Cindy Sherman @ the National Portrait Gallery

According to the press release, Cindy Sherman is widely regarded as one of the world’s leading contemporary artists. This is a massive retrospective of Sherman’s entire career, from the mid-1970s to the present day. It includes over 190 works from international public and private collections, some of them never seen in public before, some of them reunited after decades apart.

What is Sherman famous for? For dressing up as fictional characters and types, and taking photos of herself.

She stumbled across the idea as an art student in the mid-1970s and – in an impressive example of an artist hitting a style, establishing a brand, and then sticking to it through thick and thin – she has followed the same practice for the past 45 years.

Untitled Film Still #21 by Cindy Sherman (1978) Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York

Chronological order

The exhibition is arranged in a straightforward chronological order allowing you to see how Sherman’s art has evolved and developed from the mid-1970s to today. It opens with rarely exhibited photographs and films created while she was still an art student at the State University College at Buffalo from 1972 to 1976.

One early set, from 1976, is titled Unhappy Hooker where Sherman depicts herself as a prostitute waiting for a client.

In Murder Mystery (also 1976) she made a series of black-and-white photos of herself, in each one dressed up in the outfit of a character from a fictional murder mystery play (which she herself wrote) – the butler, the waitress, the rich old lady, the detective etc. Note the stereotyping of the characters.

In November 1976, shortly after she graduated from art school, Sherman created a series titled Cover Girl, in which she takes the covers of five fashion or ‘women’s’ magazines (CosmopolitanVogue, Family Circle, Redbook and Mademoiselle), and transposes her own face (generally pulling a yucky, silly expression) onto the face of the glamour model on the cover. Each work accomplishes the transformation from sensible to satirical in three images, and the five sets of three images are displayed here together for the first time since that heady summer of 76!

In Line-Up (1977) made just after she graduated and just before she moved to New York City, there are thirty-five black and white photos, in each of which Sherman appears, on her own, dressed in costume with make-up, playing thirty-five different characters.

So right from the beginning we can see the patterns emerging in Sherman’s work which will hold true for the rest of her career:

  1. She works in projects or series, all addressing a particular theme or taking a similar approach
  2. All the photos are of herself. There is never anyone else in the photos. But she is always ‘in character’, playing a role.
  3. None of her photos has ever had a title. They are all called Untitled and then given a number. Thus the final photo in the exhibition is named Untitled #549. (They may have brackets added after the number indicating the particular series the image belongs to.) One of the intentions of this is to ‘universalize the particular’, and leave the images open to the widest possible range of interpretations by the viewer.

Untitled Film Stills

Her breakthrough piece was Untitled Film Stills. Building on the previous series but going one big aesthetic step further, Untitled Film Stills is a series of 70 black-and-white photos which Sherman started creating soon after she arrived in New York City in 1977, and which, when they were exhibited, made her reputation. They are also – to give away the plot – in my opinion, by far and away the best thing in the exhibition.

They’re fairly small, portrait-shaped prints, about 18 inches high by a foot wide. In each of them Sherman dresses and poses as a completely different character. So that’s 70 female characters going about their business in the big bad city. Each of the figures is caught in different setting, in apartments, out on the street, in a suburban garden, several appear to be set in a swimming pool.

If there’s a consistent ‘look’ to the photos it derives from 1950s and 60s Hollywood – from film noir, B-movies and, maybe, from European art-house films. Some could be papparazzi shots of unknown celebs. The most obvious vibe they emit is a sense of suppressed anxiety or, in some of the long lens photos of blurred figures, a sense of mystery. Though all that makes them sounds too dark and indoors-y. Many of the best ones are outdoors or in full sunlight.

Untitled Film Still #7 by Cindy Sherman (1978) Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York

A number of things make them great. As compositions, they are all top quality, imaginatively posed, full of detail and interest.

