Gillian Wearing and Claude Cahun at National Portrait Gallery
The full title of this intriguing exhibition at National Portrait Gallery is Gillian Wearing and Claude Cahun: Behind the Mask, Another Mask. It’s a reference to a Claude Cahun quote, a stunningly talented but little-exhibited artist from the surrealist movement whose photographs explore gender, identity, masquerade and performance. Her provocative work is paired with Turner Prize-winner Gillian Wearing’s. Although a chronological divide of around seven decades separates Cahun and Wearing, surprising similarities can be found in their work.
The bodies of work by both artists are exceptionally strong and Wearing’s 2012 piece Me As Cahun Holding a Mask of My Face provides an anchoring centre point around which the rest of the show is built. This photograph depicts Wearing masquerading as Cahun, wearing an uncannily lifelike mask of Cahun’s face and holding another mask of her own visage. Shown alongside the original photographs by Cahun which inspired the work, the exhibition peels back and reveals layer upon layer of masking and unmasking in a thought-provoking way.
Although the intellectual premise of the show is strong, there is undoubtedly something a bit odd about the arrangement. Cahun appears to be the focus of the exhibition, and the wall texts draw out fascinating details from her life; born Lucy Schwob, she adopted the androgynous persona Claude Cahun and moved with her female partner Marcel Moore to Jersey, where she was imprisoned by the Nazis for helping the resistance during WWII.
However, Wearing’s earlier work simply doesn’t stand up to the same scrutiny as Cahun’s, and it is notably relegated to a small side-room early on in the show. Her later work is highly accomplished, but there is something about its presentation that jars. In the final room, the viewer suddenly realises that Wearing was intended to be the focus of the show all along; her large-scale self-portraits in colourful frames scream out for attention, overpowering the delicacy of Cahun’s tiny images.
Although this contrast is somewhat distracting, it doesn’t diminish the artistic achievement of both artists in this powerful exhibition. Cahun’s work is rarely exhibited, so it’s worth visiting simply for the chance to see these wonderful pieces challenging gender norms. The combination with Wearing is occasionally odd, but also affords some interesting visual commentary.
Gillian Wearing and Claude Cahun: Behind the Mask, Another Mask is at the National Portrait Gallery from 9th March until 29th May 2017, for further information visit here.