Home » Exhibitions » Exhibition Review – Gillian Wearing and Claude Cahun: Behind the mask, another mask at the National Portrait Gallery from 9th March to 29th May 2017

Exhibition Review – Gillian Wearing and Claude Cahun: Behind the mask, another mask at the National Portrait Gallery from 9th March to 29th May 2017


Gillian Wearing and Claude Cahun: Behind the mask, another mask at the National Portrait Gallery brings together over 100 works by French artist Claude Cahun (1894–1954) and British contemporary artist Gillian Wearing (b.1963). Whilst it may be seen as an unusual collaboration being born 70 years apart, however both artists share similar themes of gender, identity, masquerade and performance.

Cahun was affiliated with the French Surrealist movement and associated with André Breton and Man Ray, despite these associations her work was rarely exhibited during her lifetime.

Gillian Wearing won the Turner Prize in 1997 and has exhibited extensively in the United Kingdom and internationally.

Although the scale of the photographs between the two woman varies greatly, the themes are remarkably similar. Cahun and her partner, the artist and stage designer Marcel Moore created a series of photographs where Cahun is depicted wearing masks and costumes and developing Surrealist representations. She plays with different aspects of her appearance by shaving her hair and wearing wigs and often challenges the traditional notions of gender roles.

Wearing’s photographic self –portraits are much more complex by incorporating recreations of her as others in a range of guises, In one series she becomes her immediate family members using prosthetic masks.

Both sets of photographs illustrate the two artists’ fascination with identity and gender and the art of performance and masquerade.

Wearing is not only influenced by Cahun but reconstructs some of Cahun’s self-portraits.  Wearing’s Me as Cahun holding a mask of my face is a reconstruction of Cahun’s self-portrait Don’t kiss me I’m in training of 1927.

Specially created for the exhibition in tribute to the surrealist work of Claude Cahun, My Exquisite Corpse is Wearing’s own version of a parlour game played by the Surrealists in which each participant draws on a sheet of paper, folds it to conceal the work and passes it to the next player for their contribution. For this composite portrait of herself, Wearing invited fellow artists Gary Hume and Michael Landy to collaborate, with Hume creating the head, Landy, the torso, and Wearing the legs.

Also shown for the first time in the UK is Rock n’roll 70 wallpaper (2015-16), a computer-generated impression of the artist aging.

This fascinating exhibition explores the many themes of gender, identity, masquerade, performance and the idea of the self.  Although separated by 70 years, both artists provide often disquieting portraits that reflect how identity and the idea of the self are intrinsically linked. This has never been so topical with concerns that the creation of online persona are often at odds with ‘real life’.

Our Video Review available here

Visiting London Guide Rating – Highly Recommended

To find out more about the exhibition, visit the National Portrait Gallery website here.

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