The many masks of Gillian Wearing and Claude Cahun

Published 16 March 2017

As a new show at the National Portrait Gallery places the two artists side by side, Lauren Elkin explores how Gillian Wearing RA finds identity-blurring inspiration in the inter-war writer and photographer Claude Cahun.

  • From the Spring 2017 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

    A pilot with lens caps for goggles. Little Red Riding Hood, her cape dotted with masks. Her father. A dandy. These are the many faces of Claude Cahun on show in a new exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery that brings the French writer and photographer’s inter-war work into conversation with the work of contemporary artist Gillian Wearing RA.

    We don’t know why Cahun took her extraordinary self-portraits. She seems to have considered herself mainly to be a writer, keeping her photography private, bar a few exceptions: the queasily self-regarding What Do You Want From Me?, showing two double-exposed images of the artist’s shaved head, on the cover of a 1929 novel; the alien-like Human Frontier in a 1930 issue of Bifur magazine; and a few of the dress-up self-portraits cut and pasted into the photomontages marking chapter breaks in her autobiography, Disavowed Confessions (1930).

    Born Lucy Schwob in 1894, Cahun used several pseudonyms before settling on Claude Cahun. Her life partner (and step-sister), the illustrator and designer Suzanne Malherbe, took the nom de plume Marcel Moore, and the women lived and made art together for nearly 40 years, in Paris, then Jersey, until Cahun’s death in 1954.

    After her rediscovery in the 1980s, Cahun quickly became something of a poster girl for feminist art critics, who praised her blurring of gender and identity, and saw her as the predecessor Cindy Sherman Hon RA didn’t know she had. A 1994 show at the ICA put her work into conversation with that of Virginia Nimarkoh and Royal Academician Tacita Dean.

  • That was when Gillian Wearing – a few years before her 1997 Turner Prize award – discovered Cahun’s photographs. As a female artist who also worked with her own image, Wearing says she felt “very close to the work” when she saw it, and a decade later, took up where Cahun left off, taking pictures of herself posing as members of her own family, constructing elaborate, naturalistic masks that nevertheless point to their own artificiality, with their visible eye-holes through which she peeks out. It wasn’t long before Wearing was including members of her artistic family: Robert Mapplethorpe, Diane Arbus – and Claude Cahun.

    Cahun and Wearing’s shared interest in the mask explores a kind of confession, self-interrogation and element of chance. “You can’t go in knowing the result,” Wearing says of her own early self-portrait experiments with a Polaroid camera, many of which are in the show. "We never get to know ourselves. We are forever changing and contradicting ourselves. We’re always evolving.“ Identity, for Cahun, is itself a mask, but not one you can remove to reveal some simple truth: "Behind this mask, another mask,” she wrote. “I will never finish removing all these masks.”

    Cahun’s fluid conception of identity seems more relevant than ever, given the growing awareness of transgender identity. And yet this may perhaps be one more label Cahun would reject. In her refusal to be pinned down, Cahun remains always slightly ahead of us. “We’re only just catching up to her,” says Wearing.

    Gillian Wearing and Claude Cahun: Behind the Mask, Another Mask, National Portrait Gallery, London, 9 March – 29 May 2017.

    Lauren Elkin is the author of Flâneuse: Women Walk the City, and a lecturer at the University of Liverpool.

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