Behind the Mask, Another Mask brings together gender defying surrealist French artist Claude Cahun and fellow mask enthusiast Turner Prize winner Gillian Wearing.
Launched on International Women’s Day, and coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in the UK, the exhibition celebrates the unconventional and explores what is hidden behind public personas.
Claude Cahun lived an unusual life. Born Lucy Schwob in Nantes, France in 1894 to a prominent Jewish family, she adopted various pen names before settling on Claude Cahun. Claude is one of the few French names which is spelt and sounds the same for male and female. Cahun said, “Masculine? Feminine? It depends on the situation. Neuter is the only gender that always suits me.”
Cahun moved to Paris in the 1920’s with her lifelong partner and creative collaborator, Suzanne Malherbe, who also happened to be her step-sister. Suzanne adopted the name Marcel Moore and is known as a photographer, theatre designer and illustrator. In Paris in the twenties and thirties they were active in the Surrealist movement, hosting salons frequented by Andre Breton and Man Ray, and participating in the London International Surrealist Exhibition of 1936. In 1937, Cahun and Moore left Paris for Jersey to flee Nazi expansion in Europe. However the island was occupied by German Nazi forces in 1940. Cahun and Moore joined the resistance, and were arrested and sentenced to death for their activity. While the sentence was transmuted from execution to imprisonment, this year of captivity had devastating effects on Cahun’s health and led to her premature death in 1954 at age sixty.
The title of the show is taken from Cahun’s autobiography. The idea of peeling away layers of identity through performance, tableau and masquerade resonates through both Cahun and Wearing’s work.
The curatorial conceit of teasing out similarities between the artists is less successful in some rooms than others. It’s hard to draw a comparison between Wearing’s 1994 fantastic, funny and awkward video Dancing in Peckham and the blown up stills of Cahun dancing in joy at the news of the defeat of the Nazis at the end of WWII. The stills are so nuanced – she has just been released from prison. She’s dancing for joy in the sunshine, on the wall at the bottom of her garden, part of the coastal fortifications which had been built during the Occupation. At times, Cahun strikes a pose remarkably similar to the posture adopted in performance photographs by Baroness Elsa Von Freytag-Loringhoven, the German Dadaist who may be the author of Duchamp’s most famous readymade.
The final room is a meditation on mortality. In Rock n Roll 70, Wearing asked a number of experts who worked with age-processing technology to digitally age her to how she might look at seventy. These imagined selves are then blown up as wall paper with a superimposed framed triptych. The first panel is Wearing now, the second, an imagined self of her at 70, a Patti Smith figure wearing a vest which reads ‘Rock ‘n Roll til I die’. The third panel is blank, to be completed with the actual portrait of the artist at seventy. It’s a powerful piece. If this seems bleak, there’s some reassurance in the works based on Wearing’s visit to a palm reader, My fortune (right) which suggest she will live beyond 86.
Returning to Cahun, we have the artist barefoot and blindfold led by her cat on a lead through the cemetery where she will later be buried. There’s a nonchalance to this image which questions how much agency we have in life.
Another image shows Cahun after her release from prison, looking like a typical pensioner. On closer inspection, you notice she’s gripping the Nazi eagle in her mouth. Far from being a harmless old lady, this one has bite.
The final piece in the show is Wearing as Cahun, next to Wearing as Wearing, dressed the in the same dark cloak, striking the same pose, standing side by side as gothic horror twins. Or Death. Is that what’s under the final mask for each of us?
to 29 May 2017