But the really obvious thing is how dramatic they are. They are like stills from a wider drama. You feel the presence of other people just out of the shot, who are about to walk in and say or do something, or else have just left the frame after saying something explosive. They suggest all kinds of possible backstories – who where what why how? – and prompt an incredibly rich response in the viewer, making you imagine all kinds of films and stories and plots of which these are decisive moments and fragments. Each one is like a short story in itself.

The Untitled Film Stills are given a room to themselves early on in the show and – in my humble opinion – it is by far the best room, the one I came back to at the end, once I’d reviewed the entire exhibition, and sat on the bench conveniently provided for visitors, and let my eye wander over the images and my mind – not exactly work out a complete story for each image – but respond to the mood and vibe and possibilities contained in each one.

This idea, of a kind of photo pregnant with meaning, struck me as a wonderful achievement. And doing them as a set hugely contributes to the cumulative effect, creating the sense of an entire world set in this one but, because of the demonstrably false and made-up actor Cindy Sherman featuring centre stage in each photo, both this world and vividly artificial, fake and created.

Bigger

From this point onwards, the remaining eight or so rooms show three things happening to Sherman’s work over the succeeding decades:

  1. the photos go from black and white to colour
  2. they get bigger and bigger until, soon they are four or five foor tall, in the work from the 1990s they are horribly, oppressively huge and, in the final room, have become photo-murals covering entire walls
  3. and, as a result, I felt that – as the photos became more technically adroit in colour and saturation, and evermore grandiose in size – the viewer, and the viewer’s imagination, gets progressively more and more squeezed out of the photos and, eventually, instead of leaning forward and entering her imaginative world, I felt I was cowering backwards and being harangued

Later series

Each of the remaining rooms hangs samples from Sherman’s major series, namely:

Rear Screen Projections (1980-1)

The first series she made in colour, the Rear Screen Projections are also noticeably larger than the Film Stills, about five times bigger. The camera is closer up to her face, which is more subtly made-up to create different characters. The commentary says this greater close-up creates more psychological depth, but I felt there was more imaginative depth in the Untitled Film Stills.

Centrefolds (1981)

In the new larger size, and in the new full colour, Centrefolds are cast in a wide, landscape format which is deliberately reminiscent of the centrefolds of men’s magazines i.e. soft porn. But instead of scantily-clad women arranged to titillate ‘the male gaze’, Sherman’s personas look ill at ease and troubled, women in trouble or some kind of extreme situation. Though referencing magazine culture, some of the images very clearly derive from the aesthetic of film posters or the kind of dramatic stills used to promote movies.

Untitled #92 by Cindy Sherman (1981) Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York

Pink Robes (1982)

A series of big colour photos in which Sherman dresses as an artist’s or photographer’s model, who wraps herself in a pink robe between shots. So the idea is these are off-the-cuff casual moments in a photographer’s studio, with Sherman posing as the bored model.

For the first time in these photos Sherman stares directly at the camera, which led some critics to get over-excited about how we were ‘seeing the real Cindy Sherman for the first time’! This strikes me as taking a strikingly naive view of what constitutes ‘reality’.

Fashion (1983)

In 1983 Sherman was commissioned by New York boutique owner Dianne Benson to produce advertising images to promote clothes designed by Jean Paul Gaultier. Sherman responded with photos of herself – in different personas – wearing the clothes alright, but in characters which are obviously abject and neurotic. This was intended as a satirical critique of the shallow superficiality of the fashion world.

The trouble is you cannot satirise fashion. There’s nothing you can say about the frivolity and shallowness of the fashion world which the inhabitants of the fashion world are not completely aware of, but still love. Thus the client loved the photos, so new, so original daaahling.

