Gillian Wearing and Claude Cahun: Behind the mask, another mask (National Portrait Gallery, 2017)

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Black & White, Classic, Color, Photobook

This book draws together for the first time the self-­portraits of French Surrealist artist Claude Cahun (1894–1954) and British contemporary artist Gillian Wearing (b.1963).

Although they were born almost seventy years apart and came from different backgrounds, remarkable parallels can be drawn between the two artists. Both of them 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.


Gillian Wearing


Claude Cahun


Gillian Wearing (l.); Claude Cahun (r.)


Gillian Wearing (l.); Claude Cahun (r.)


Ahead of the exhibition, Wearing spoke about Cahun with Nicholas Cullinan, director of the National Portrait Gallery in London. (


Nicholas Cullinan: When did you first discover Claude Cahun’s work, and what has it meant to you over the years?

Gillian Wearing: I read about Cahun in the mid-’90s; I think it was in an article in the Guardian. Her work was being written about as if it were a new discovery, although it was more of a rediscovery, as her photographs had been bought at an auction in the 1970s after her partner, Marcel Moore, passed away. The photographs seemed very playful, and also very apt for that moment, something that has not gone away over time. In fact, we are now finding new ways to look at her work.

In the ’90s I thought about her work as performed versions of the self—something that now feels innate and even commonplace to anyone with an Instagram account. I can track my own sensibility to this from my teenage years onward; I felt compelled to take photographs of myself posing in order to crystallize a perfect image of myself, and mainly for my consumption only.


It’s only fairly recently I found out that she did not exhibit her photographs, and that she saw herself primarily as a writer. We don’t entirely know why she took the images, although some fragments of her photographs did appear in her collages. With very little to guide us, a lot of what we can say and think about Cahun and her photographs is only conjecture. /


Gillian Wearing


Claude Cahun


Claude Cahun (l.); Gillian Wearing (r.)


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