Pairing the work of contemporary artist Gillian Wearing with the innovative early-twentieth century photographer Claude Cahun is an inspired choice by the National Portrait Gallery. Despite being born 70 years apart, the two female artists address similar themes around gender, identity, masquerade and performance.
Cahun was born in Nantes in 1894 and studied at the Sorbonne in Paris. In 1919 she changed her name to Claude Cahun from her birth name Lucy Schwob, identifying as agender. Her lifelong partner and step-sibling was stage designer Suzanne Malherbe who adopted the name Marcel Moore. Together they collaborated on various written works, sculptures, photomontages and collages. As a result of their roles in the French resistance, Cahun and Moore were imprisoned in Nazi-occupied Jersey during the Second World War and remained there after the war.
Cahun was rarely exhibited during her lifetime. She was affiliated with the French Surrealist movement along with Andre Breton and Man Ray. Her public identity was a commentary on the notions of sexuality, gender, beauty and logic. In her photographs she is often depicted wearing masks and costumes, changing her appearance by shaving her hair and wearing wigs which challenged traditional notions of gender representation.
Cahun’s views on non-binary gender and her ability to verbalise it seem a contemporary conceit.
Turner prize winner (1997) Wearing studied at Goldsmiths University and has exhibited extensively in the United Kingdom and internationally including solo exhibitions at the Whitechapel and Serpentine Galleries. Wearing’s photographic self-portrais incorporate painstaking recreations of herself as others in a range of intriguing and unsettling guises such as where she becomes her immediate family members using prosthetic masks or re-enacted photographs of artists she admires such as Andy Warhol and Robert Mapplethorpe. The mature, wise eyes that look out from a portrait photograph of Wearing as a child have a demonic, disturbing quality.
Both artists have a fascination with performance and masquerade. Cahun’s photographs are personal, intimate, small-scale and challenging. Her views on non-binary gender and her ability to verbalise it seem a contemporary conceit. “Masculine? Feminine? It depends on the situation. Neuter is the only gender that always suits me”. Her stance is reminiscent of British artist Gluck who around the same time,1918, had abandoned her full name Hannah Gluckstein in favour of using the name Gluck with no prefix or suffix or quotes, adopting men’s clothing, cropping her hair and smoking a pipe. Cahun’s photographs are a public display of a very personal turmoil while Wearing’s are all about the performance and the process.
Rock n’Roll 70 wallpaper (2015-16) fills the entire back wall of the exhibition. Here, Wearing has produced impressions of how she might age by showing the effects of plastic surgery, changing hairstyles and dress. It says more about technology than revealing any hidden depths to Wearing’s life and persona while referencing Nan Goldin and Cindy Sherman as well as Cahun.
Words/photos Sara Faith ©Artlyst 2017
Gillian Wearing and Claude Cahun: Behind the mask, another mask National Portrait Gallery until 29 May 2017 £12 adult