I Am In Training Don’t Kiss Me is a work that is contradictory in nature. The artist sits elegantly for the portrait, decorated carefully with a perfect love heart painted on each cheek, pouting lips like that of a porcelain doll and a pair of black nipples plastered over the sitter’s virginal white shirt. But then we see the heavy, masculine dumbbells positioned either side of the artist and the slogan emblazoned on the shirt: “I AM IN TRAINING DON’T KISS ME”. To say that gender is at play here would be an understatement, and the contradiction that this image of Claude Cahun in 1927 provides is a good indicator of the experimentation to come. This March, the National Portrait Gallery in London opened a curious and complicated investigation into the unbelievable similarities between two artists working more than 70 years apart: Claude Cahun and Gillian Wearing. It’s a strange and detailed exhibition and, at first, I met the pairing with a degree of scepticism but, after visiting the show, it becomes clear that they are a match made in art heaven.

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Self-portrait (shaved head, material draped across body) by Claude Cahun, 1920

Claude Cahun was a French artist identifying as agender whose identity was often the focus of her practice. Born Lucy Schwob in 1894, the artist adopted the name ‘Claude Cahun’ for its gender neutrality (her partner at the time, Suzanne Malherbe, adopted the name ‘Marcel Moore’ for the same reason). Cahun used photography in abstract ways, contorting herself to present identities that might not have come about otherwise. In some images her head is shaved (Self-portrait – shaved head, material draped across body), in others she dons strange costumes and masks (Self-portrait – full-length masked figure in cloak with masks). It is this obsession with manipulating identity and the exploitation of photography that must have encouraged this pairing of Cahun and Wearing. The later artist of the pairing, Gillian Wearing, was born in Birmingham in 1963 and won the Turner Prize for her work in 1997. It is astonishing to take into account the undeniable similarities between the two artists, especially when you consider the different eras that they worked in. I usually hate exhibitions like these. Why pair artists up? One artist always ends up looking better than the other. This is absolutely not the case in Behind the mask, another mask. Cahun and Wearing mirror each other’s work to an extent that it’s hard to believe that they had never met.

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Gillian Wearing reads a magazine with images of herself reading magazines that recede into infinity; a comment on her endless investigation into her own identity

In Dancing in Peckham, a 1994 piece by Gillian Wearing, the artist abandons all inhibitions and breaks into dance in the middle of a moderately busy shopping centre. Upon encountering the video that documents this bizarre and impulsive dance, my first reaction was to laugh. Her weird display of carelessness reminds me of that one eccentric who takes up residence as the city’s token karaoke aficionado in the centre of town on a Saturday morning, armed with a can of beer and a plastic microphone. The kind of person your grandma might describe as being ‘one sandwich short of a picnic’. But, after a few minutes of watching her performance, it quickly transforms into something endearing, moving, a spectacular display of spontaneity in the face of uniformity. And then, in line with the rest of Wearing’s work, the viewer becomes aware of its performative nature; Wearing’s dance is all an act! She isn’t carefree at all – this was made for our eyes. The work transforms again into something more sinister.

In the same room, we are encouraged to compare Dancing in Peckham with a work of Cahun’s; a ‘juxtaposition’, if you feel inclined to use that God awful art term. In 1947 Jersey, Cahun dances atop a wall erected by the Germans in defiance of their politics. It’s another performative work and, as a result, it evidences paralleled threads in both artists’ oeuvres. But what I think is incredibly pertinent about this comparison is the similar attitude that both Cahun and Wearing demonstrate. They are artists of a persevering disposition. When they decide they want to do something, they do it. This is particularly true of Cahun who challenged not only the conventional practice of artists but the enforcement of traditional gender roles too, pioneering a gender fluid way of life.

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Self-portrait (with Nazi badge between teeth) by Claude Cahun, 1945

Unfortunately, there is a distinct lacking in the exhibition. A feeling that something, or someone, is missing. There is, to be exact, a Cindy Sherman sized gap. It’s a shame because I’m sure that the idea of including Sherman would have been considered by the gallery but was, for some reason, not realised. Her inclusion would have enhanced the lengths that Cahun and Wearing were going to in order to conceal and metamorphose whilst highlighting a methodical difference in Sherman’s approach. Cahun and Wearing use masks in their transformations whereas Sherman is known for her theatrical tendencies and employing make-up and costumes. Perhaps the NPG thought that this principal difference in technique would be a distraction from the similarities between Cahun and Wearing. I disagree: their sentiments were the same. I suppose it is true, however, that the exhibition examines the similarities in Cahun and Wearing’s art in such detail that the exclusion of Sherman can be overlooked.

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My Fortune and Misfortune by Gillian Wearing, 2014

The pairing of Sebastiano and Michelangelo at the National Gallery did NOT work. The pairing of Tracey Emin and William Blake at Tate Liverpool did NOT work. The pairing of Claude Cahun and Gillian Wearing DID work. It’s very hit and miss with these unusual pairings that art institutions insist on announcing each year, and this one’s definitely a hit. The immense attention to detail is immediately evident and extremely necessary for the complex work on display, particularly for those works that interlock towards the end of the exhibition. It is well curated and the active participation on Wearing’s behalf in the building of the show is apparent. I would say, though, that although there is not a star of this show, Wearing’s continuous commitment to her long-standing themes is a testament to the YBA legacy. Then again, perhaps she owes all that to Cahun.

‘Gillian Wearing & Claude Cahun: Behind the mask, another mask’ continues at the National Portrait Gallery until the 29th May.