Vogue Paris (1984)

Sherman received another fashion commission from a French fashion house to provide photos for a shoot for Vogue Paris. She created images of herself made-up to be the models, again wearing the designer clothes alright, but again shooting them in a subversive style, making her look deliberately gawky, clumsy and unhappy. The client loved them. And a glance at her Wikipedia article shows that she has had a long and extensive engagement with the world of fashion, receiving numerous further commissions, designing jewellery and other accessories etc. ‘There’s nothing you can say about the frivolity and shallowness of the fashion world which…’

Fairy Tales (1985)

In this series Sherman dresses up as ‘types’ from fairy tales, in enormous colour photos, heavily made-up to create some really aggressive, scary images. The lighting is (inevitably) more dark and in most of these shots, the settings looking like the forests and gravelly soil of the Germanic Grimm stories – a visual departure for Sherman most of whose photos – you realise – have been set in city streets or urban interiors. In some of them the Sherman personas looking like they’re undergoing real physical ordeals.

Untitled #153 by Cindy Sherman (1985) Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York

History Portraits (1988-90)

the fairy tale series represents a conscious departure from the urban setting of most of her photos hitherto,

At the end of the 1980s Sherman took a conscious break from dissecting / analysing / subverting contemporary culture and immersed herself in the world of Old Master paintings, including a trip to Rome to see the real thing.

The result was a series of thirty elaborately staged, huge, richly coloured photos in which Sherman appears in a range of costumes and uses prosthetic noses, breasts and other accessories to drastically change her appearance and parody the appearance of male and female royalty and aristocrats, even a madonna and child.

Untitled Film Still #216 by Cindy Sherman, 1989. Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York

I didn’t like these at all. I thought they were a bad joke in poor taste. I thought they showed a complete lack of empathy with the Middle Ages, Renaissance or Old Master painting. You can’t really dress them up as a feminist ‘reclamation’ of the images as – unusually – half the images are of Sherman dressing up as late medieval men.

Sex Pictures (1992)

In a room by themselves – with a warning that it contains ‘adult content’ – is a set of huge, garishly coloured and disturbing photos of what look like plastic mannequins, cut up and reassembled to emphasise their (generally female) genitals, which – presumably – were specially created for these photos. The general aim is to produce disturbingly transgressive rewrites of porn tropes, and the handful of massive images here certainly are disgusting, showing cobbled-together bits and pieces of fake plastic human bodies, featuring not only vulvas but anuses, penises made of plastic, in one image a string of sausage-like turds proceeding from what looks like a vulva.

As far as I can see, these are the only series in which she does not appear. A very great deal has been written about these pictures, by critics who, apparently, do not understand what pornography is or who it is for. By which I mean they imagine that disassembling the human body into surreal conglomerates of chopped up pieces will act as a once and for all, decisive ‘subversion’ and undermining of the male gaze and pornographic imagery.

How pitifully, it seems to me, they underestimate the baseness of human nature, and woefully underestimate the ubiquitous power of pornography. A few repellent art photos change nothing, nothing at all.

Office Killer (1997)

In the later 1990s Sherman got involved in making films, directing an art movie titled Office Killer released in 1997. One critic called it ‘sadly inept’, others ‘crude’ and ‘laugh-free’. Having produced and directed TV myself, I know there is a world of difference between taking one inspired photo and creating a plausible and effective series of moving shots.

Clowns (2003-4)

Sherman dresses up as a variety of clown types. Obviously all looking miserable and forlorn. The sad reality behind the clown strikes me as being one of the more exhausted, clichéd tropes of all time.

Society Portraits (2008)

A series satirising rich women in high society. The ageing female characters created in these huge colour photos are all using make-up and cosmetics to try and mask the ageing process and, failing in that, emphasise their wealth via fashionable dresses, expensive accessories and to-die-for houses.

Untitled #466 by Cindy Sherman (2008) Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York

Presumably these are meaningful if you in any way read about, or are aware of, rich American society ladies – from magazines and high society and gossip columns in newspapers, or from the publicity surrounding fashion houses, or at the openings of new operas or plays or art exhibitions at the Met or New York’s fashionable art galleries. Not engaging with any of this content or people, I saw them less as satire than fictionalised portraits of a social type I’ve been aware of for decades – the swank American millionaire wife – who has been lampooned and satirised for centuries, going back to the so-called Gilded Age (1870s to 1900) and before.

