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Turning the self-portrait on its head

Behind the mask

Two artists, separated by time but united by their conviction that identity is malleable, turn the self-portrait on its head

Two artists, separated by time but united by their conviction that identity is malleable, turn the self-portrait on its head

David Bennun | May 10th 2017

Portraiture tends to be a straightforward form: an artist creates an image of a person, and we understand that this image represents that person. The National Portrait Gallery in London has staged an experiment which scrambles this perception entirely. “Behind the mask, another mask” brings together the work of Claude Cahun (1894-1954), a French photographer, and Gillian Wearing, a contemporary British artist. The two are divided by time – Cahun died nine years before Wearing was born – but united by the idea that identity is a façade, and life a performance.
 
Cahun was a surrealist photographer who specialised in self-portraits. But rather than appearing as herself in these images, she would dress up, as a boy with cropped hair or a middle-aged nurse. In these tableaux, in which you can see parallels with Cindy Sherman’s work, she cloaks herself in ideas she wished to project: that the dream world could be superimposed upon the real one; that gender could be remade by the imagination. The latter was an idea that she embodied. When she was around 25 years old, Cahun – originally named Lucy Schwob – took on a deliberately androgynous name; she began describing her gender as “neuter”. 

Gillian Wearing, a star of contemporary art, shares Cahun’s fascination with masquerade. But where Cahun relied chiefly upon costume, make-up and dark-room techniques to change her appearance, Wearing deploys sophisticated prosthetics and CGI to the same end. She appears not only as different versions of herself, but also as family members and several of her heroes – among them Cahun. To walk through her portion of the exhibition is to trek through the uncanny valley: her use of state-of-the-art computer animation makes it difficult to pinpoint where the human Wearing ends and her digital counterpart begins. Only her eyes, the same thoughtful brown eyes gazing through each mask, betray the person behind the façade. You follow them around the room.

Cahun and Wearing’s work – which is simultaneously playful and serious – confounds your idea of what portraiture is, because it confounds your idea of what a person is, as being comprised of a single, stable identity. Cahun and Wearing remake themselves over and over again, with such ingenuity that you start to wonder who they were in the first place. One ends up not knowing what to think. This sense of confusion and disorientation is heightened by the way the show is organised. Their work is sometimes displayed side by side, sometimes shown in different rooms. It leaves you feeling bewildered – which is both unnerving and invigorating.

 

“I am in training don't kiss me” (c. 1927) by Claude Cahun; “Me as Cahun holding a mask of my face” (2012) by Gillian Wearing

This pair of pictures serves as the introduction to the exhibition. In the image by Cahun, one of her most famous, she appears as a kind of human puzzle-box. Is this flirtatious Pierrot figure a boy costumed as a girl, or vice-versa? Does its direct gaze contradict the coy message on its shirt? And why is it holding a set of weights embellished with comic-strip references? Decades before David Bowie and Boy George, Cahun jumbles up confusion and seduction. Wearing adds another layer of mystery by substituting a mask for Cahun’s weights. Her figure is more distinctly female, but the mask she holds resembles her own face more than the face she wears, which mirrors Cahun’s. Where Cahun plays with gender, asking “What am I?”, Wearing’s image plays with personhood: “Who am I?”

 

“Me as Mapplethorpe” (2009) by Gillian Wearing; “Self-portrait (as a dandy, head and shoulders)” (1921-22) by Claude Cahun

In this portrait, Wearing transforms into Robert Mapplethorpe, a photographer she admires. The image exemplifies her skill at dressing-up and her talent at conjuring special effects. Were the portrait titled simply “Mapplethorpe”, and hung in the National Portrait Gallery’s main collection, I might never have guessed he wasn’t its subject – much as I might not have realised that Cahun’s self-portrait as a rather severe dandy hadn’t been posed by a flash stripling. The portraits are both deceptive and transgressive, but neither purely for its own sake. They point to gender as something defined by costume rather than biology.

 

“Rock ’n’ Roll 70 (wallpaper)” (2015) by Gillian Wearing

Imagining how her 70-year-old self might look was not enough for Wearing; here she imagines 15 possible 70-year-old selves, including one who poses with her partner Michael Landy, also depicted as he might look at age 70, and another who hangs a motherly arm over the shoulder of a younger self. It suggests the question of who we will be is every bit as open as that of who we are. The title is derived from a smaller piece, which sets the present-day Wearing in a plain white T-shirt alongside a 70-year-old version in the same garment, now bearing the logo, “ROCK’n’ROLL TILL I DIE”.

 

“At Claude Cahun's grave” (2015) by Gillian Wearing; “Self-portrait (with masked face and graveyard)” (c.1947) by Claude Cahun 

Faceless and spectral, a ghost of herself returning in time, Cahun haunts the cemetery where she may expect one day to lie. Visiting Cahun’s grave, Wearing duplicates this eeriness, her face hidden by a sinister shroud of her own black hair. The photograph is both a tribute to Cahun, and a premonition of the mask behind which, finally, no other will be found. 

Behind the mask, another mask National Portrait Gallery, London, until May 29th

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