Identity, gender and performance explored at the National Portrait Gallery

“Under this mask, another mask. I will never finish removing all these faces.” Claude Cahun, 1930


Self-portrait (reflected image in mirror with chequered jacket) by Claude Cahun, 1927 Wilson Centre for Photography Image: © Wilson Centre for Photography


The latest must-see exhibition at London's National Portrait Gallery is Gillian Wearing & Claude Cahun: Behind The Mask, Another Mask.


This exhibition brings together for the first time the work of French Surrealist artist Claude Cahun and British, Turner Prize-winning contemporary artist Gillian Wearing. Although they were born almost seventy years apart and came from different backgrounds, there are remarkable parallels between the two artists. Both are fascinated with self-portraits and play around with ideas of identity and gender, masquerade and performance. The exhibition features new work by Wearing, including a colossal wallpaper of digitally enhanced ‘versions’ of the artist, as well as the original masks used by Wearing in the creation of her strange, unsettling portraits.


If you’ve not heard of Claude Cahun, this exhibition will serve as an introduction to an extraordinary and overlooked figure in 20th century art. Born Lucy Schwob in Nantes in 1894, she changed her name to the gender neutral Claude in 1916. In 1909, she met her lifelong partner and collaborator Suzanne Malherbe (who went by the name of Marcel Moore) while studying in Nantes, in what she described as a ‘thunderbolt encounter’. Eight years later, Cahun’s father married Suzanne’s widowed mother. Cahun was one of the only female Surrealists, having been introduced to André Breton in 1932, he called her ‘one of the most curious spirits of our time.’ Whereas in the works of male Surrealists women often appear as eroticised objects, Cahun’s self-portraits explore female identity as constructed and multifaceted. Now best known for her striking self-portraits, Cahun saw herself primarily as a writer. Moore and Cahun moved to Jersey in 1937, when the Germans invaded in 1940 they decided to stay and produced counter-propaganda tracts. In July 1944 they were found out, arrested, stood trial, and were, briefly, sentenced to death (though these sentences were commuted). The couple were imprisoned in separate cells for almost a year before Liberation in May 1945.

This exhibition is part of I am me, a season of displays and events exploring art, gender and identity at the National Portrait Gallery in 2017.


Gillian Wearing & Claude Cahun: Behind The Mask, Another Mask is on at London's National Portrait Gallery until 29 May


See for more details and watch a trailer for the exhibition here.



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