A Review of Gillian Wearing and Claude Cahun: Behind the Mask, Another Mask / Felicity Gee

(Left) Me as Cahun Holding a Mask of My Face by Gillian Wearing, 2012; © Gillian Wearing, courtesy Maureen Paley, London; Regen Projects, Los Angeles; Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York. (Right) I am in Training Don’t Kiss Me by Claude Cahun, ca. 1927; Jersey Heritage Collections © Jersey Heritage.

Gillian Wearing and Claude Cahun: Behind the Mask, Another Mask at the National Portrait Gallery, London. 9 March–29 May 2017.

Sarah Howgate. Gillian Wearing and Claude Cahun: Behind the Mask Another Mask (London: National Portrait Gallery Publications, 2017).


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

—Claude Cahun, 1930


Hanging on the wall between the ticket booth and the entrance to the National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition Gillian Wearing and Claude Cahun: Behind the Mask, Another Mask is Wearing’s portrait of Shami Chakrabarti, commissioned by the Gallery in 2011. The subject sits, dressed simply in a white shirt and black trousers, hair parted neatly, facing the camera, her right hand clenching a ribbon from which hangs a wax mask of her face, also staring at the camera, albeit with a grimmer expression. The dangling mask, the staged pose, and the provocative questions these raise are a direct reference to Cahun’s self-portrait from the I am in training don’t kiss me series (ca. 1927). Wearing’s large silver gelatin print announces the central themes of the exhibition: the multi-faceted female self, female collaboration, and the socio-psychological function of the mask across time and space. Chakrabarti, a human rights lawyer and campaigner, occupies a shifting role in British society and politics, and Wearing’s portrait plays with ideas of privacy, public persona, and contemporary media identities. This exhibition marks the first “spiritual” collaboration between Cahun and a living artist (Cahun was born in 1894 and died in 1954; Wearing was born in 1963) and sees Turner Prize winner Wearing explore her own practice through Cahun’s performance portraits, enacting a “spiritual camaraderie”1 that echoes and shimmers between their respective works. Drawn into correspondence, the works are grouped into rooms that ruminate on: transformation; Surrealism; transcending time; performance; masquerade; memento mori; and later life. The title of the exhibition is taken from Cahun’s collage-text Disavowals (Aveux non avenus, 1930), a work of extraordinary brilliance that pushes at the limits of socially defined “selfhood” by examining the “ludicrous merry-go-round”2 of proliferating masks, selves, and identities that we confront in the mirror each day. Disavowals, it should be noted, was co-illustrated with Cahun’s partner, Marcel Moore (née Suzanne Malherbe), with whom she lived in France, and together in exile on the island of Jersey during the German Occupation (1940-45), a fact that has often been overlooked; their relationship is integral to Cahun’s practice and the realization of many of the self-portraits.


Gillian Wearing, Shami Chakrabarti. © National Portrait Gallery, London.


Claude Cahun (née Lucy Schwob) is now widely recognized as a key contributor to French Surrealism. Her writing appeared in Bifur, Minotaure, Cahiers d’Art, and in the major Surrealist exhibition: L’Exposition surréaliste d’objets at Galerie Charles Rattan in Paris (22–9 May 1936), for which she created two objects; yet only one of her photographs was ever published during her lifetime (Self-portrait in the journal Bifur, no.5, April 1930). Since Cahun’s photographic self-portraits were never publically exhibited, art historians have asked whether these photographs were intended for public viewing at all, particularly given that they are staged and taken with Moore’s collaboration. In several of the later portraits taken on Jersey, and due to the nature of the exterior light, Moore’s shadow can be seen at the bottom of the images, which adds to the intimacy of the scenes. It is these self-portraits, along with Disavowals, that have drawn considerable attention in recent decades. While it is not sure as to whether the photographs we see here are “self-portraits” or “portraits,” public or private artworks, they are evidence of Cahun’s radical drive for the liberation of “the self” through constant metamorphosis, and evidence of an enduring lesbian partnership. An outspoken radical, Cahun penned diatribes against capitalism, socialism, and restrictive social structures, and this fierce disrespect for hegemonic order is transmitted clearly in her photographic portraits. Her legacy has been unearthed largely thanks to French scholar François Leperlier, and to the digital accessibility of her archive housed at the Jersey Heritage Trust, which includes photographs, photonegatives, glass plates, diaries, letters, and ephemera dating from her early life until her death.


Claude Cahun, Frontière humaine (Human Frontier), in Bifur 5, 1930, the only published image.


