Cindy Sherman (National Portrait Gallery, London)

See posts from my previous course ‘Understanding Visual Culture’ and ‘Documentary’ about Cindy Sherman here and here.


I rarely get the chance to visit London and often feel that means I miss out on so many interesting exhibitions. A brief layover after attending a friends wedding meant I got the chance to see the Cindy Sherman’s retrospective exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. Sherman is best known for her series ‘Untitled Film Stills’ and although I was aware of other aspects of her work it is this series that I am most familiar so I was looking forward to gaining a deeper understanding of her practice. The first thing to note about the exhibition is that it is expansive and thorough in its coverage of Sherman’s output – from early student work predating ‘Untitled Film Stills’, to the present day.

In the foreword to the exhibition catalogue, Nicholas Cullinan describes Sherman as “one of the most influential and important artists of our time” indeed, ahead of her time as her practice of appearing in her own work predates the modern “seemingly insatiable desire for photographic self-representation”. However, her work challenges the assertion that portraiture should be synonymous with personal truth:

“Sherman’s photographs conceal and mask rather than reveal and illuminate. They often look like portraits but as invented characters, sometimes even iterations of characters and types, they complicate even the most basic assumptions of identity and representation.” (Moorhouse, 2019: 7)

Laura Cumming makes this assessment of the body of work on display, paying particularly attention to Sherman’s later series’:

“Sherman has by now invented more than 600 personae; every one of them is a recognisable type, to some extent, and yet also an individual. The gap between the two is the most fascinating aspect of her art; particularly conveyed in the portraits of women who are not young any more. The hostess who thinks she looks a bit like Hilary Clinton and has taken Annie Leibovitz’s Vogue cover shoots to a makeover artist who hasn’t quit pulled it off. The Fifth Avenue socialite whose facelift has slipped. The Republican matron still trying to look like a college sweetheart.

Foundation leaves a tidemark, concealer reveals itself in the studio flashlight. These women are still trying to keep up appearances, but the cracks are beginning to show. And looking hard at these enormous shots, substitutes for the old family portrait above the fireplace, you notice another abiding characteristic of Sherman’s art. No matter that they are photographs, her images never have the momentary status of the snapshot. They seem to stand outside time.” (Cumming, 2019)

Early Work (1975-77):

I was struck by the confidence in this work that was mainly created when Sherman was an art student at the State University College of Buffalo between 1972-6. Particular highlights for me are ‘Untitled #479’ (1975) which unusually for Sherman shows the process of transformation through 23 images which start a nerdy, bespectacled Sherman and end with her as heavily made up vamp. ‘Untitled A-E’ (1975) draws attention to the artifice of her transformations through the exaggerated use of make up and posing. “Air Shutter Release Fashions’ (1975) is a provocative series showing Sherman’s naked torso wrapped in her camera shutter release with the handwritten caption alluding to the item of clothing it is meant to represent. The exhibition notes make the following explanation:

“In photographing herself naked, [Sherman makes] her own body the work’s central focus; and by wrapping the cable of the camera release around her torso and limbs, she suggests various items of costume, albeit in outline only. As a result, the images reveal the way that Sherman depersonalises her own figure and invests it with artifice; at the same time, they expose the means by which this transformation is achieved.”

Cover Girls (1976):

This series comprises five manipulated ‘covers’ of the women’s magazines Cosmopolitan, Vogue, Family Circle, Redbook and Mademoiselle. Each cover is presented in a group of three: the first shows the original, the second features Sherman’s face composited onto the original and made up to resemble the model, and the third shows Sherman retaining the impersonation but adopting a ‘goofy face’. The exhibition text makes this analysis of Sherman’s appropriation and how this is a comment on the imagery of the mass-media:

“By replicating a pre-existing image, her work quotes the style of the original; in the Vogue cover for example, Sherman draws attention to Jerry Hall’s make up, which she copies exactly. However, by parodying Hall’s expression, Sherman emphasises the artificial nature of the original image, which seeks to convey an impression of glamorous sophistication.”

Untitled Film Stills (1977-80):

For Paul Moorhouse, this series represents Sherman’s emergence as a mature artist and the performative aspect characterise the rest of her output. He continues:

“As the title of this celebrated early series suggests, the Untitled Film Stills (1977-80) evoke publicity shots for films. The protagonist is a solitary woman seen sometimes in close-up and at the centre of the action, at other times glimpsed from afar. Fictitious tableaux staged for the camera, such scenes seem familiar but are also tantalisingly ambiguous, inviting and at the same time defying explanation. These enigmatic works announced the arrival of a compelling artistic personality and yet, by presenting herself as an actress, Sherman simultaneously retreated behind the personae she created. The instinct to fabricate and occupy a world of appearances dominates the Untitled Film Stills, and during the succeeding four decades it has remained a central, motivating force.” (Moorhouse, 2019: 11)

Laura Cumming describes the effect of looking at the full 70 images from the series as deja vu as the characters seem so familiar, each one reminiscent of a film you think you have seen before but you know is constructed:

“The vamp, the victim, the ponytailed student, the black and white heroine startled by the telephone: is it Hitchcock, Hawks or Fellini?

