Claude Cahun and Gillian Wearing: National Portrait Gallery

My tutor suggested I visit this as part of my feedback for Assignment 2.

Having encountered Wearing’s work before I instinctively disliked it, and so I expected the exhibition to be a challenge for me.  On the train to London I reflected upon why: did the idea of a mask make me uncomfortable?  Appropriating her own family members?  I felt that, as a photographer, I knew nothing of who she was, only what her relatives looked like.  

 It was clear that Cahun was a huge influence on Wearing.  Cahun was a French girl who transformed herself into the persona of a male over a period of several years in her teens and early adulthood.  Her dissatisfaction with herself gave rise to mental illness issues in her younger years, perhaps the frustration and madness being expressed in this image:

She said ‘behind this mask another mask, there can be no end to these disguises’.  It is as though she was tortured by a need to peel the onion of herself in the hope of finding a layer she was actually comfortable with.

With her partner Marcel Moore, she left France to be together in Jersey.  The exhibition suggests that many of the photos were actually taken by Moore rather than Cahun (leaving me to question who is really the photographer here).  When the Channel Islands were invaded the Germans imprisoned her for working at great personal risk for the resistance.

This image was taken towards the end of Cahun’s personal transformation (visually at least) into a man. She holds her head as though it were a mask being removed.  After all the changes in relationships, hair, clothing and where she lived, perhaps this is the symbolic moment where the mask is finally removed – she feels she is finally being her authentic self?



The Wearing part of the exhibition starts with a large print of her famous homage to Cahun, underlining the extent of the influence on Wearing from the outset.  However here Wearing holds a mask of herself while wearing one of Cahun.


Wearing started out studying are rather than photography.  She had an early fascination with masks and disembodied hands.  She also chronicled herself over several years using a Polaroid camera, raising questions about who we are really, how we evolve and change over time.

As the exhibition progresses towards the room housing Family Album, I found a growing appreciation for Wearing’s work.  She describes the people she emulates as people she admires – her ‘spiritual family’ as she calls them.  This includes other artists such as Mapplethorpe, Warhol and Sherman.  The mask becomes a substitute for the person that was once there.  Wearing goes behind the mask to find them as well as placing a camera in front of it.  Her empathy for her subjects comes through – there’s no effort to make them grotesque caracatures in masks, but to sympatheticly create a facimilie of the real thing.

Of course there is one flaw in every image’s authenticity, one that ties the images together as a set with a common theme and purpose – they all show Wearing’s eyes gazing directly back at the camera instead of the real owner’s.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s