GALLERY VISIT: CINDY SHERMAN AT THE NATIONAL PORTRAIT GALLERY
GALLERY VISIT: CINDY SHERMAN AT THE NATIONAL PORTRAIT GALLERY
‘Only rarely do artistic retrospectives feel as useful and perfectly judged as this.’
- The Sunday Times
This major new retrospective explores the development of Sherman’s work from the mid-1970s to the present day, and features around 150 works from international public and private collections as well as new work never before displayed in a public gallery.
Focusing on the artist’s manipulation of her own appearance and her deployment of material derived from a range of cultural sources, including film, advertising and fashion, the show explores the tension between façade and identity.
Find more information here: https://www.npg.org.uk/blog/cindy-sherman
MY REVIEW: I have been a fan of Cindy Sherman since I first saw one of her Untitled Film Stills in The Art Book. I have since researched her work, bought a couple books on her, I recommend this one. I Watched an interesting documentary on her and considered a project of my own self portraits based on her chameleonic style (this is still to materialize but it’s definitely still milling around my mind.) This exhibition, with all my expectations and fandom behind me, did not disappoint. It’s one of the best retrospectives I’ve seen (barring Francis Bacon but no one can beat Bacon in my mind.)
The rooms, though not with a clear flow through; as I have found with exhibitions at The National Portrait Gallery (it makes you panic that you’ll miss something), are wonderfully curated. I was especially excited to see the early work that I’d never seen (or noticed) before, work that Cindy Sherman completely in art school and just after. It was exciting to see where the ideas started, especially when you know where the work progressed. There is a short video by Sherman which was so quaint and playful it had gallery visitors laughing.
The room of Film Stills was my favourite, the project was where my love of Sherman began and I don’t believe she’s done anything that sings to me as much since. I’m a fan of film, I’m a fan of narrative and I love the fact that these photographs really do imply not just a thousand words but so many stories. There are so many variations of this idea but only one central figure and they are all equally entertaining.
There lies the beautiful painting of Madame Moitessier by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres in the following room to show the inspiration for some of the photographs Cindy Sherman creates to mimic and mock the portraiture of the 1800s and Renaissance. I love this room especially because it relates to my latest project of looking at the portraiture of this era and the objects that the rich and famous of the day would bring into the portrait with them. In Cindy’s versions she’s holding breasts, pomegranates and spoons!?
Sherman’s fashion photography was displayed in large format in the hall. This project was, as usual, for Sherman a masterpiece in contradictions. The model (Sherman) wears expensive designer pieces in almost ugly but interesting ways, a way that contradicts the fashion industry and yet designers and brands approach her to photograph for them.
The Gallery created an example of Cindy Sherman’s studio in the exhibition. A touch that I’ve never seen in such detail before and something that I appreciated. For me the process behind the work is as interesting or in some cases even more so than the final pieces themselves. The studio shows the many cabinets of props Cindy Sherman uses, these include masks and prosthetics and wigs and such. But the most interesting part for me was the bookcase. I was interested to see if we shared any of the same books (I found one on my quick look; Laporte, Indiana by Jason Bitner (link)) and to see what kind of books inspired the work, there were many about Hollywood which you would expect, directors such as Hitchcock, Truffaut and R W Fassbinder but also books on surrealism, the body and stage make-up, and artists such as László Moholy-Nagy, Man Ray and Duchamp.
Sherman’s newer work dominates after this point. The narrative changes slightly with the later pieces, it changes to be more about aging as the artist ages, more about artifice and illusions. The work on the aging starlets sees the use of digital manipulation creep in, not, I was pleased to note, to change Sherman’s appearance but rather to add more Shermans to a piece. These pieces are focused on the artifice of those trying to conceal their age and extend their careers, they are beautifully styled with a lot of attention to details so that these images really seem to come from the golden age of cinema.
Despite the next project seeming to also be dedicated to the question of age and pretence, this one also focuses on wealth and the air that a person creates around them. It is in these pieces for me that I start to forget that I’m looking at photos of the same person. Not only is Sherman transforming her face using prosthetics, her clothes and her hair using wigs but also her aura seems to change, like an actor, she becomes the character she has created. This is most evident in the place where she is transformed the most; in the most disturbing photographs of the exhibition. Sherman transforms herself into creatures, most of this project based on fairy tales but not any that I recognised. I heard people in this room claim they would have nightmares after visiting this room. A part of this fear could be based on the fact that we’ve already become acquainted with Sherman after looking at her image (although in different forms) in many rooms and now we’re seeing her as something that’s no longer human.
There is room where Sherman can’t be seen, only one and it’s dark and with a sign claiming that this room isn’t for everyone. I feel that this is the worst of Sherman’s work, I feel like she only created it as a kind of challenge, a dare almost to see what people would buy from her and mount on their walls once she’d made it in the art world. I think it’s unfair to her fans, a low blow, in my opinion. These images are grotesque and intentionally so, but I feel like they’re unimportant because they don’t say anything.
The last room, with Sherman’s latest work was the most disappointing to me. I was looking forward to seeing something new, and it was true I hadn't seen these pieces before but I couldn't help but be underwhelmed. These pieces were large in scale and one was placed directly on to the wall but I felt that these photographs lacked the thing that always drew me to Sherman’s work, I felt like the narrative was missing. They didn’t even, in my opinion, look that great, the colours were dull and unappealing and they included one of the thing that bothered me about Sherman’s latest pieces; fake digital backgrounds. The use of digital manipulation to add backgrounds were lauded as a great advantage on the wall of the gallery but I can’t help but disagree. These backgrounds crept in during the aging starlets and bothered me from that point on. Trees with odd blurry effects, disorientating fake drawing rooms and pictures stuck on odd monochrome gardens, all these things to me are ugly, distracting and ultimately unnecessary. I have to admit at this point that I am an advocate for the old school, I prefer practical effects to CGI in films, I’d rather see a film shot on film and maybe this is why I feel this way?
Other than that small (?) grievance with Sherman’s work, on the whole the exhibition was exceptional. I would recommend a visit for anyone, even if you want some selfie advice? But be quick because there’s not a lot of time left!
CINDY SHERMAN’S INSTAGRAM:
FURTHER READING: ‘I’m trying to erase myself’ – an interview with Cindy Sherman -Rachel Wetzler