Drawing together over 100 works by the French surrealist Claude Cahun (1894-1954) and Turner Prize winning Gillian Wearing (b.1963), the National Portrait Gallery’s current exhibition ‘Gillian Wearing and Claude Cahun: Behind the mask, another mask’ explores the increasingly prevalent themes of gender fluidity & human identity. Although the artists were born 70 years apart, remarkable parallels can be drawn from their work, including self-expression, masquerade and self-portraiture through photography.
Existing as a dialogue between the artists, Wearing’s large format images respond to Cahun’s tiny sepia photographs. At first glance, Cahun’s small scale work, depicting her many different guises, seem dwarfed when shown alongside Wearing’s colour rich photographs and technically advanced use of prosthetics. However the narrative and complexity of Cahun’s androgynous life story in which she transformed from a young woman to young boy, soon takes centre stage.
While the majority of surrealists were men, whose images of women appeared as eroticised objects, Cahun’s self-portraiture depicted female identity as a multi-faceted object, and she was hailed by friend, Andre Breton, as ‘one of the most curious spirits of our time’. Gillian Wearing’s photographs, primarily of herself behind curiously realistic silicone masks of her family or idols, are undoubtedly mesmerising but the exhibition’s real intrigue is the story behind this century’s first genderless post human, Claude Cahun.
Written by Camron Intern Ellie Rains.