So a dramatic change in fortune for the Arty Bum has lead to a new job, as a Visitor Services Assistant at the National Portrait Gallery. This means I spend much of my time wandering around, looking at portraits and waiting for a terrorist attack of some kind. It’s an interesting way of experiencing a Gallery environment, forcing me to examine each painting very, very closely for as long as 20 minutes at a time. Somehow, I still find new things to look at after a month of working in this role. Which is certainly a testament to the collection, but also says something about the gallery experience itself. Next time I visit an exhibition I think I’ll spend a lot longer just soaking it all in.
I wanted to tell y’all about the current (rather poorly attended) exhibition at the NPG, Gillian Wearing and Claude Cahun: Behind the Mask Another Mask. Having worked there a couple of times, I feel pretty well acquainted with the work and frankly outraged at the lack of interest from the general public in this thought-provoking and boundary-pushing show. Bringing together the work of two artists, generationally divided by about 70 years, but thematically linked by their exploration of identity. I was previously unaware of the work of French-born surrealist Cahun, who was a gender-neutral pioneer and thorn in the side of Nazi authorities for most of WWII. Seen through the prism of Wearing’s work, the modernity of Cahun’s photography and collage is exposed. Both artists capture the uncertainty and fraught ownership of female identity through their surreal and sometimes quite disturbing work
I remember when I first became aware of my identity as a woman, and the difficulties this would throw up in the course of my life. It took me a long time to realise that there were parts of myself that weren’t really mine. Behaviors that I had learnt to perform and feelings I had learnt to accept in order to get by in a patriarchal society. Clearly, self-image is one of the real battle grounds of gender. From a young age we learn to see ourselves in a certain way, through the women that we encounter in books, films and popular culture. For instance, I saw myself in J.K. Rowling’s Hermione and in Mary Lennox in the Secret Garden (I was very bossy and had lots of hair) – both characters that were conjured by female authors, struggling in a male dominated world.
In visual art, we often see a woman through the eyes of the male artist who’s depicted her. This is why the work of female artists is crucial in exploring the formation of a less gendered identity. When I look at the work of a female artist, I can see a woman through a woman’s eyes.
In this self portrait I actually see Gillian Wearing looking at Gillian Wearing wearing Gillian Wearing’s face and then looking back at me, Rosa. It’s pretty nuts. The obsession of this artist with her own appearance and the unalterable changes that it undergoes through the course of her life is laid bare in this exhibition. In the final room we are confronted by a wall of future Gillians, digitally aged in different ways. The ageing process for women is a difficult one, as the humanity and corporeality of womanhood is something of a taboo. We are beautiful objects to be looked at, not real bodies that decay and die.
The title of the exhibition is a reworking of a quote from one of Cahun’s collages which expresses her difficulty in shedding the many layers of her identity. She writes that ‘Behind the mask is another mask, I will never finishing lifting all these faces’. It’s a powerful notion and one we can all identify with. Masks can protect our raw, fragile beings from the harshness of others and a society we feel might not accept us. But they can also trap us in false roles and allow us to forget who we really are. As women, we are often in disguise: performing a character that fits comfortably into a patriarchal society.
Cahun found the identity she was ascribed by her parents, Lucy Schwob, to be so oppressive that she remade herself as someone new, giving herself the gender neutral name, Claude. She was certainly ahead of the curve on this one. Although a member of the high profile (and largely male dominated) movement of french surrealism, Cahun was pretty much forgotten until the mid nineties – as is often the case with work that defies clear definition. She isn’t hugely well known today, which explains why the exhibition hasn’t been a total blockbuster success, but if you want to know more about her there’s a cute, buzzfeedy article here on the NPG website.
I think it’s amazing that this exhibition is taking place at the illustrious National Portrait Gallery, a place that’s famously populated by the pale, male and stale heroes of history. In conjunction with Howard Hodgkin’s exhibition of abstract portraits, Absent Friends, it shows that the gallery is capable of a lot more, and could represent a space for real representation.
Gillian Wearing and Claude Cahun: Behind the Mask Another Mask runs until 29th of May.
Tickets cost £10 and £8.50 for students and unemployed.