National Portrait Gallery – A Review of Gillian Wearing and Claude Cahun: Behind the Mask, Another Mask

I am always overjoyed to see large exhibitions featuring female artists, particularly Surrealist artists. This exhibition presents a ‘spiritual camaraderie’ between Claude Cahun and Turner Prize Winner Wearing, setting their self-portraiture and object work into a fascinating reverie.

As research for this exhibition Wearing and Howgate traveled to Jersey to visit the Cahun archive, and to explore the spaces and places located in the portraits, poignantly taking a self-portrait at Cahun’s and Moore’s neighboring graves. Wearing reflects on how Cahun seemed to come alive again on this archival journey: “when we were there it felt like there was nothing in the way—it was just her. [ . . .] She has become part of my family.”11 Behind the Mask, Another Mask is a vital and energizing experience, as well as being disconcerting and slightly uncanny. It puts two female artists in conversation, and leaves the viewer to draw her own conclusion. Since the 1990s, scholarship on Cahun has grown, and in whichever guise—a Surrealist artist, a queer activist, a lesbian provocateur, a shape-shifter, a polemicist—this exhibition highlights her relevance and contemporary spirit not only through Wearing’s direct engagement with her work but also in the exploration of what it means to examine oneself through (self) portraiture and artistic collaboration. Surrealism courted the unexpected and thrived on collaborative experimentation, and the National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition continues in this tradition, asking for active participation in these associative self-portraits.

Please check out my review of the exhibition written for the excellent ASAP Journal ASAP Journal – Claude Cahun and Gillian Wearing at the National Portrait Gallery


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