A series of new portraits by artist Gillian Wearing (b.1963) are placed alongside the work of early 20th century French photographer Claude Cahun (1894–1954) for the first time at the National Portrait Gallery, London. Coinciding with last month’s International Women’s Day on 8 March, Gillian Wearing and Claude Cahun: Behind the mask, another mask brings together a total of 100 works by the two artists to showcase their shared interest in themes of gender, identity, masquerade and performance.
Cahun, along with her contemporaries André Breton and Man Ray, was affiliated with the French Surrealist movement although her work was rarely exhibited during her lifetime, while Turner Prize winner Wearing’s photographic self-portraits incorporate recreations of her as others in an intriguing range of guises. Despite their different backgrounds, parallels can be drawn between the artists whose fascination with identity and gender is played out through performance and masquerade. Wearing overtly references her counterpart in Me as Cahun holding a mask of my face, which is a reconstruction of Cahun’s self-portrait Don’t kiss me I’m in training (1927), and forms the starting point of the exhibition.
Notable pieces on display include the monumental Rock n’roll 70 wallpaper (2015-16), a computer-generated impression of the artist aging, and new commission My Exquisite Corpse. A tribute to the surrealist work of Cahun, it portrays Wearing’s version of a parlour game played by the Surrealists in which each participant draws on a sheet of paper, then folds and passes it to the next player for their contribution. Here, Wearing collaborated with fellow artists Gary Hume and Michael Landy: Hume creating the head, Landy, the torso, and Wearing the legs.
Intertwined within the exhibition is a foreboding self-portrait of a masked Cahun, taken in the graveyard where she was to be buried a few years later. Wearing ‘collaborates’ with her forebear in new work, At Cahun’s Grave (2015). The artist poses behind Cahun and her partner Marcel Moore’s shared tombstone with her hair combed over her face, to create a darker version of Cahun’s featureless mask. Wearing cups her hands around her face, mirroring the original photograph in an attempt to peel back the layers of the enigmatic artist more than 60 years after her death.
Elsewhere, in Cahun and Wearing, the artists stand side-by-side, like twins, dressed in the same dark cloaks. A single floating arm appears from the opening of each cloak signifying their shared fascination with disembodied limbs. The exhibition’s title Behind the mask, another mask adapts a quotation from Cahun’s Surrealist writings. It forms part of I am me, a season of displays and events exploring art, gender and identity at the National Portrait Gallery.
Gillian Wearing and Claude Cahun: Behind the mask, another mask, until 29 May, National Portrait Gallery, London.
Find out more: www.npg.org.uk.
1. Claude Cahun, Self-Portrait (shaved head, material draped over body), 1920. Jersey Heritage Collections.