Shuffle the cards. Masculine? Feminine? It depends on the situation.
LONDON — If the history of art could be likened to a card game, Claude Cahun had the ultimate poker face. The writer, photographer, and collage artist wrote these words in 1930, at the age of 36, in her Parisian anti-memoir, Aveux non avenues. The book, illustrated with collages made from her own photographs, provides a glimpse into Cahun’s gender-fluid, identity-defying mantra: disembodied hands hold her all-seeing eye, her shaved head repeats across a black background, masked to varying degrees. She’s not feminine, she’s not masculine; she is indefinable. And that was exactly the point. And at the time, even though she ran with the Surrealist crowd, it was quite a radical mind-set to exteriorize. (Cahun never wrote about a preference for gender-neutral pronouns; as a result, most academic writing, and the exhibition text, refers to her with feminine pronouns.)
Born to an intellectual Jewish family in Nantes in 1894, Lucy Schwob changed her name to Claude Cahun around 1914, then moved to Paris and stripped herself of any gender-defining qualities. She shaved her head and began exploring her various “selves” in front of the camera, donning wigs, masks, and, sometimes, an incredibly bronzed fake tan.
Some 80 years later, one of these agendered personas had an immediate and revelatory effect on conceptual artist Gillian Wearing. A Turner Prize–winning Young British Artist, Wearing’s work centers around subverting the self, and she too uses masks to take on familiar and foreign identities. In her large-scale color photographs, she is transformed into her brother, her grandparents, strangers, and famous artists — upon close inspection, her eyes remain the same, and the lines of her masks and wigs are visible, but only just.
When Wearing came across a small, surviving vintage print of Cahun’s photograph “I am in training don’t kiss me” (1927), it struck her. The two artists are separated by two generations, their backgrounds and technologies worlds apart, but they approached personal identity in the same way. This kinship forms the basis of London’s National Portrait Gallery exhibition Gillian Wearing and Claude Cahun: Behind the Mask, Another Mask.
In “I am in training don’t kiss me,” Cahun sits in front of the camera as a strongman, but an effeminate one: a fake barbell across her lap, pale cheeks decorated with painted hearts, two slicks of hair curling on her forehead. The title of the photograph is written across her tight white shirt, and she stares defiantly at the camera, painted lips pursed as if tempting her viewer with the idea of a kiss.
But it’s Wearing’s version of the high-contrast image that opens the show: a large black-and-white photograph in which Wearing has donned a Cahun-specific mask, the same hook of the nose, the hair curled just so. In her 2012 homage, Wearing has replaced the barbell prop with a mask of her own face, dangling white and eyeless in front of the black backdrop.
The exhibition, curated by Tanya Bentley and organized in collaboration with Wearing herself, does well to place the two artists in dialogue with each other, rather than relying on continued compare/contrast scenarios. Cahun, despite her Surrealist associations, was largely forgotten after she moved to Jersey with her partner Marcel Moore in 1938. The Jersey Heritage Trust acquired her scant archive in 1995, but painfully little remains of her vintage work. But in these artist-focused rooms, Cahun’s photographs are allowed to breathe and her fascinating life is brought to the fore. Her younger body kneels, tanned and naked, in front of a pillowy quilt in one dreamlike scene; in another, her body is hidden by a large black cloak stitched with eye masks.
Moore also gets her due. She and Cahun were partners in life and in work, and it is likely that Moore pressed the shutter for many of Cahun’s images. (Even their relationship was avant-garde: Moore, née Suzanne Malherbe, and Cahun adopted gender-neutral names at the same time, and they were also stepsisters.) In a portrait Moore took of Cahun in 1945 — after the two had just spent a year in prison during the Nazi occupation of Jersey — Cahun grips a Nazi eagle badge between her teeth, victorious.
Where Cahun’s images are badly exposed or warped by time, Wearing’s are hyperreal. The control she exercises over her image could be likened to that of an Instagramming celeb, but her photographs aren’t necessarily critical; they are inquisitive (it takes her about four months to create one silicone mask). Family resemblance is fleshed out in a series inspired by her own family album; famous portraits of Wearing as Robert Mapplethorpe and Andy Warhol (in drag) hang amid portraits of herself, wearing a mask of — herself.
In the last room of the exhibition, Wearing places herself next to Cahun once more, this time physically. In “At Claude Cahun’s Grave” (2015), Wearing’s elbows rest on Cahun’s headstone, supporting her shrouded, specter-like head. The evidence of her pilgrimage hangs next to Cahun’s own “death portrait,” taken in the same cemetery a few years before her own death. A collaboration of sorts, the words carved into Cahun’s tombstone echo the two artists’ linked journeys of self (and selfless) discovery: And I Saw New Heavens and a New Earth.
Gillian Wearing and Claude Cahun: Behind the Mask, Another Mask continues at National Portrait Gallery (St Martin’s Place, London) through May 29.