Claude Cahun: ‘Don’t Kiss Me I’m in Training’; Self Portrait with Mask 1928;

Gillian Wearing: Me as Cahun 2012; Cindy Sherman: Untitled (Clown Series) 2004

‘Behind the Mask’: Part 2

The concept of the mask is another motif which frequently occurs in women’s photographic portraiture. The French writer Claude Cahun was the first to exploit its possibilities to disguise her true identity. But what is true identity? She was born a female (Lucy Schwob), but changed her name to ‘Claude’ as it used by both men and women in France. She considered herself to be ‘gender neutral’. She took self portraits with the help of her step-sister partner Marcel Moore (these weren’t intended for public display), in which they set out to confuse the viewer and deliberately elude gender specification. She is refusing to be categorized. In the ‘Self Portrait against a Quilt'(at start of Post), she wears a mask so that her eyes are obscured and the viewer can’t return her gaze. In this way she rebels against the tradition of female as object for the delectation of the viewer. Her arms held up against her chest emphasize her inaccessibility.
In a purposeful imitation of Cahun’s self portrait as a burlesque performer, ‘Don’t Kiss me I’m in Training’, Gillian Wearing, a contemporary artist and formerly one of the YBA’s, sets herself up in the same guise but dangles a mask from a rod echoing a device in a second Cahun image (above). This is a rather obvious rendition of Cahun’s statement:‘Behind the mask, another mask’. Cahun was brilliant at the subtle manipulation of her identity – unfortunately her photographic followers were not so adept.
Cindy Sherman takes photos in series wherein she features in different disguises. She is totally at the centre of her own masquerade designing, directing, styling herself in her works, which aren’t so much self portraits as ‘tableaux’. They seek to overturn female stereotypes. Her first b & w series ‘Film Stills’ worked well, but in subsequent series her premise seems worn out. In her ‘Clown Series’ she employs the bright colours of Pop Art and commercialization to completely hide herself. As she says, though she is the star of her work, she is anonymous within it. However, compared to Cahun’s imaginative imagery achieved with a cheap camera, her work seems cheap – and all too obvious.