Gillian Wearing and Claude Cahun: Behind the mask, another mask

Visited the Gillian Wearing/ Claude Cahun exhibition at the Portrait Gallery. Wonderful wonderful exhibition and research experience as both artists ‘share a fascination with the self-portrait and use the self-image, through the medium of photography, to explore themes around identity and gender, which is often played out through masquerade and performance’.

The whole exhibition was a perfect fit for my research. Both artists explore identity through photography and to explore identity they create characters. It was quite inspiring to learn about Claude Cahun, who seemed like such a brave activist and social critic, which really came across in her pieces, especially those that really challenged gender norms and at that time! Inspiring to witness such ideas through someone’s art work.

I had been introduced to Gillian Wearing by my foundation art teacher and had seen her work Dancing in Peckham. However, it wasn’t until this exhibition that I became really taken by her work. She evidently practiced selfie taking before it became a known and named phenomenon:


I’m actually surprised in that respect that she wasn’t mentioned in the Saatchi exhibition about selfies.

However, it’s her masks that absolutely amazed me. Some in particular such as her as a 3 year old:


The format of this portrait is in a classical photographic portrait style, head titled slightly, one shoulder prominent but to me it looks quietly insane. The body language is of an adult, not a kid yet the mask she’s wearing looks so realistic but you know that it’s not a child. And it’s of course her eyes that reveal her true identity in all her self-portraits. Also what kind of expression is that? Again even though it’s a child it doesn’t look like a child’s expression to me.

It someways when I see the picture there’s a huge amount of confusing information presented in such a seemingly ‘normal’ portrait and I love that.

I’ve been continuing to struggle (which isn’t bad) about how I can explore identity (through the social media world) and Gillian Wearing has presented the idea of masks. While I believe that’s certainly her territory of exploration her work has helped to motivate me to keep thinking about what I can do, and visiting the exhibition has reaffirmed by unbeknownst to now genuine interest in the communicative medium of photography.

I also think i connected with the work in this exhibition much  more than the one at the Saatchi gallery, even though the exhibition at the Saatchi gallery on first glance seems more related to my work.


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