Cahun’s self-portraits—the majority of which feature the artist playing with gendered identities and masquerade—have sparked a range of comparisons to other female artists: Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, Cindy Sherman, Tacita Dean, Maya Deren, and Nan Goldin. Wearing chooses to collaborate with Cahun and her work more directly, literally getting under her skin in Me as Cahun holding a mask of my face (2012), the image that is draped on the exterior of the National Portrait Gallery to announce the exhibition. Wearing feels “something innate”3 in Cahun’s portraiture that transcends generations, a tendency for role play and invention that corresponds with themes in her own work. Typically Wearing uses herself and her family as subjects in her work—from the early Polaroid self-portraits (1988–1998) to the [Family] Album series (2003) in which Wearing transforms herself into family members through prosthetic face masks and body suits, to the Spiritual Family (2010) series in which she transforms into Andy Warhol, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Diane Arbus, changing genders, aging, performing, and preening in the process. The correspondence between Wearing and Cahun’s work is striking despite the generational acceleration in technology that has enabled Wearing to upscale the transformative props in her portraits from costumes and masks to digitally processed prosthetics (the process often taking up to four months). The inspiration that Cahun evokes is clear, but the exhibition leaves room to consider the gaps and differences, which are not only generational. Perhaps, where Wearing exposes the confessional, the nostalgic, and, to an extent, the introspective, Cahun flaunts narcissism or the idea of returning to the self, instead modelling “the body-plastic, discovering erotic freedom in controlled abandon and infinite extensivity.”4

In the first half of the exhibition Cahun’s early portraits form a counterpoint to Wearing’s performance portraits, the predominant theme being the discovery of oneself though performing as “other.” Four of the masks used by Wearing to recreate herself as Cahun, or as an older/younger version of herself (the Me as . . . series) are exhibited as objects in their own right, surreally encased and brightly lit. These uncanny faces without eyes serve to highlight the importance of the artists’ eyes in the actual portraits, the way in which both Cahun and Wearing hold the gaze of the viewer, animating lifeless props and masks. Cahun’s portraits as male, female, and “neutral” selves form a trajectory of carefully posed figures, fluid and proliferating. Her shaved head, defiant gaze, rouged cheeks, wigged, robed, and masked characters seem defiant, proud, and deliberate, and they complement the far less formal or theatrically diverse self-portrait Polaroids exhibited nearby, and taken by Wearing between 1988 and 2005.

While Cahun effects change on a more radical scale, Wearing’s portraits show the subtle variations of the everyday over time—fashion, hairstyle, changes within the mise-en-scène—and evoke boredom rather than drama. Returning to the series for this exhibition Wearing remembers: “I wasn’t thinking of the context in which I was photographing myself; I was just taking the photographs to see how I looked or if I could change or adapt my look,” adding that the very unawareness of her process now made her feel that she was “studying someone else.”5 This slippage is a powerful force that allows the viewer to see and find room for herself in the gallery’s collection of portraits, to feel empowered by Cahun’s defiance, but also by her originality, and to feel the humor, the lack of self-consciousness, and the willingness to be other that these two women offer. I like to imagine that Cahun would have particularly appreciated Wearing’s full body/gender transformation in Self-portrait as my brother Richard Wearing (2003).


Gillian Wearing, Self-Portrait as My Brother Richard Wearing, 2003. Heather Podesta Collection © Gillian Wearing, courtesy of Maureen Paley, London, and Regen Projects, Los Angeles.


One of the striking contrasts of the exhibition is that of scale—Wearing’s giant self-portraits dwarf the tiny contact prints of Cahun’s photographs—something which Wearing felt very necessary to emphasize: “artists did not print their work large in Cahun’s era [. . .] I belong to a moment where you make conceptual choices with the scale of an image.”6 One exception to this rule is the decision to juxtapose Cahun’s Self-portrait (on sea wall La Rocquaise) (1947) with Wearing’s performance video Dancing in Peckham (1994). The self-portraits are a series of joyous shots of Cahun seemingly dancing on the wall built by the Germans to mark the end of the Occupation of Jersey. These have been collated, blown up, and fashioned into a poster wall, where the brightness of the natural light in the shots and the diaphanous material of Cahun’s costume seem to glitter and magically suspend her mid-air as if in a dance; these portraits capture what curator Sarah Howgate terms “private performances.” Set in dialogue directly opposite, the looped performance of Wearing dancing silently (and a lot less joyously) in a Peckham shopping centre also shows a female body resisting socially determined spatial boundaries. I am not entirely convinced that this juxtaposition fully works, the mood is distinctly different, but the pieces certainly contribute dynamism.

In the second half of the exhibition, aging and death come to the fore, with both artists having aged in real life, and Wearing experimenting with images of her imagined self in decades to come (Rock ‘n’ roll 70 wallpaper, 2015–16). The most striking of Wearing’s portraits for me is Me as Mapplethorpe (2009), a re-staging/sitting of Mapplethorpe’s Self-portrait (1988) in which his mask-like face—highlighted against a black backdrop—stares out at the viewer, his right hand gripping a skull-topped cane. Wearing’s version seems even more unsettling, a double-habitation of the death mask, her own eyes glassily anxious, staring out of gaping sockets left deliberately where mask and artist meet. This photograph, rather than chiming with the portraits of Cahun in the graveyard near La Rocquaise, Jersey, recalls the Self-portrait of Cahun published in Bifur in 1930, in which Cahun’s shaved, elongated skull refers, as Katherine Conley has argued, to death.7 Both portraits are disturbing, the latter poised “on the frontier of what ‘being human’ might mean,”8 and each invokes the question of what it means to be queer. Wearing’s work touches here on the HIV/AIDS crisis, but more widely explores the twenty-first century obsession with selfies and ideal face and body shapes. However, Wearing, like Cahun, locates the ideal, and the non-ideal, within a constantly shifting and slipping self. In Disavowals Cahun writes: “Ambition: to live without a support, as if of the plant species. Place one’s ideal in oneself. Sheltered from the elements.”9 In exile on Jersey, Cahun, photographed by Moore, becomes more and more entwined with the exterior landscape, her face dappled with sunlight, limbs lassoed by seaweed fronds, her head crowned with foliage (Self-portrait (lying on leopard skin), 1939). Reaching the sublime Self-portrait (with masked face and graveyard) (ca. 1947) and Le chemin des chats V (ca. 1948)—each of which features a masked Cahun in front of the graveyard near La Rocquaise—the viewer might pause and consider how these two artists view aging, death, destiny and fate.


