Until 15th September 2019, the National Portrait Gallery is exploring the photography of Cindy Sherman in a retrospective that explores the development of Sherman’s work from the mid-1970s to the present day. With over 150 photographs on display, the exhibition focuses on the artist’s manipulation of her own appearance and range of cultural sources, and investigates the balance between façade and identity.
Despite investigating four decades worth of work, the NPG fails to tell visitors much about the photographer herself – a little personal digging is necessary for those wishing to know more. Cynthia Morris Sherman was born on 9th January 1954 in Glen Ridge, New Jersey, although shortly moved to Huntington Beach, Long Island. She was the fifth and youngest child of Dorothy and Charles Sherman. Her father was an engineer for Grumman Aircraft and her mother taught handicapped children to read.
From an early age, Sherman loved to dress up, particularly in clothing dating from the 1920s. As she got older, she enjoyed searching for costumes in second-hand shops and experimenting with make-up. She quickly learnt that by combining the right clothing and make-up, one could change one’s appearance entirely. This realisation was the starting point in Sherman’s career. Rather than photographing other people, she uses herself as a model wearing remarkably convincing costumes and inventing numerous personae.
The earliest works in the exhibition date from around 1975 during her university days. From 1972 until 1976, Cindy Sherman studied in the visual arts department at the State University College at Buffalo, New York. Initially, she began working with paint but felt frustrated with the limitations of the medium and soon abandoned it in favour of photography.
“[T]here was nothing more to say [through painting] … I was meticulously copying other art, and then I realized I could just use a camera and put my time into an idea instead.” – Cindy Sherman
It was during her time at university that Sherman’s interest in manipulating her appearance and creating alter egos took flight. Taking a photograph of herself impersonating the American actress Lucille Ball (1911-89) showed her the potential of transforming herself as a work of art. Rather than imitating other people, Sherman began inventing fictitious individuals, both female and male, practising with exaggerated use of make-up. The idea was to draw attention to the deceptive nature of appearance.
One of Sherman’s university works was inspired by murder mystery plays. After writing a plot for an 82-scene play involving thirteen characters, Sherman dressed up and photographed herself as each individual in a number of poses. Each character had a particular style of dress and she used make-up and wigs to create distinct appearances. For one character, she donned an apron and held a tea tray to transform herself into a maid, and for another, a blonde wig and heavy make-up changed her into an overexcited actress. Other characters included a detective, a butler, and a photographer amongst a range of suspects. The photos were originally cut out and stuck together to create a scene, however, the exhibition shows a handful of the original frames.
Sherman produced several series of similar works during her time at university and also experimented with film. Three short, grainy films show her acting the part of different personas. In one, she is an ambiguous young woman mouthing the words “I hate you” and eventually shedding tears. In another, she is dressed as “an unattractive prostitute that nobody finds appealing”. The third is a more successful stop-motion animation that depicts Sherman as a cut-out doll that dresses up and admires herself in a mirror.
After moving to New York in 1977, where she still lives and works, Sherman began working on a series called Untitled Film Stills. Continuing to be fascinated with her ability to change her appearance and create fictional personae, Sherman took 69 black-and-white photographs that resembled shots taken on film sets of stereotypical female roles in 1950’s and 60’s Hollywood, Film Noir and B Movies. Characters include librarians, office girls, housewives, seductresses and so forth in a variety of settings, including Sherman’s apartment and locations around the city.
Cindy Sherman never titled the individual photos, wishing to preserve their ambiguity. The model – Sherman herself – is always looking away from the camera, suggesting an unspecified narrative open for individual interpretation. In a reflection of her work, Sherman discussed her intentions, thoughts and feelings:
“I was wrestling with some sort of turmoil of my own about understanding women. The characters weren’t dummies; they weren’t just airhead actresses. They were women struggling with something but I didn’t know what. The clothes make them seem a certain way, but then you look at their expression, however slight it may be, and wonder if maybe “they” are not what the clothes are communicating.”
Shortly after graduating from art school, Sherman created a series of works known as Cover Girls, which were displayed on the inside of the top deck of a bus in November 1976. The series incorporates the front covers of five women’s magazines: Cosmopolitan, Vogue, Family Circle, Redbook and Mademoiselle. Each magazine was represented by three similar covers; the first was the original but in the second, Sherman replaced the model’s face with her own, using cosmetics to make it look as similar as possible. The third cover also featured Sherman, however, this time, she pulled a “goofy face”.
