Cindy Sherman’s major show at the National Portrait Gallery looks back at her long career at the peak of world photography. She is most well known for taking pictures of herself but this is not a world of selfies as she creates a wide range of personas using herself as the model, many of which are unrecognisable as the same person. This show covers her 40 year career with examples from each of her major series of work.
The exhibition takes us from her earliest work, featuring her degree show pictures through each stage of her developing different personas. We go through film sets, history portraits, magazine covers, pornography, fashion to society women. The range is staggering and often it’s a challenge to see Cindy in them, so brilliantly has she taken on the persona she is seeking, creating the illusion of a changed identity.
I was lucky enough to have a tour of the exhibition by the curator, Paul Moorhouse, and this gave me a deeper insight to Cindy and her work. One thing Paul told us that really stayed with me was that Cindy does not let anyone in on her creative process. She works entirely alone in her study as she creates these characters, not even letting an assistant into the study. Back in her early days she had done some work on location but this had proved difficult as it required help from others and getting dressed and ready in public so from then on all her work was made in the studio.
Her work is highly ambiguous and Cindy tends not to give any interpretation to the viewer, saying she is just having fun. This invites us to make up stories around the characters, which is what we do in everyday life as we pass strangers in the street. She does not want to close down our own imagination by imposing her own interpretation.
I’ll run through a few of the photographs and sets which I particularly enjoyed or was struck by.
Growing up she had been fascinated by costumes and make up and often went out as other people. Her art teacher suggested she make her art out of this passion and use photography to document it. This rare set of 23 photos from 1975 is the only one which show Cindy transforming herself into a character, after this we only ever see the finished persona and the process is hidden.
The one series shot outdoors features 70 shots of Cindy in recreated film sets. This work established her reputation, ironic as she never worked outside again. The sets are stylised but recognisable especially for fans of Hitchcock.
The magazine cover series came out just as she graduated. In each the first image is the actual model (Jerry Hall in the Vogue cover) and the other 2 are Cindy, showing her talent for recreating herself as other and for injecting some fun into her work. .
I was particularly struck by a series entitled Flappers taken between 2016 and 2018. Taking on the hairstyles and general look of 1920s young women who were out to flout convention, although these are clearly of older women, perhaps wanting to reclaim their youth? The bold colours and striking looks were arresting in person.
Another great series focused on society women, trying to hold back the years and possibly the sort who would be patrons of the arts so possibly dangerous territory for an artist in case she is seen to bite the hand that feeds her. However Cindy noted how she was as vulnerable to the ageing process when she said ‘It’s especially scary when I see myself in these older women’.
A recreation of Cindy’s studio shows us her props, green screen and sources of inspiration. Seeing that many heads and faces looking out at us from the shelves was rather unsettling!
Cindy’s obsession with herself started at a young age and we have a couple of photos of her Cindy Book, full of photos of her childhood taken after her father gave her a camera when she was 10. Each photograph in the book is described with the words ‘Thats me’ and so it began!
The idea of artifice in portraits is nothing new and in her history series she creates a version of a Ingres’s Madame Moitessier. Her own artifice raises the question as to how accurate the original was or was Ingres making a version of his Madame?
The exhibition is extensive and has many more series I’ve not covered. It’s well worth a visit to explore the strange and fascinating world of Cindy Sherman.
For more information about Cindy Sherman at the National Portrait Gallery check out their website: https://www.npg.org.uk/whatson/
Full disclosure: as is customary in the travel industry I was invited by the organisers to visit this show. This has not affected by views but I prefer to be transparent about this.