Review: Claude Cahun & Gillian Wearing, National Portrait Gallery

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As you enter this exhibition – the first to pair works from French surrealist Claude Cahun with those by British contemporary artist, Gillian Wearing – you are welcomed by a blown-up black and white image of Cahun, perched on a stool. Her short hair is slicked into two kiss-curls on her forehead, and her cute painted lips, accentuated into a heart shape, are complemented with love-hearts painted on her cheeks.  

It’s a pretty picture – until you realise this isn’t what it seems.

This isn’t Cahun, but a photo of Gillian Wearing. In it, she is dressed as Cahun was in her series of ‘I am training don’t kiss me’ photos from the 1920s – some of which are nearby. Cahun’s series was a clever pastiche on the male strong man/weightlifter image that was so common in the 1920s. And a powerful interrogation of a figure that was the embodiment of male physical strength, of machismo.

And so this work becomes multi-layered – a woman, playing a woman who was playing a man. Intriguing.

But then there are the masks. For in her image, Wearing isn’t playing with dumbbells. Instead the weight in her hand is a mask of her own face. The weight of identity. The weight of the masks we all wear.

And then you step in closer, examining Wearing’s face and you suddenly think, ‘wait, that’s not just make-up she’s wearing. Is she wearing another mask too?’

And all this makes this the perfect image to open the show, for its deceptively simple. Easy to admire, maybe even just to glance over. But there’s so much going on beneath the surface, and its themes of gender, identity and the masks we wear are the themes explored throughout the show.

Though they are from different generations as well as different countries – Claude Cahun died in 1954, nine years before Gillian was born in 1963 – the influence of Cahun’s experimentation in Wearing’s work is obvious, from works such as Me as an artist in 1984, 2014, where surrealist art references are scattered in the background, to the explicit use of masks.

The larger images on display are from Wearing (Cahun’s photography is more fragile, the tiny images dwarfed in size by Wearing’s posters – though not in impact) and in most of these Wearing’s face is covered by thin silicone or plastic masks that, at quick glance, you would miss. But it’s these masks that are key to what Wearing is exploring.

Take the large strip of passport-style photos of her. Glance at it once and you’d think Gillian had just blown up an old strip of photo booth pictures as some kind of self-portrait. But look again. These photos were taken only recently yet the pictures are of a young woman. Gillian has covered her face with a mask of herself, but younger. Regeneration? Quest for eternal youth?

And, similarly, that quest for a perfect self is explored in another work where the airbrushed features are accompanied by a supermodel pose and enhanced breasts. This is an examination of all of us today and who we are trying to be. What kind of mask are we all trying to wear these days?

Cahun’s interrogation of gender is also not lost on Wearing. There is a fascinating collection of photos from Cahun where she shaved her head and took a series of self-portraits as a dandy. Dapper, masculine suits, and a distinctly male full-frontal pose with a direct gaze into the camera.

Wearing seeks to capture that spirit in her recreations of iconic images from Andy Warhol and, most impressively, Robert Mapplethorpe. In the latter, Wearing recreates the photographer’s famous last image taken a few months before he died of an AIDS-related illness. In her photo, exactly like his, the hand grips the skull-topped staff, and the gaunt face is present, complete with its haunting gaze.

There is perhaps more risk, more venture in Cahun’s work here. You sense she was open to experimentation, more prepared to lay a path for others to follow rather than follow one already laid out.

There is a beautiful individual image of her curled up in an old cupboard, replicating what she did as a young girl. And there are some intriguing examinations of death both when she was younger – playing as a body laid out to rest amongst the flowers – and in her later years around graves and graveyards.

But I came out from this show wanting to see more, from both of them. And that is a great testament to how this show is a terrific introduction to both artists, and that it’s a great taster of the themes that fascinate and link them – and how those themes remain relevant and fascinating today.

National Portrait Gallery, London, to May 29, 2017
Admission £12 (incl. donation). Concessions available.

Image Credits:
1 Me as Cahun holding a mask of my face by Gillian Wearing, 2012; Courtesy the artist and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York and Maureen Paley, London

2 I am in training don’t kiss me by Claude Cahun c. 1927; Jersey Heritage Collections

3 Self-Portrait of Me Now in a Mask by Gillian Wearing, 2011 Collection of Mario Testino

4 Self portrait (in cupboard) by Claude Cahun

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