Gillian Wearing and Penny Johnson, the director of the Government Art Collection, in front of Wearing's Me as an artist in 1984 (2014)
It was apparently an excellent piece of serendipity that meant that Wednesday’s (8 March) opening of the National Portrait Gallery’s joint exhibition of Gillian Wearing and the early 20th-century French photographer Claude Cahun coincided with International Women's Day. But it was widely agreed that the date could not have been more appropriate, given the courageous vision of both artists and their joint fascination with issues of gender and identity. In our evermore fluid times, Cahun’s statement made back in 1920—“Masculine? Feminine? It depends on the situation. Neuter is the only gender that suits me”—also seemed especially apposite and struck a particular chord alongside Wearing’s fluid presentation of her own image as well as those of family members and figures from art history as well as Cahun herself.
Later there was considerable amusement that the post-private-view dinner took place surrounded by early 19th century masculinity in the museum’s Regency Weldon Galleries with only very few female faces to be seen amongst the predominantly male portraits lining the walls.
However, this imbalance was by no means reflected at the dinner tables. As a grand finale to his vote of thanks and in honour of the day, the museum director Nicholas Cullinan requested that all the key women involved in the exhibition rise to their feet and take a bow. This they duly did, with rapturous applause greeting the formidable line-up, which included the show’s curator Sarah Howgate; the Surrealist scholar Dawn Ades; Penny Johnson of the Government Art Collection; the Whitechapel Gallery director Iwona Blazwick; Wearing’s gallerists Tanya Bonakdar, Maureen Paley and Shaun Regen; and of course Gillian Wearing herself. All in all, a fitting end to a significant day.