Chiming with worldwide celebrations of Women’s History Month, last week London’s National Portrait Gallery opened Behind a mask, another mask, an exhibition dedicated to the work of female artists Claude Cahun and Gillian Wearing. Née Lucy Schwob, Cahun was a radical French writer, artist and performer, whose polymorphous practice upended conventional notions of femininity and subjectivity. Hailed as ‘one of the most curious spirits of the 20th century’ by her Surrealist contemporary Andre Bréton, it was not until the second wave of feminism that Cahun’s prescient art began to be ‘rediscovered’. Her apparent kindred spirit is the Birmingham-born Turner Prize winner, associated with the YBAs, whose bold video, photographic and installation art gained traction in the mid 90s for its participatory approach to exploring the idea of ‘public’ and ‘private’ selves.
This show, though, homes in on the artists’ photographic self-portraits. What it makes plain is that, although born nearly 70 years apart, both artists have harnessed photography to explore themes around gender and identity, by way of masquerade and performance. Cahun’s intimate black-and-white images – made in collaboration with her step-sister-turned-partner Marcel Moore – portray the artist in a plethora of gender-defying guises, from Parisian dandy to Orientalist Buddha, shaven-headed androgyne, masked like a mystic doll, or as a body builder with sewn on nipples and kiss curls. Wearing’s monumental Album series, meanwhile, reveals the British artist in silicone masks, dressed as members of her biological and spiritual family – from her mother to Diane Arbus and Robert Mapplethorpe – in a grand network of alter egos and personae.
The exhibition also presents Cahun’s magnum opus, Aveux non avenus, an anti-autobiography that served as a total reconceptualisation of narcissism. Exquisite photomontages from the book, published in 1925, play on the visual tropes of mirrors, eyes, masks and disembodied limbs, splintering the individual ‘I’ into a profusion of ‘we’s’. Through sophisticated curating, the show manages to balance these small, beautiful and wildly experimental works with Wearing’s large-scale photographic prints, but the pairing inevitably favours Cahun. True, Wearing shared Cahun’s fascination for the self-portrait, but her influential participatory works, which brought ordinary people into the frame to reveal the complex nature of subjectivity, have been side-lined by a rigorous curatorial interpretation of what constitutes the ‘self-image’. Had it been possible to exhibit Wearing’s confessional video works, the exhibition may have dug deeper behind her masquerade. That said, the show is well worth a visit for its dynamic presentation of two phenomenal bodies of work.
Sooanne Berner is a Sales & Marketing Executive at MACK Books, in London, UK.
Gilian Wearing & Claude Cahun, Behind the mask, another mask
March 9 to May 29, 2017
National Portrait Gallery
St. Martin’s Pl
London WC2H 0HE