Balenciaga (2008)

Balenciaga is a luxury fashion house, originally from Spain. Echoing her repeated engagement with the world of fashion, and mixing it with the ageing heroines of Society Portraits, Sherman created a series of six enormous, colour digital photos of herself playing the character of an ageing fashion doyenne, a bit like Patsy from Absolutely Fabulous. Like I say, this is maybe hilarious or relevant if you give a damn about the world of high fashion or rich-bitch society women – but I don’t.

Untitled #462 by Cindy Sherman (2008) Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York

Chanel (2012)

Sherman was then commissioned by the perfumier Chanel to record some of their dresses and outfits. Sherman chose to create her biggest works to date, a set of absolutely enormous, wall-sized photos depicting more-than-life-sized women standing alone in enormous landscapes. On closer inspection these landscapes appear to have been either painted in, or digitally altered to have a painterly feel. The landscapes were from both Iceland and the isle of Capri, and I found them, artistically, the most interesting part of the compositions.

Flappers (2016-18)

Sherman dresses up as flappers from the 1920s.

Untitled #574 by Cindy Sherman (2016) Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York

For completists

If you are a Sherman completist then I can imagine you will be thrilled by the digital version on display here of A Cindy Book, a private album of family photographs that Sherman began compiling when she was eight or nine-years-old, which has never been seen before, and which reveals an early fascination with her own changing appearance.

Similarly, one whole room (in fact it’s the ‘transition’ space between the galleries at the front and the galleries at the back of the building) has been given over to a recreation of Sherman’s studio in New York, with wall-sized photos of her bookshelves, posters and collections of photos torn from glamour magazines and pinned to the wall, and shelves and cupboards full of masks and make-up and prosthetic attachments – all designed to provide ‘an unprecedented insight into the artist’s working processes.’

During the recent big exhibition at the NPG of photos by Martin Parr (which I found much more interesting and fun than Sherman) this space was converted into a working model of a transport caff which actually sold hot tea and cake. It would be funny if, for every exhibition they hold in these galleries, the National Portrait Gallery created a themed eaterie. A Giacometti pizzeria would have been good – imagine how thin the crusts would have been! Or a Cézanne café, with French peasants smoking pipes and playing cards, and a view of Mont Saint Victoire in the distance…

Thoughts

First of all, it is a striking achievement to have made a career out of what is basically one idea.

This is because Sherman has been able to come up with a succession of subjects and topics to each of which she can apply her distinctive, dressing-up approach and each of which are susceptible to rich and stimulating critical interpretation.

Then there’s the quality of the photographs themselves. The wall labels don’t go into as much detail about this as I’d like, but you get the impression that, as digital photography has evolved over the past forty years, Sherman has kept well abreast of all the developments and been able to incorporate each new wave of technology into her trademark concept. The sheer size of prints which modern digital photography enables, with pinpoint focus at every part of the image, becoming the most obvious one, as the exhibition progresses.

To keep mining the same vein and consistently coming up with apparently new and innovative variations on more or less the same theme deserves respect, especially in the shark pool which is the New York art scene.

However, at about this point questions of personal taste begin to intrude. All of the series certainly contained at least several highly impactful and striking photographs. And, unlike me, readers of this post may well like the fairy tale or Old Master or Flapper photos more than the earlier ones. Different people will have different responses.

All I can say is that, as the exhibition advanced through the decades and series, I was less and less engaged and attracted, and slowly became repelled by the sheer size and garish colouring of some of the photos. Way before the porn room I was actively shrinking from these big, shouty images, and I had certainly had enough by the end, and was relieved when I got to the final room with its overpowering wall-sized murals of vague landscapes with a modern woman plonked in front of them. Phew. Duty done, I could stroll back to the early room and enjoy again the marvelous Untitled Film Stills.

