Seeing Cindy Sherman With National Portrait Gallery’s Magda Keaney

Untitled Film Stills #21 by Cindy Sherman, 1978. Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York.

Before the selfie, there was Sherman. The notorious American artist has made a million faces for her work in self-portraiture, a complicated, radical genre of photography that’s allowed her to take the concept of identity and muddy it, obscure it, slide it beneath a microscopic lens and celebrate it. Famous for her use of make-up, costumes, props and prosthetics to construct nameless characters, her work does more than ask us to look at her. It beckons us to examine the very act of looking, to see the ugliest, weirdest parts of us, the bits and bobs that feel too strange, too much to take in, and understand ourselves better for it. 

A selection of pieces from the artist’s first major retrospective in the UK at the National Portrait Gallery is on view at the Lightbox Gallery at Ace Hotel London Shoreditch, courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York. Here, we caught up with the National Portrait Gallery’s Senior Curator of Photographs Magda Keaney, as she takes us through five key images from the contemporary art icon and master of disguise.

Cindy Sherman is on at the National Portrait Gallery until 15 September 2019.

Untitled Film Stills #21, 1978

Untitled Film Stills #21 by Cindy Sherman, 1978. Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York.

The Untitled Film Stills series proved to be Cindy’s breakthrough work. Her characters convey a sense of storytelling, whilst maintaining a feeling of ambiguity. Sherman’s work is particularly interesting when thought about within the context of portraiture – we associate appearance with identity, yet in Sherman’s work the ambiguity she presents means they’re quite impenetrable.

Untitled #137, 1984

Untitled #137 by Cindy Sherman, 1984. Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York.

Created during the 1980s, at a time when fashion advertising and editorial was usually made by men, Sherman’s Fashion series introduced an alternate typology of woman.

The representation of women existed on a spectrum of ideals – depending on the designer, the photographer, or where and how an image was to be used – the prevalent most celebrated physical qualities were active, seductive, feminine, confident and vibrant. Yet the women of Sherman’s fashion pictures were quite the opposite. Although wearing expensive designer garments, they conjure other descriptors: angry, disheveled, strange, awkward, masculine.

Untitled #204, 1989

Untitled #204 by Cindy Sherman, 1989. Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York.

Within this series, History Portraits, Sherman embraced historical imagery, turning her attention to the visual language of the Old Masters. In Untitled #204, Sherman references the painting Madame Moitessier by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. History Portraits, similarly to her other work, speaks strongly to ideas around the production of identity.

Untitled #424, 2004

Untitled #424 by Cindy Sherman, 2004. Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York.

This series, Clowns, saw Sherman’s first experimentations with digital. The figure is captured in her studio, however the background is created in post-production. This is a leap from Sherman’s History Portraits, however still, if not more so, speak to our ideas around the production of identity. Her use of make-up and costumes, an element which is consistent throughout her work, is developed even further. Sherman’s Clowns use of masks is arguably more obvious and takes on a more sinister tone.

Untitled #474, 2008

Untitled #474 by Cindy Sherman, 2008. Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York.

In the Society Portraits series, we see Sherman embracing the idea of the older woman. This work, Untitled #474, along with the entire series explores the challenges and insecurities that face women as they grown older.