Take, for example, the cover of Vogue. The original shows the heavily made-up model Jerry Hall (b.1956) staring into the camera. On the second cover is Cindy Sherman looking remarkably like Jerry Hall, replicating the same pose. In the third, however, Sherman pulls a face and winks, thus making a mockery of the original photograph. The idea was to emphasise the artificial nature of magazines, which constantly try to convey an impression of beauty, glamour and sophistication.
In the 1980s, Sherman began working with coloured photography. Similar to her Untitled Film Stills from the previous decade, Sherman produced a series of close-up photographs that appear to show an actress in a film against a projected background. The actresses, of course, are all pictures of Cindy Sherman with cosmetically altered features. Her idea was to show how artificial some films can appear, enhanced further by the inclusion of herself as a “fake” actress.
In 1981, Sherman was commissioned by Artforum magazine to produce photographs to spread across the centre pages. Rather than portraying sensual female models as the magazine expected, Sherman photographed herself in the guise of vulnerable-looking women. She tried to make it appear as though the (male) magazine readers were intruding on someone’s personal pain, sadness or reverie. The magazine eventually declined to publish the photographs.
Over time, Cindy Sherman has worked for a number of fashion magazines. This has involved working with various designers, such as Prada, Dolce & Gabbana, and Marc Jacobs. In 1983, Sherman was commissioned by the New York boutique owner Dianne Benson to produce the photographs to be used in advertisements for clothes by Jean Paul Gaultier and Comme des Garçons. Whilst Sherman did provide photos of the clothes worn by her personal model (i.e. herself), she created images that parody fashion photography. Her invented characters wear stylish designer-label clothes, however, they appear upset, unstable and absurd.
“I’m disgusted with how people get themselves to look beautiful … I was trying to make fun of fashion.” – Cindy Sherman
Sherman’s aim was to expose designer labels who claimed through fashion photography that their clothes could make you look elegant. As Sherman proved, this is not the case. Her photographs show that the clothes have not made her look particularly attractive; fashion photography is merely an illusion.
The following year, Sherman took this idea further when she was commissioned by the French fashion company Dorothée Bis to provide photographs for Vogue Paris. Again, she dressed her characters in designer outfits, however, she deliberately made herself look ugly, dishevelled or depressed. Despite her actions and dislike for the illusions of fashion, magazines continue to employ Sherman.
By the end of the 1980s, Cindy Sherman changed direction and looked to the past for inspiration. By this time, she was married to the French photographer Michael Auder (b.1945) and was the step-mother of Alexandra and Gaby Hoffman (b.1982). During the late eighties, Sherman spent two months in Rome where she turned her attention to the visual language and style of Old Master paintings.
Although prosthetics are now a common feature in Sherman’s work, her series of Historical Portraits was the first time she really employed such an extravagant range. By combining false noses, false breasts, wigs, make-up and costumes, Cindy managed to transform herself into over thirty women and men. Characters included aristocrats, ladies of leisure, royalty and the Virgin Mary. Whilst she was inspired by the Old Masters, Cindy tended to create completely made up portraits of fictitious people rather than replicating paintings she saw in Rome. There was, however, one exception.
Cindy particularly admired a painting by the French Neoclassical artist Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780-1867). Madame Moitessier (1865) is a portrait of Marie-Clotilde-Inès Moitessier (1821-97), the wife of a rich banker and lace merchant. The sitter is dressed in detailed fabric and decorated with jewels. Her pose makes her appear graceful and is typical of the era.
In Cindy Sherman’s version, the sitter adopts a similar pose using a different hand and is dressed in silky material and jewels. Corresponding to the setting of Ingres’ painting, Sherman is sat in front of a mirror, so the back of her head can be seen. It is this same mirror that breaks the illusion of a historical painting because a piece of paper can be seen in the reflection.
Sherman’s deliberate parodies of historical paintings draw attention to the potential illusion of people’s appearances. Looking at Sherman’s photographs, we know she is wearing wigs and prosthetics and does not look that way in real life. The question is, how reliable are paintings from the pre-camera era? To what extent is the appearance of Ingres’ model truthful? How many inventions did Ingres add to the painting? Was Madame Moitessier really wearing that dress; did her cheeks really contain that much rouge; has her appearance been altered slightly to conform with social preferences about beauty? Sadly, we will never know.
