Monday 13 March 2017

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

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

Exploring gender, identity and the shifting notion of self in one’s artwork, especially through photography and the “selfie”, might be de rigueur at the moment, but a century ago, when the French artist and writer Claude Cahun (née Lucy Renée Mathilde Schwob, 1894-1954) began to do so, she was alone in the field. Although only one of her photographs was shown during her lifetime, Cahun began experimenting with photography and self-portraiture as early as 1912, working together with her partner (and later step-sister), Suzanne Malherbe (who also changed her name to the equally androgynous Marcel Moore). Fashioning masks and costumes to masquerade as women, men, and everything in between – Cahun herself wrote: “Masculine? Feminine? It depends on the situation. Neuter is the only gender that suits me” – she explored the construction of identity, decades before Judith Butler’s theorising on its performativity in Gender Trouble (1990). After time spent in Paris amidst the Surrealist movement – André Breton described Cahun as “one of the most curious spirits of our time” – Cahun and Moore settled on Jersey in 1937, where they went on to launch a resistance movement against the Nazis, before being imprisoned and sentenced to death in 1944 for counter propaganda tracts. Both attempted suicide but were taken to hospital and survived. They were released in 1945, on the eve of liberation. Much of Cahun's work had been destroyed by the Nazis, but she continued to experiment with photography until her death at the age of 60.

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