You recognise the type, spot the cinematic allusion and then – crucially – realise that each scene is in fact a fiction that does not exist in memory. Sherman has made it all up. Made herself up, arranged the costumes, props and lighting that elaborate the atmosphere, imply the backstory, the forthcoming action and all. Every still is of – and by – Cindy Sherman.” (Cumming, 2019)

It was strange seeing the series in a gallery setting, these are works that I am very familiar with and have looked at many times before, but, they were in some way changed presented framed and behind glass on the wall. The first thing that struck me was how small the prints are, the fashion is towards giant prints and I enjoyed having to stand closer to the photographs than I am used to, or indeed needed to for the majority of the rest of the exhibition. The success of the series is their basis in cinema of the 1940s-60s, particularly film noir and Hitchcock. The characters are instantly recognisable without being cliches or derivative, Sherman is clearly identifiable and the constant through each but she is also completely different on each frame – it is an extraordinary set and worthy of the praise and influence heaped on it. I have had the experience of seeing other images that I know well in ‘the flesh’ and being decidedly underwhelmed or disappointed – I am glad to say that this was not the case on this occasion, in fact, quite the opposite as my admiration for the series was only increased.

Rear Screen Projections (1980):

These images follow the theme of the cinema started in ‘Untitled Film Stills’ but with the important distinction of being in colour. Sherman is shown in close-up in front of a projected back drop, a strategy that has the effect of strengthening the impression of ambiguity. The notes from the exhibition text make these points:

“Shown in close-up, there is a concentration on Sherman’s cosmetically altered features, in particular her gaze, which seems responsive to some unspecified situation. As a result, her acting has greater psychological depth, but any sense of realism is contradicted by the artificial-looking settings”

Centrefolds (1981):

This series subverts the male gaze and the conventions of the centrefold by presenting a series of vulnerable looking women rather than sensuous female models typically found in men’s magazines. Sherman is quoted in the exhibition notes as intending the series to replace a “titillating image” with one that “might be intruding on someone’s private pain, sadness or reverie.” ‘Centrefolds’ was commissioned for Artforum magazine but never run, possibly because of the way the women depicted appear vulnerable or even victimised. Sherman’s motivations can perhaps be explained by the way she uses her experiences and anxieties of being a woman and channels her memories into her work. In an interview she explains her motivations for the series:

“[the images are] meant to resemble in format a centrefold, but in content I wanted a man opening up a magazine to look in expectation of something lascivious, and then feel like the violator they would be” (Saner, 2019)

Pink Robes (1981-2):

For this series Sherman makes a departure from her usual practice, appearing without make up, costumes or props and covered only by a pink bathrobe. The images are defiant and confrontational with Sherman staring straight into the camera in the imagined role of a nude model resting between shots.

Color Studies (1981-2):

These images are more subtle examples of Sherman evoking complex psychological mind-sets by suggesting ordinary women in understated, unremarkable settings. Despite the appearance of normality, and the lack of overt drama, the images are highly charged and suggestive exactly because of this.

Fashion (1983-84):

These photographs are unusual departure for Sherman as they are an overtly critical comment on contemporary culture. Commissioned by New York boutique owner Dianne Benson, Sherman chose to parody fashion photography with the characters appearing neurotic and absurd despite wearing high end fashion clothing. From the exhibition notes Sherman explains her intentions: “I’m disgusted with how people get themselves to look beautiful…I was trying to make fun of fashion.” There is an unresolved ironic tension in the fact that despite implying that the elegance, glamour and sophistication of high end fashion is merely a veneer and illusory, she continues to be commissioned to make fashion work – seemingly the cultural capital she brings to these projects outweighs the critical nature of the imagery.

Fairy Tales (1985):

These nightmarish and grotesque tableaux show a much darker view of modern society and find their sources in children’s fairy tales while bringing to mind the style of science fiction and horror films. The exhibition notes state:

“In some of these images Sherman appears as the victim of some dire event; in others, she appears sinister or threatening. Collectively, the series conveys an abject atmosphere that elides childhood fears with the visual language of adult media. Referring to the violent themes that since the 1970s have increasingly featured in cinema and television drama, these works invite questions about whether the media reflect or incites elements of depravity in the contemporary world. Sherman’s use of artifice distances her images from these media sources. Even so, the Fairy Tales hold up a mirror to the inescapable fact that such dark forces exist.”

History Portraits (1988-90):

These images take inspiration from the visual language of old master painting from the Renaissance to the nineteenth century. Rather than aiming to convince the audience about the illusions she has created, Sherman makes her transformations deliberately unconvincing through the use of visible prosthetics. This parody of historical portraiture raises questions about the presence of illusion in images of people.

Sex Pictures, Fashion, Surrealist Pictures (1992-96):

These series’ critique pornography and explicit depictions of sexuality. They are also notable due to the absence of Sherman herself – dolls, prosthetics and other props are used to create scenarios that appear absurd, abject and devoid of sensuality. The exhibition notes make this analysis:

“Deliberately artificial-looking, Sherman’s images debunk the conventions of pornography, and ridicule its visual language as a sham that conceals a striking emptiness.”