As well as historical portraits, Sherman used fairy tales as inspiration for her work. For these, her style became more nightmarish and grotesque. Using prosthetics, Cindy created characters from the more sinister side of children’s stories, for instance, a man with a pig’s snout and a woman with dark eyes and sharp, pointed teeth.
Cindy Sherman and Michel Auder divorced in 1999 but this did not prevent Sherman from continuing with her photography projects. Between 1991 and 2005, she lived in a fifth-floor co-op loft in Manhattan until she bought two apartments overlooking the Hudson River. Today, she lives in one and uses the other for her studio. The National Portrait Gallery has recreated her studio in one of the rooms of the exhibition in order for visitors to understand how Sherman works.
From the mid-90s, perhaps developing on from her Fairy Tale series, Sherman produced numerous photographs that incorporated the use of masks. Some of the characters appear entirely artificial with, perhaps, one feature that reveals it is really Cindy Sherman. Whereas her previous work has dealt with the idea that appearances can be deceptive, the use of masks completely removes the opportunity to establish identity and other personal attributes.
Sherman was also interested in the appearance of clowns whose costumes and make-up create a whole new identity. The application of make-up or facepaint can completely change the demeanour of someone’s face. A natural expression can be transformed into a sinister-looking face or an overtly happy one.
As Cindy Sherman gets older and enters the new millennium, her photos become increasingly engrossed in the issues of age and social status. Whilst Sherman alters her appearance to appear ten or twenty years older, her characters are resorting to cosmetics to maintain an illusion of youthfulness. Despite their make-up, the women look their age, failing to appear any younger. They are also desperate to preserve their social status and appear sophisticated and wealthy.
These portraits are taken against elaborate backdrops to further enhance the impression of affluence and elegance. The attempt of these characters to appear youthful backfires and suggests they are full of insecurities about their age and position in life. Their haughty demeanour seems forced and fake, which is the opposite of their intentions.
Of course, these women are fictitious and Sherman is not yet as old as they appear. Nonetheless, as a photographer, Sherman is confronting an issue that will affect everyone in the future.
Cindy Sherman returns to the past in her most recent series of work. Taken between 2016 and 2018, Sherman experiments by dressing up as what she terms “flappers”. This term refers to young women after the First World War whose appearance and attitude went against convention. They cut their hair short, smoked in public, wore copious amounts of make-up and generally went against the norms of feminity.
Being a feminist herself, Sherman was drawn to these women, adopting hairstyles, make-up and fashion worn by women in the 1920s. The key difference is Sherman’s characters are clearly a lot older than the so-called “flappers”. This gives them the illusion of Hollywood grandes dames, desperately trying to hold on to their youth.
These latest photos also show Sherman’s professional development from a grainy, black-and-white camera to a full-colour, digitally-manipulated photograph. One image is made up of four portraits of Sherman in different costumes, grouped together as though posing for only one photograph. Again, the costumes date back to the 1920s and the similarities in appearance suggest the characters are sisters. Family acts were in vogue between the two world wars, although, in this instance, the sisters have aged considerably.
The theme of actresses runs throughout Cindy Sherman’s work, which is an apt metaphor for her own life. Despite there being hundreds of photographs of Sherman, none of them reveals her true identity. Whilst we can build up a visual appearance, we do not learn anything about her life or personality.
Having expressed her contempt for the “so vulgar” social media platforms, there is little to learn about Sherman’s true identity online. Wikipedia tells us she had a relationship with Scottish-American singer-songwriter David Byrne (b. 1952) between the years 2007 and 2011 and she enjoyed regular holidays in the Catskill Mountains.
Cindy Sherman currently serves on the artistic advisory committee of the dance firm Stephen Petronio Company. In 2012, she joined 150 artists, including Yoko Ono (b.1933), in the founding of Artists Against Fracking. This is in opposition to hydraulic fracturing in order to remove gas from underground deposits.
Despite detesting social media, Sherman has an Instagram account that documents her latest works and ideas. Other than this, there is very little insight into her life. Whilst Cindy Sherman appears in every photograph shown at the National Portrait Gallery, visitors ironically come away knowing very little about her.
The Cindy Sherman exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London is open until 15th September 2019. Tickets are priced at £18 for adults. On Fridays, under 25s can visit for £5 but be aware some images are unsuitable for children.