Claude Cahun, Le Chemin de chats. © Jersey Heritage Trust.


Cahun died soon after her time in prison (she was imprisoned by the Germans until the end of the War), but these final years produced some of her most compelling portraiture. Where Wearing’s version of her future self at 70 remains a blank third in the triptych Rock ‘n’ roll 70 (2015), Cahun’s future death haunts the portraits taken in front of grave stones (for example Self-portrait with masked face and graveyard, ca. 1947), and the image of her being led by a cat (Le chemin des chats V, ca. 1948). In a 1934 letter to her close friend, writer Henri Michaux,10 she told of a dream in which a cat—an enigmatic creature that symbolized occult powers—leads her blindfolded from her house, introducing Cahun to a polymorphic continuity between herself and nature. The strange spirit cat is illustrative of Cahun’s growing premonition of death, another mask to try on. This occult note resonates with many of the prominent Surrealist themes throughout the exhibition: tarot readings, fetish objects, dreams, associative montage, eyes, and mannequins.

As research for this exhibition Wearing and Howgate traveled to Jersey to visit the Cahun archive, and to explore the spaces and places located in the portraits, poignantly taking a self-portrait at Cahun’s and Moore’s neighboring graves. Wearing reflects on how Cahun seemed to come alive again on this archival journey: “when we were there it felt like there was nothing in the way—it was just her. [ . . .] She has become part of my family.”11 Behind the Mask, Another Mask is a vital and energizing experience, as well as being disconcerting and slightly uncanny. It puts two female artists in conversation, and leaves the viewer to draw her own conclusion. Since the 1990s, scholarship on Cahun has grown, and in whichever guise—a Surrealist artist, a queer activist, a lesbian provocateur, a shape-shifter, a polemicist—this exhibition highlights her relevance and contemporary spirit not only through Wearing’s direct engagement with her work but also in the exploration of what it means to examine oneself through (self) portraiture and artistic collaboration. Surrealism courted the unexpected and thrived on collaborative experimentation, and the National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition continues in this tradition, asking for active participation in these associative self-portraits.

This year marks the centenary of Surrealist artist Leonora Carrington’s birth, and 2017 seems to be a good year for Cahun, too, with her photographs included at Tate Britain’s Queer British Art 1861–1967 exhibition (until October 21st), and Tate Modern’s The Radical Eye: Modernist Photography from the Elton John Collection (until May 21st). The National Portrait Gallery and Gillian Wearing clearly put Surrealist practice at the heart of Behind the Mask, Another Mask and it is hoped that more female Surrealists will be given center stage in future exhibitions.

Image © and courtesy of Felicity Gee.


  1. Gillian Wearing and Sarah Howgate, “Gillian Wearing in conversation with Sarah Howgate,” in Gillian Wearing and Claude Cahun: Behind the Mask Another Mask (London: National Portrait Gallery Publications, 2017), 171.
  2. Claude Cahun, Aveux non avenus (Paris: Éditions du Carrefour, 1930). For an English translation: Disavowals, trans. Susan de Muth (London: Tate, 2007), 6.
  3. Ibid., 169.
  4. Emily Apter, “Towards a Unisex Erotics: Claude Cahun and Geometric Modernism,” in Modernist Eroticisms: European Literature after Sexology, eds. Anna Katharina Schaffner and Shane Weller (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), 148.
  5. Wearing and Howgate, “Gillian Wearing,” 43–44.
  6. Ibid., 171.
  7. Kate Conley, “Claude Cahun’s Iconic Heads: From ‘The Sadistic Judith’ to Human Frontier,’” Papers of Surrealism, Issue 2, Summer 2004.
  8. Dawn Ades, “Claude Cahun’s ‘self-portraits,’” in Gillian Wearing and Claude Cahun: Behind the Mask, Another Mask (London: National Portrait Gallery Publications, 2017), 183.
  9. Cahun, Aveux non avenus,  28.
  10. See François Leperlier, Claude Cahun: l’écart et la metamorphose, (Paris: Jean Michel Place, 1992), 289.
  11. Wearing and Howgate, “Gillian Wearing,” 173.