Collating and comparing the work of two artists from different generations can sometimes feel laborious and ultimately unconvincing, but this certainly isn’t the case for this latest exhibition from The National Portrait Gallery. It focuses on the striking thematic and stylistic links between Gillian Wearing, a contemporary conceptual artist born in 1963, and Claude Cahun, a French surrealist artist active from the early to mid 20th century. As we learn, both artists were fascinated by questions of identity and gender, and often adopted masks as their most powerful form of symbolism.
For Cahun, the question of identity was never straightforward. Born Lucy Schwob to a Jewish family in France, she experienced anti Semitism and began to question her gender identity from an early age. At different stages in her life she was presenting as both man and woman, and eventually defined herself as a third gender or gender neutral. Early self-portraits document this transition, from a young girl lying in bed with her hair around her in a Medusa-like sprawl, to performing as a dandy with a shaved head and an indeterminate gender presentation. Meanwhile Wearing, a conceptual artist born decades after Cahun, explored her multiple selves by adopting different guises, from eerie flesh-coloured masks covering her face in haunting self-portraits to complete transformations into family members and other artists she admired. The springboard for the exhibition is an image of Gillian Wearing masquerading as Claude Cahun. Directly inspired by Cahun’s own series of portraiture I Am In Training, Don’t Kiss Me (1927) it depicts Wearing in a mask painted with hearts on her cheeks and doll like bow lips – overt and cartoonish signifiers of femininity. In her hand she holds a sculptured mask of her own face. It’s a playful indication of the interchanging and switching of identities that the two artists explore in their work.
Image: Self-Portrait of Me Now in a Mask by Gillian Wearing, 2011 Collection of Mario Testino. Copyright: Gillian Wearing, courtesy Maureen Paley, London
Throughout the exhibition, Cahun’s tiny prints are presented alongside Wearing’s often enormous, bright canvases. Despite their size, Cahun’s rebellion and flair is immediately clear in her work. Whether posing in a cape covered in masks, looking regal in a velvet dress in front of an arch, masquerading as the statue of Buddha or appearing as a Devil-like figure from 12th century drama Le Mystere D’Adam, Cahun’s shapeshifting abilities and androgyny create playful and eye-catching portraits. In an age where it’s easy and commonplace to share selfies of yourself, it’s hard to understand how Cahun’s own expression of the self could have been so provocative. Yet for Cahun, her identity as a gender neutral, Jewish artist made her an illegal figure in Nazi occupied France, leading to her arrest for creating propaganda and a death sentence. A particularly wonderful image is Cahun in her later years, holding a Nazi Bundesadler Eagle between her teeth and staring defiantly down the lense. In an environment where Cahun’s identity was treated with total contempt, her assertion of her multiple identities was a political act.
Image: Self-portrait (with Nazi badge between her teeth) by Claude Cahun, 1945 Jersey Heritage Collection. Copyright: Jersey Heritage
For Wearing, a cisgender woman working in the late 20th century, the question is less of how to establish her own identity and instead of how to critique widely-held notions of the self. She asks us how exactly we define our identities, which signifiers are important and how we can push boundaries. Rather than being deliberately fantastical, her masks imitate the human skin whilst still consciously performing as masks. In one of her earlier self-portraits, the second skin provided by the mask is immediately and eerily obvious, whilst in her later projects it softens into an almost indecipherable disguise. Her ambitious yet often unsettling series on her family life depicts her as her three-year-old self, her grandmother, her sister and her brother, the latter being the most striking as she dons a prosthetic mask and full body suit to look completely unrecognisable. It’s only when you look closely at the outlines around her eyes to see that these portraits are disguises, a deliberate and conscious performance of different identities.
As we discover, the striking similarities between the artists are more than just a shared interest in identity – Cahun and Wearing regularly use the same motifs in their work, whether donning masks in photobooths or experimenting with the illusionary qualities of mirrors. A whole room is dedicated to a comparison between Gillian Wearing’s performance piece Dancing in Peckham and some of Cahun’s stills where she dances and poses in different positions at her adopted home in Jersey. Both of these works point to a lack of inhibition and being completely with the self. Gillian Wearing appears somehow both liberated and tragic, dancing around to music in her head in the middle of a shopping centre in front of puzzled onlookers, whilst Cahun floats around a desolate landscape with only the gaze of the camera on her.
Image: At Claude Cahun's grave by Gillian Wearing 2015; Courtesy the artist Copyright: Gillian Wearing, courtesy Maureen Paley, London, Regen Projects, Los Angeles and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York;
Some may find the comparison between these two artists jarring, but Behind The Mask is full of stimulating, eccentric and beautiful work. Between the two artists the number of ‘selves’ that are apparent in this exhibition make it constantly engaging. It’s interesting, particularly in Cahun’s case, to look at these works at a time when identity politics are a prevalent topic and the complexities of gender identity are more widely understood. In Behind the Mask, Cahun and Wearing unravel and affirm their different identities and guises, removing masks to reveal endless new ones.