If ever there was a perfect show for a venue then Cindy Sherman National Portrait Gallery is surely the one. In gallery after gallery we see Cindy Sherman in all her guises and disguises – she occupies hosts of characters from enigmatic film stars to ageing flappers, via Renaissance royalty and vulnerable models. Taking aim at familiar tropes of the genre she examines the very nature of portraiture itself, exposing the potential for fakery and manipulation.
At the start of this remarkable and unmissable show we get an intruiging glimpse of Cindy Sherman with student work from the start of her career. A thirteen strong cast of Murder Mystery People each of course played by Sherman herself: detective, butler, maid and other suspects.
In another series of twenty-odd images at Cindy Sherman National Portrait Gallery we see her transform stage by stage in to an imaginary vamp. For the only time in the show we see the real, bespectacled Sherman before she disappears behind a mask of make up.
In an early Cover Girl series she parodies the fakery of the glossy covers of the likes of Vogue. Starting with the original, she then inserts herself on the cover before finally gurning or winking in ridicule.
It is not long before she has produced her career defining masterwork the Untitled Film Stills, commenced shortly after moving to New York in 1977.
Seen in full for the first time in the UK and comprising seventy images her black and white images captured the look of 1950s and 60s Hollywood, film noir, B movies and European art-house films.
Building on that layer of artifice, the fictional situations she created were photographed in a way that recalls the conventions of yesterday’s cinema. We imagine her as perhaps a bored ingénue, working girl or lonely housewife, but we cant be sure.
With the both the Cover Girl and Film Stills Sherman has already inserted herself into a dialogue about stereotypical portrayals of women. Publications were not always comfortable – a Centrefolds series created for Artforum in 1981 was never printed although some fashion houses were happy to print work that exposed their exploitation.
More galleries of Cindy Sherman National Portrait Gallery feature steadily later series of here works including History Portraits, Masks, Headshots, Clowns, Society Portraits and Flappers. Despite some working better than others we can see that Sherman is not letting up as she reaches her sixties.
In a revealing juxtaposition in History Pictures, Ingres’s celebrated portrait of Madame Moitessier has been borrowed and is displayed alongside Sherman’s version. The newer portraits are appropriately cynical and crude prosthetics alongside thick make up mock the arrogant entitlement of wealth.
Sherman is not afraid to take it a level further with several series of images that are genuinely unsettling and disturbing. Surrealist, Fairy Tales and Sex Pictures feature Hans Bellmer type dolls and bestial scenes in dark forest settings and scenarios with dehumanised figures that are absurd and devoid of sensuality mock pornographic images.
She mercilessly exposes her various targets – ageing, society women and wealthy gallery patrons who desperately resort to cosmetic surgery, designer clothes and heavy make up to retain an illusion of youth
By this time it is evidently clear that Sherman is just as much a master of exposure as disguise. As she applies the make up and masks she is at the same time carefully revealing the artifice of the image – whether perhaps in wealth, ageing, pornography or film – and brilliantly exposing modern society for what it is.
Cindy Sherman National Portrait Gallery is on until 15 September 2019
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