Claude Cahun was a photographer and artist associated with the surrealists; her work is radical, personal and sadly all-too-often overlooked. This exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery juxtaposes a wide variety of her photography with art by contemporary British artist Gillian Wearing, who has made works inspired by Cahun on several occasions.
Masks and masquerade pervade the show, with the show’s title drawn from a Cahun quote: “Under this mask, another mask. I will never finish removing all these faces.” Cahun’s face often looks like a mask in her self-portraits (usually photographed by her partner, Marcel Moore), with a shaven head, careful makeup and decidedly androgynous look. “Masculine? Feminine? It depends on the situation,” Cahun wrote. “Neuter is the only gender that suits me.”
The first work to greet the visitors is a nearly life-sized Wearing masquerading as Cahun: Me as Cahun Holding a Mask of My Face from 2012. Two hearts decorate her cheeks, her lips presumably painted red, mirroring the Cahun photographs opposite: “I am in training, don’t kiss me,” her shirt reads, a large dumbbell in one hand.
Both artists took extensive self-portraits from an early age: Self portrait against granite wall, Self portrait with head between hands, Self portrait as a dandy, head and shoulders establish Cahun’s identity as fluid, adaptable. Wearing’s collection of polaroids of herself – early selfies, in many respects – span 17 years, her art school days, and are overtly “anthropological” rather than personal.
Neither artist presents a consistent, singular identity: Cahun’s face is repeatedly rendered as mask; Wearing covers hers with one. She dons dozens of masks throughout the show, some of which are on display towards the start. She becomes Warhol, Mapplethorpe, Cahun; her mother and father, her sister and brother, herself aged three. Her large soulful eyes give her away every time, as does the subtle crease around them; the eyeless masks by themselves take on a differently eerie quality: vacant, lifelike, uncanny.
They interrogate the nature of identity, its performance, effortlessly. That Cahun was doing this in the 1920s and 1930s is astonishing; she was well versed in early feminist theory, such as Joan Riviere’s 1929 Womanliness as Masquerade, and she translated Havelock Ellis theories of a third gender in the same year. Wearing looks to similar sources, as well as Cahun herself and more recent artists, like Cindy Sherman.
Cahun’s later work, often distanced from Wearing’s, is often astonishing. She moved to Jersey with Moore in 1937; when the Nazis invaded during World War II, they perpetrated small acts of resistance against the occupying forces. Eventually, they were captured and sentenced to death: thankfully Jersey was liberated before they were killed. A portrait of Cahun with a Nazi badge in her mouth, triumphant yet clearly damaged, is a remarkable image. Taking a cat for a walk, blindfolded shows that she never lost her sense of humour. She died in 1954 and is buried next to her partner in Jersey; Wearing visited their grave in 2015, taking a solemn and touching photo.
Other works by Wearing pad out the show: portraits where she is ‘age processed’ to age 70 – with various plastic surgeries, outfits and hairstyles – cover one wall; a conscious reference to surrealism, My Exquisite Corpse, painted with Gary Hume and her partner Michael Landy, presents a disjointed portrait of herself. Dancing in Peckham, an older work from 1994, before she’d won the Turner Prize in 1997, is in equal parts comic and tragic.
Wearing’s new responses to Cahun – Claude and Gillian’s shadow, with Wearing standing in for an absent Moore, and Cahun and Wearing, wearing a mask of Cahun – stray slightly too close to pastiche: it’s a shame the artists could never have met and collaborated. But generally, throughout this show, the combination and juxtaposition of the two is insightful, refreshing, thoroughly worthwhile; more interesting than a purely historical or contemporary show, the National Portrait Gallery have here succeeded in presenting something engaging, entertaining yet different.
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