‘Join us’, the byline reads, ‘as we explore and examine the shifting gender boundaries through ground-breaking fashion, music and design collaborations.’ Two years ago Selfridges, the department store giant, introduced ‘Agenda’: a clothing section dedicated to unisex fashion. It was official – post-gender had entered the mainstream and it was being sold to us as a brand. Soon after, other fashion retailers such as Zara hopped on the bandwagon whilst Jaden Smith modelled women’s clothing for designer label, Louis Vuitton.
But, rewind back 100 years to a young French woman in her early twenties, who after shaving her head and adorning an over-sized blazer and braces, took a series of captivating self-portraits. The photographer was of course, Claude Cahun. Preferring the term gender-neutral to male or female, Cahun rejected the binary orders of the time, questioning the arbitrary distinctions between genders. Currently, The National Portrait Gallery is presenting the first exhibition to pair Cahun with contemporary artist and YBA, Gillian Wearing, which closes next week. The title, Behind the mask, another mask aptly sets the tone as it describes the way in which these two distinct artists present and re-present their identity within completely different contexts.
The exhibition opens with a large photograph of Wearing, who dangles a prosthetic mask of her face by her side. Her costume and face paint – thin arched eyebrows, a heart on each cheek and stylised pouty lips – is based on a self-portrait by Cahun, entitled, I am in training don’t kiss me. Despite the romanticism of her doe-eyed expression and overtly ‘feminine’ aesthetic, her hair is short and slicked down, with two curls to form a fringe much like the archetypal ‘strongman’ from the circus and freak-shows of the early nineteenth century. In Cahun’s version, she sits with a barbell across her lap. Both photographs deal with dual identities but the subjects are purposefully ambiguous: is Cahun femme or macho? Is Wearing the sum of the artists she’s inspired by? Both artists effectively perform and play with gendered aesthetics and it’s the affinity between these two photographs where it is most apparent.
The rest of the show is organised chronologically, telling the story of two distinct artistic lives that overlap in practice, despite working within completely different eras. The connections between the artists are evident: experimenting with masks and costume, their self-characterisation, a fascination of the female form, yet Cahun’s motives are more overtly political or rather, were much ahead of her time. Many of her self-portraits, situated in the first room, were taken before 1920: a period where the artist experimented with multiple characters and settings – from bronzed sunbather to fierce medusa.
Cahun, who was affiliated with the French surrealists such as Andre Breton and Man Ray, formed her own artistic pathway within a male dominated movement that often used women as erotic objects in their work. Never afraid to meet the eyes of the viewer or hold the male gaze she challenged the patriarchal cannon of art that often depicted women as nude or looking away. Her stoic nature is further explored later on in the exhibition, with a series of portraits taken after her and her partner, Marcel Moore, were imprisoned in Nazi-occupied Jersey due to their involvement in the French Resistance. In one extraordinary photograph she grips a Nazi badge between her teeth: a strong symbol of her strength, bravery and survival.
Cahun’s photographs, mostly silver gelatin prints that are sepia in tone, appear diminutive compared to Wearing’s glossy, high-resolution photographs, which makes the addition of a series of polaroids Wearing took in the nineties, a pleasant surprise. Presented like an anthropological study, Wearing took regular ‘selfies’ throughout this period. Although at times expressive, Wearing’s sultry poses are raw, honest depictions of herself. At the time, Wearing was unaware that such an act was part of her wider practice. A portrait entitled, Myself as an artist highlights our innate fascination with the past and our selves in hindsight. Wearing never considered herself as an artist in 1984, only in time did she realise what it was she was trying to achieve.
As the exhibition continues, Wearing’s photographs become more sophisticated, her masks more realistic and yet they become all the more horrifying. Yet the artist chooses not to completely fool her audience. She leaves tell tale clues to let us know it’s her behind the mask via the gaps between the roughly-cut rubbery eye holes or a slither of netting along the hair-line. Where as Cahun predominantly used masks to explore multiple identities, Wearing incarnates different versions of herself, whether it’s family members, past and present, or artists she’s inspired by such as Mapplethorpe, Warhol and Arbus.
At times it was difficult to reconcile the historical contexts these artists worked within. Cahun was a prisoner of war who strove to re-define gender norms, most of which, unfortunately, continue to prevail even today, whilst Wearing’s photographs are more personal and introspective. Nevertheless, if, as Judith Butler famously states, gender is performance then both these artists deserve a standing ovation.
By Wilhemina Madeley
Gillian Wearing & Claude Cahun, Behind The Mask, Another Ask, is on until the 29 May 2017, at the National Portrait Gallery in London.