Behind the Mask Another Mask: Wearing and Cahun

On a recent visit to London I visited the National portrait Gallery to see this exhibition. I did not know either of these two photographers before my visit.

I find the extent of self obsession, needed to photograph oneself continually, impossible to understand. Does it mean the photographer loves or hates themselves? I hoped to come to some conclusion after this exhibition.

The two artists are quite different. Cahun, born Lucy Schwob in Nantes, France, into a fairly wealthy, intellectual family in 1894. She described herself as neuter gender. Her mother was institutionalised for mental illness and her father remarried. Schwob fell in love with her half sister, Suzanne Malherbe, and they set up house together in Paris in the 1920s. They both changed their names Schwob to Claude Cahun and Malherbe to Moore. This was a gay couple in the time when homosexuality was hidden.

About Wearing we know very little other than she was born in Birmingham. in 1963. Her father was a shopkeeper, divorced from her mother.  Her gender is not in question, she is heterosexual living with her husband, Michael Landy. Wearing is a winner of the 1997 Turner Prize.

Claude Cahun

The exhibition opens with images of Wearing dressed almost identically to Cahun in her original image “I am in training. Don’t Kiss Me “. There are some differences:Wearing is carrying a mask of her own face and she does not seem to have the sewn on the nipples visible in Cahun’s image. There are other images of Wearing copying Cahun’s alter ego images. However I cannot see what Wearing is trying to say with these images.

Gillian Wearing

I could see where Cahun was coming from. She was a lesbian living with her lover, who happened to be her step sister, during the Nazi invasion of France. She was half Jewish. So she understood the risks she was taking. In the many disguises she adopted for photographing she was, presumably, trying to hide her true self. Or she may have been trying to find out who she really was by adopting these guises. She befriended many of the surrealist artist of the time but was never wholly accepted by them presumably because she was a woman. Her work was rarely exhibited in Paris before she fled to Jersey with her lover. She was an activist and when the Germans invaded Jersey she and Moore became activists and created anti Nazi posters. They were arrested and jailed. They were released when Jersey was freed by the allies. But she remained defiant to the end. In an image after her release she had Moore photograph her with the Nazi Eagle symbol between her teeth. She died eleven years after her release due to complications caused by her incarceration.

Wearing, on the other hand, is a heterosexual woman with an apparently normal life. Why she would want to adopt the guise of a dead french lesbian photographer, I have no idea. However the guises she created were absolutely perfect. She used the expensive services of mask  and wig makers for her work. We have no idea how Cahun created hers. Cahun’s photographs were found by a removal man when clearing her house.  He had an interest in surrealism. The box contents did not, apparently, offer any light on how Cahun created her images or even who clicked the camera. Many of her images have been lost which is a great tragedy.

Wearing did make many other works of herself as different people. These are exhibited in this exhibition. There is one set where she adopts the persona of each member of her extended family from her grandparents to her three year old self. These are expertly executed but again I kept asking what is she trying to say. Was it that we are the sum total of all of our ancestors on to which we put our own masks. There is also a whole wall of Wearing disguised as an ageing lady. What is the comparison here with Cahun’s work. I could find none.

The brilliance of Wearing’s work and the attention to detail was palpable.Behind In no guise did she allow us to forget it was Gillian Wearing behind the mask. She left an obvious eye hole through which her own eyes were staring. I found this quite upsetting. I am not sure why. We were four people who visited this exhibition. Each one of us had a different experience but two of us felt quite disturbed by it. Having read about her other work with video where she interviewed people either disguised or facing the camera, I find her penetration into other peoples lives quite unnerving and voyeuristic. She is one person I would not like to meet.