As well as feeling more and more repelled by the images, I also quickly disliked the ideas and subjects. Satirising the world of New York fashion, while making a lot of money from working within the world of New York fashion, just struck me as hypocritical and typically… American. If you are American, an American artist or photographer or film-maker, it appears to be very difficult to escape from the vast money-making machine which is American culture.

When it came to the society photos, taking the mickey out of vain, rich, wrinkly old American millionairesses is something I grew up watching the great Alan Whicker do on his TV documentaries back in the 1970s. It just seemed such a very…. old idea.

And lampooning Old Master paintings seemed to me a rather pointless thing to do, particularly when it’s done in such a grim and humourless way. Strapping on a fake plastic boob and spending hours dressing up to look like a madonna and child seemed a peculiarly futile exercise. If you’re going to mock them at least be funny, in the manner of Monty Python or the Horrible Histories. Just pointing out that the real-life kings and queens of that time were probably not as smooth-skinned and luminously handsome as their portraitists depicted them strikes me as being, well, not the most original or interesting idea.

The notes to the porn room made the point for me that her photos heavily referenced the disturbing sexualised mannequins the Surrealist sculptor Hans Bellmer was making back in the 1930s. Well, quite.

The curators suggest that Sherman’s work has never been more relevant than here and now, in the age of the selfie and the internet and Instagram and social media – but I disagree.

Watching my teenage kids and their friends has shown me that all my ideas about images and how they should and shouldn’t be used, assessed and consumed, belong in the Stone Age. The speed and sophistication of modern teenagers’ attitudes to movies, TV shows, stills, photos, ads and selfies is light years ahead of the kind of mainstream, dad culture represented by this exhibition.

For this exhibition – like most of the exhibitions I go to – was mostly populated by mums and dads, mostly filled, as usual, with grey-haired, older, white people, the majority of them women. No doubt some of the visitors have done courses in Critical Theory and Feminist Studies and are conversant with the numberless theories of gender and identity and performance which have been generated over the past fifty years, all of which can be liberally applied to Sherman’s work.

But a) Cindy Sherman’s basic idea – dressing up as ‘characters’ contemporary or historical or from fairy tales, and photographing herself – seems so old-fashioned, so pre-digital, as to be sweet and naive.

And b) I didn’t really believe anything I read in the wall labels about gender and identity and subverting this or that stereotype. In most of the photos she looks like a woman. When she was a young woman, she looks like a young woman, sometimes dressed and posed as a noticeably attractive young woman, pink towel about to fall off her lissom body as in a Kenny Everett sketch.

As she’s grown older, Sherman’s subjects have changed and, for example, the series of photos depicting fictional American women using cosmetics to appear younger than they are… well… that’s actually what millions of ageing American women do, isn’t it? I didn’t see that it was subverting any stereotypes. On the contrary, I thought almost all of her images reinforced the stereotypes so actively produced and disseminated by the mainstream American bubblegum culture which she so constantly refers to (all those compositions which look like scenes from movies) or which she has herself, personally, contributed to (all those fashion shoots).

For me the Untitled Film Stills series was the best series. It was the most modest in aim and so, somehow, the most effective. It had the most mystery and each one of the shots created an imaginative space for the viewer to inhabit and populate as they wished.

You may well disagree and find her later work funny or disturbing or inspiring or bitingly satirical, and I can see how different people – old and young, gay and straight, men or women – might get very different things from her work.

The one thing which is unquestionably true is that this is as definitive and complete an overview of a figure many critics refer to as ‘one of the most important and influential artists of our time’ (the Observer) as we are likely to see in our lifetimes.

So if you want to find out for yourself whether you like some, all, or none of Cindy Sherman’s work, you should definitely go along and check it out for yourself.

Video

This short video by Divento.com gives a good feel for the variety and layout of the exhibition.


Related links

Reviews of other National Portrait Gallery exhibitions

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