Works in this exhibition oscillate between concealment and extroversion.
Like most creative endeavours, a good exhibition needs an element of tension to keep it interesting. In the case of the National Portrait Gallery’s collaboration with Gillian Wearing, we can soon enjoy the tension of a show about masks in a gallery given to portraiture.
Indeed portraits can be as formal and public as a royal commission, or as intimate and raw as a nude by Lucien Freud. But Wearing oscillates between these poles; in the past she has filmed confessional accounts by subjects in masks; she has worn a latex mask herself for photographic self-portraits; and she has hit the London streets to entreat the public to reveal secrets for her lens.
Claude Cahun, meanwhile, is one of those figures with whom the art world has an enduring interest. Wearing contends there is something masklike, and perhaps anonymous or at least mysterious, in her portraits. Cahun performs for the camera; it’s a performance of androgyny or what’s now called gender neutrality.
Cahun is no shrinking violet. Her silvery black and white images from the 1920s and 1930s are as bold as anything around today, so their historic effect must have been as profound as work by any of the Surrealists with whom she associated.
Wearing, by contrast, seems less outgoing. Despite the fact that she made her name with a film of herself dancing in a Peckham shopping centre, she gives few interviews and somewhat guards her own identity. So what Cahun can tell us about the former Young British Artist and vice versa will both be of great interest in this show.