Gillian Wearing and Claude Cahun: Behind the mask, another mask. National Portrait Gallery (Visited 1.4.17)
The exhibition is part of the “I am me?” season of displays and events exploring art gender and identity at the National Portrait Gallery. It brings together two photographers, of different eras, Claude Cahun (1894-1954) and Gillian Wearing (b1963). They both have a fascination with self-portraits and use self-images to explore themes around identity and gender and often play these out through masquerade and performance.
The starting point to the exhibition was Cahun’s series “I am in training” (1927) where she blurred gender distinctions, dressed as a weightlifter but with painted lips and love hearts on her cheeks.
Wearing has responded to Cahun’s image with “Me as Cahun holding a mask of my face” (2012), where she represents herself both as Cahun and as an artist; holding a mask of her own face and wearing a mask of Cahun’s face over her own.
Cahun’s image makes me feel uncomfortable as her male costume with items such as stuck on nipples on her top, are at odds with each other; I guess this is the effect she desired. Wearing’s image is softer and more playful as she shows she can take on another identity (female).
The first part of the exhibition shows Cahun and Wearing’s early self-portraits:
In their youth they were both highly conscious of their own self-images and used the camera to begin with experimenting with their many different guises.
Cahun was born Lucy Schwob and transitioned from young woman to gender neutral. With her life-long partner Suzanne Malherbe they adopted gender neutral names, Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore. There are many self-portraits of Cahun: as a young girl with wild thick hair splayed out as if on a hospital bed, possibly referring to her periods of ill health and anorexia, in a turban, in an oriental setting, reading and so on. In the picture below she sits on granite rocks with hair arranged as a boy (1915-17)
Her self-portraits gradually become even more gender neutral, one with a shaven head shirt and braces another with a towel arranged as a Greek robe with bronzed skin, another in profile wearing a corduroy jacket possibly a recreation of a profile portrait of her father and below dressed as a dandy (1921-22).
It depends on the situation.
Neuter is the only gender that suits me”
(Claude Cahun 1930, written on the exhibition wall).
Her early work is very narcissistic although obviously focusing on how gender represents identity, I’m not sure if she was expressing a wider issue than her own identity.
Gillian Wearing’s “My Polaroid years” are early self-portraits about 250 shots, in which she used makeshift props and backgrounds to reveal everyday life. Her mood ranges from the self-consciously performative to the ordinary and every day. She began taking the Polaroid’s as a project to examine her own age progression rather than an exhibition material and said when she viewed them objectively it was as though they were portraits of someone else
“In a way they became anthropological images because I was distancing myself from being an artist taking the photographs…I was doing something as a photographer, but in a very unphotographic way”
(Wearing from the exhibition wall, 2017)
Viewing them myself was like looking at her selfies over a period of time, unlike Cahun’s early self-portraits I don’t see any wider issues being addressed. However as they were taken for herself rather than an audience then I don’t think they can be called self-indulgent. Both Cahun and Wearing certainly seemed to lose their inhibitions through performance.
However I did find her Me:me self-referential photograph below very interesting, conceived in the 1990s she appears to be looking at a magazine about her herself; is she referencing her multiple selves as the self-portrait repeats itself and disappears into infinity? Though possibly if it was to reference her multiple selves each image would have been different?
(FAD Magazine, 2017)
“You always feel that you are the mask to some degree”
(Wearing, 2012 from exhibition wall)
Masks became central to her practice. In 1994 she encouraged sitters in masks to confess all on video “Confess all on video. Don’t worry, you’ll be in disguise. Intrigued? Call Gillian.
Then in 2014 she reconstructed herself at 21 in a photograph from 1984 to represent her artistic life and life in a bed sit in a tableau evidence of interest in Dali and surrealism with a mask of her younger self over her face.
Initially she used prosthetic masks with crudely cut out eyes, which I find disturbing:
Secrets and Lies, 2009© Gillian Wearing (Skidmore, 2017).
In this image she poses with her head and shoulders turned as in a historical pose.
Self portrait of me in mask 2011. Hudson, 2017)
Cahun similarly had a fascination with masks and masquerades “Under this mask, another mask” (1930) so she that could adopt an alter ego or other personality. Cahun obliterates her eyes whilst wearing always looks at the viewer. Cahun’s self-portrait below (1928) as a masked figure in cloak decorated with masks is apparently a visualisation of her belief that she was made up of multiple self’s.
Both artists were interested in transcending time, and shared concerns about the passage of time. Wearing’s photograph appears blurred on a clock face “Me as a clock” (1990). Her “Rock n’ roll 70s” wallpaper uses forensic artists and her own technical work to create impressions of how she might look aged effects of plastic surgery with her changing hairstyles and dress influenced by Warhol works.
She also reconstructed a picture of the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe ”Me as Mapplethorpe” (2009) wearing a mask of him just before his death in 1988, she tried to ensure her eyes held the same psychological expression as his, showing inner turbulence but still very much alive.
(Royal Academy, 2017).
Both artists focus on their identities, though Cahun on gender whilst Wearing explores her identity more in relation to others whatever their gender. Cahun’s “Studies for a keepsake” (1925) where her disembodied head floats in different poses like an animal in a bell jar but with painted lips and shoulder length hair, shows her trapped by her female identity.
- I think they are both using their work to explore themselves as individuals (Cahun) and in relation to others (Wearing); sometimes using disguises or performance to investigate their ideas.
- They are both unafraid to express themselves through their photography.
- Their viewpoints are subjectively driven from their position in their worlds, as they analysis themselves, so their work is self-exploratory.
- They are both using self-portraiture to question identity and wearing in particular how it can fluctuate widely.
My learning points
- Self-portraiture may be less than comfortable (for me) but it could be useful to for self-exploration.
- I should embrace assignment 3 “Putting yourself in the picture” to explore my own identity.
- Self-portraiture is not necessarily narcissistic but could be therapeutic and enlightening.
FAD Magazine. (2017). Gillian Wearing and Claude Cahun: Behind the mask, another mask at National Portrait Gallery – FAD Magazine. [online] Available at: http://fadmagazine.com/2017/04/07/__trashed-9/ [Accessed 14 Apr. 2017].
Hudson, M (2017) “Gillian Wearing And Claude Cahun: Behind The Mask, Another Mask, National Portrait Gallery, Review”. The Telegraph. N.p., 2017. Web. 7 Apr. 2017.
Johnson, S. (2017). Claude Cahun: A Very Curious Spirit. [online] AnOther. Available at: http://www.anothermag.com/art-photography/7358/claude-cahun-a-very-curious-spirit [Accessed 16 Apr. 2017].
Queerculturalcenter.org. (2017). Acting Out: Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore. [online] Available at: http://www.queerculturalcenter.org/Pages/Tirza/TirzaEssay1.html [Accessed 16 Apr. 2017].
Royalacademy.org.uk. (2017). Behind the mask: Gillian Wearing RA | Blog | Royal Academy of Arts. [online] Available at: http://www.royalacademy.org.uk/article/gillian-wearing-vincent-award [Accessed 16 Apr. 2017].
Skidmore, M. (2017). The Many Selves of Gillian Wearing. [online] AnOther. Available at: http://www.anothermag.com/art-photography/7906/the-many-selves-of-gillian-wearing [Accessed 15 Apr. 2017].
200percentmag. (2017). Gillian Wearing interview. [online] Available at: http://200-percent.com/gillian-wearing-2/ [Accessed 16 Apr. 2017].
Please note: Any images by other photographers used on this site are accredited and are being used for personal research and educational purposes only.