The National Portrait Gallery's new exhibition shows the "extraordinary links" between Claude Cahun and Gillian Wearing, finds BJP in an article first published in our March 2017 issue
Early 20th-century surrealist photographer Claude Cahun (1894-1954) and contemporary artist Gillian Wearing come together in The National Portrait Gallery’s ambitious new exhibition, Behind the mask, another mask.
The exhibition includes 100 works by the two artists who, despite being separated by 70 years, have “extraordinary links” according to curator Sarah Howgate, in an interview for the March 2017 issue of BJP. “Although their trajectories as artists are markedly different, many parallels can be drawn between their work,” she says.
The exhibition – the result of a “light-bulb moment” at a round-table meeting of NPG directors – addresses themes of gender, masquerade and performance through images that often involve the artists dressing up and wearing masks to portray a character or communicate a message.
In an early Cahun self-portrait the photographer is dressed as a ‘dandy’, for example – a young man with a shaved head and a neatly pressed black suit, complete with a handkerchief tucked into the breast pocket. The show explores “Cahun’s transformation from young girl to gender-neutral figure”, explains Howgate.
Cahun, a contemporary of Man Ray who was born Lucy Schwob, devoted her life to dismantling stereotypes of gender identity via her images and politically-charged essays. “Masculine? Feminine?” she wrote. “It depends on the situation. Neuter is the only gender that always suits me.” Elsewhere, she simply stated: “I will never finish removing all these masks.”
Cahun was also an active member of the resistance movement in Jersey during the Second World War with her partner, the artist Marcel Moore [who was born Suzanne Malherbe]. They distributed leaflets encouraging Nazis to desert and dropped subversive notes – written in German, as if from an officer – into their pockets to chip away at morale. They were arrested and imprisoned for almost a year, an experience which is said to have deeply affected Cahun, and which may have led to her early death aged 60.
Born almost 10 years after Cahun’s death, Wearing has often sought inspiration from her predecessor’s work. Her portrait Me as Cahun holding a mask of my face is a homage to Cahun’s I am in training don’t kiss me – holding a Venetian-style mask of her own face on a string, Wearing sports a mask of Cahun’s visage but peers out at the viewer through the eye-holes.
Wearing, who won the Turner Prize in 1997 and is associated with the Young British Artist movement, has also made a series inspired by the French surrealist, some of it produced after a recent trip to Jersey (where much of Cahun’s photographic archive is still held) and previously unseen by the public.
A collection of playful Polaroids that show how Wearing’s appearance has changed over time has also been unearthed for the exhibition. “They are fascinating and interesting in their casualness, which is unlike the way that Gillian works now,” says Howgate. “They are very homemade.”
The show concludes with a series by Wearing in which she creates “her spiritual family”, says Howgate, “with homages to Claude Cahun as well as Diane Arbus and Andy Warhol.”
Behind the mask, another mask – Gillian Wearing & Claude Cahun is on show from 09 March – 29 May at the National Portrait Gallery, London. Entry costs £10, concessions £8.50. This article was originally published in the March 2017 issue of BJP, which is available via www.thebjpshop.com