“Under this mask, another mask. I will never finish removing all these faces.”

Claude Cahun, 1930



In an exhibition that charts chronological rites of passage, concerning age, gender, and identity,  the inaugural rooms are key to understanding the parallels between Gillian Wearing (b.1963) and Claude Cahun (1894—1954). Throughout, it is the sustained effort to draw together retrospectives of artists born 70 years apart, that inspires appreciation for the work on display. This indwelling desire to document a semi-biographical existence is the beginning of a transformation for both artists, during which we get to know their improvisate masquerade de jour, succeeding at foreshadowing the ideation of later work.


Early self-portraits from both artists begin in their natural youth, their respective self-image’s involve sociopolitical slants, unionised under a fluid identity. Through the medium of over 200 polaroids from Wearing’s youth, an introduction is formed alongside Cahun’s surreal theatre of avant-garde expression as a seminal androgyne, blurring gender distinction. However, perhaps the impact of these themes would have benefitted from equally experimental curation that doesn't suggest a finitude. 


Whereas Wearing describes her polaroids as artless experiments, Cahun’s are anything but, they are personal but the cultural is worked through in an undeniable way, her surrealist inspirations are referred to, but also transformed. For both artists it is neither a dependency that is manifest, nor vanity. Both evince something of the enigmatic and intangible value of youth, whilst broaching the current social selfie climate, promoting introspection and expression. For Wearing, this act itself became her methodology and route into artistic practice. 


This is how the idiosyncratic use of masks becomes the leitmotif of both artists, meaning along with Cindy Sherman, to see either artist maskless, engenders more questions than with; when performanceless, the theatre is over and audience left confused. Perhaps the strongest example of this performative coherence is Wearing and Cahun’s dichotomous Shakespearean chorus of dance, treading candidly between the comedic and tragic, displayed in the third room.


The penultimate room is dominated by saccharine studio portraits, through which a ‘spiritual family’ is created. Wearing has created mimetic reproductions of old family photos so that generations of Wearing merge through herself. They have cleverly been shifted from the comfortably domestic to the publicly monumental, becoming contemporary murals that line walls of the National Portrait Gallery, in millennial-tone pastel frames. 


Through role play performance, conscious of Freudian perspective, Wearing and Cahun develop alter egos through which much is discovered outside of the prevailing fashion. However, in the final room, it is easy to suggest that posthumous appropriation has taken place, distending the distance further between the two; the caveat being, that despite displaying great panache, Wearing appears incurious towards consequential risk-taking when displayed next to Cahun provocatively gripping a Nazi badge between her front teeth.