheet of Cahun celebrating on the Jersey beach, post liberation), a strip of photo booth images, and a section nodding towards their Surrealist inclinations.
In the final room, Wearing has created a wallpaper of various images of herself, digitally aged to 70 years old, depending on how life might treat her in the interim. Integral to this piece is the additional triptych, Rock n’roll 70 (2015), featuring a rare photograph of the artist unmasked, a computer-generated impression of how she might look at 70, and an empty space for a photograph of how she actually looks, if/when she reaches that age. Opposite this hangs another striking new work, which perhaps most sums up the spirit of the show: Cahun and Wearing (2017). In it, Wearing stands side-by-side with Cahun (actually Wearing in a mask), both cloaked, one arm appearing in an uncannily disembodied manner, blond and dark, masculine and feminine, mirror images, yet mirror opposites, against a magic show, sparkly curtain. Masquerade and performance are what each artist excels at, and, a century apart, the themes being explored in each of their oeuvres remain as relevant and intriguing as ever.
– reviewed by Anna McNay
Gillian Wearing and Claude Cahun: Behind the Mask, Another Mask continues at National Portrait Gallery, London until 29 May 2017
National Portrait Gallery, St. Martin's Pl, London WC2H 0HE