Masks, Head Shots, Clowns, Balenciaga (1994-2008):

These series’ are linked by the use of masks to completely transform Sherman’s facial features subverting the notion that a person’s facial appearance can be read for clues to their identity.

Society Portraits (2008):

The themes of this series are age and social status. Sherman creates imposing portraits of women confronting their advancing years through heavy use of make up and cosmetic surgery to create an illusion of youthfulness. Elaborate, digital backdrops convey a sense of affluence and refinement, however, this is contrasted with the insecurity suggested by the women’s haughty demeanour which betrays self-absorption and personal doubt.

Chanel (2010/12):

For this series, Sherman dresses in Chanel outfits and places herself into a rugged, outdoor virtual landscape. The exhibtion notes state:

“Sherman’s delight in performance here finds an enhanced, virtual context in which the real and the apparent are merged and indistinguishable. In that respect, these works remain true to the ethos of ‘dressing up’ that Sherman formed as a child, while delving further into the mysteries of appearance that her art has always explored.”

Murals (2010/19):

These portraits are made on a large scale and placed directly on the gallery wall to resemble murals. Using digital technology, Sherman portrays unusual characters, wearing strange costumes in abstracted landscapes. The exhibition notes make this assessment:

“The effect is to monumentalise Sherman’s fabrication of artificial appearances, expanding a theme present on her work from the outset. Confronting these imposing images, the viewer is drawn more fully into a fictional world.”

Flappers (2016-18):

For this series, Sherman created characters based on a generation of young women who emerged after the first world war. Described as ‘Flappers’, they flouted convention with their appearance and conveyed a liberated sensuality that contrasted earlier norms of femininity. The characters in the series are obviously now older women and there is a rich narrative potential for the viewer to unpick their stories. The exhibition notes suggest the women could be Hollywood ‘grand dames’ – fading stars of the entertainment industry, a theme which would fit with Sherman’s reference to film and actresses in earlier works.

Harper’s Bazaar (2016-18)

These images, commissioned by the fashion magazine Harper’s Bazaar, show Sherman wearing designer clothes in front of digitally created backgrounds which create a narrative based on the phenomenon of ‘street-style stars’ – characters who attend fashion shows wearing ostentatious dress and exhibit exaggerated behaviour that seeks to rival the main spectacle for attention.

Rarely have I seen an exhibition so expansive in its scope, not a ‘greatest hits’ selection but a full and thorough retrospective. I came away feeling enriched by the experience of seeing ‘Untitled Film Stills’ in a gallery setting and learning more, a great deal more, about the rest of Sherman’s work and practice. It is unbelievable that Sherman has managed to stick to the same working method and artistic strategy, and yet, refine and develop this through her many series’ of work over the past 40 years. It is the ambiguity of each image and the way the viewer brings their own personal perspective and understanding to unravel the potential narratives within the frame that for me makes them so successful. As a final comment, here is Paul Moorhouse’s assessment:

“Sherman’s work is defined by its complex marriage of precision with indeterminacy. Each image involves the viewer directly by compelling them to seek a rationale for their responses to depicted individuals and situation whose significance seems highly particular yet entirely unspecified. While her photographs may be, as she says ‘not about anything’, that does not mean they lack significance. On the contrary, although their messages may not be pre-determined, the individual interpretations brought to them by each viewer in a predicament that mirrors life. In Sherman’s photographs, and also in daily existence, we must constantly negotiate our relationships with people and situations, scrutinising their appearance and, no doubt without any guarantee of veracity, attaching significance. Sherman’s art forms a context and a focus for all too human dilemma.” (Moorhouse, 2019: 17)

Bibliography:

Arena: Cindy Sherman #Untitled. (2019) BBC Four. 28th July 2019, 21.05.

Cumming, L. (2019) Cindy Sherman review – a lifetime making herself up. The Observer, 30th June 2019. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2019/jun/30/cindy-sherman-national-portrait-gallery-review-a-lifetime-of-making-herself-up (accessed 23rd May 2020)

Moorhouse, P. (2019) Cindy Sherman. London: National Portrait Gallery Publications.

Lanigan, R. (2019) 10 things we learned from Cindy Sherman’s first interview in 10 years. i-D. Available at: https://i-d.vice.com/en_uk/article/gy44yj/cindy-sherman-bbc-four-interview (accessed 12th November 2019)

Moorhouse, P. (2019) Cindy Sherman. London: National Portrait Gallery Publications.

Saner, E. (2019) Cindy Sherman #untitled review – love, death, ageing and parrots. The Observer, 28th July 2019. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2019/jul/28/cindy-sherman-untitled-review-love-death-ageing-and-parrots (accessed 12th November 2019)

Sherman, C. (2009) The complete untitled film stills. New York: The Museum of Modern Art.

One thought on “Cindy Sherman (National Portrait Gallery, London)

  1. Pingback: Cindy Sherman | Digital Image and Culture

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