Untitled Film Still #17 by Cindy Sherman, 1978. Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York

Cindy Sherman at the National Portrait Gallery

Cindy Sherman is renowned for dressing up in different guises. Even so, it’s somewhat astonishing that one woman can so convincingly assume the appearance of all sorts of people, from a cigarette-smoking vamp to an aristocratic lady to a Hitchcock heroine to a circus clown. At the first major UK retrospective of the artist, the National Gallery displays works that span her life from the 1970’s to the present day. The exhibition begins with A Cindy Book – a childhood scrapbook made when Sherman was 8 or 9 and in which she pasted photos of herself and wrote ‘that’s me’ in pencil beneath each one. A fascination in changing appearances was already nascent. The show continues and every frame contains Sherman as model. We’re looking at a series of images all of one woman, yet in a way we aren’t.

Untitled #602 by Cindy Sherman, 2019. Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York

An obsession with her own image – perhaps like a modern-day selfie you might ask? Well no, not quite because these photographs aren’t about personal branding or even about Cindy Sherman herself. Her real identity is left at the door. Wigs, make up, fashion, prosthetics, styling; these are the tools Sherman uses to fabricate different identities, to assume new roles, to invent new people with new stories. These then, are portraits of made-up characters.

The dazzling spectrum of photographs on display is wide-ranging and at times playful – in the historical portraits room for example. Here she’s seen as an aristocratic lady next to an 1856 oil painting of Madame Moitessier by Ingres. If Sherman can assume this appearance for a photograph, what’s to say that Madame Moitessier wasn’t in some way a fabrication too?

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

Madame Moitessier by Jean-Dominique-Ingres, 1856. The National Gallery, London Bought 1936. Copyright: The National Gallery, London

Other works are more provocative. Her love-hate relationship with fashion – she both loves clothes and feels disgusted by them too – is evident in her magazine shoots where she dons Comme des Garcons and Jean Paul Gaultier but wears deranged, neurotic and fraught facial expressions, exposing the illusion of fashion whilst subverting what we think of when we think of haute couture. Also on display is the complete  Cover Girls series in which Sherman appears as Jerry Hall.

Untitled #122 by Cindy Sherman, 1983. Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York

Cover Girl (Vogue) by Cindy Sherman, 1976 / 2011. Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York.

There are sinister overtones throughout – from the early Rear Window-inspired film stills, past the sci-fi (Game of Thrones?) Fairy Tales series and into the final room which revolves around masks. The idea of the sad clown comes into play – there’s the classic disjunction between appearance and reality, and she reveals the more sinister character lurking behind the facade of children’s entertainer.

Untitled #413 by Cindy Sherman, 2003. Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York

One of our favourite rooms in the show is the mock-up of her New York studio. There are shelves of prosthetics, wigs, sunglasses and drawers full of costumes. There are stacks of books and mood boards cover the walls – ripped pages from magazines, postcards and polaroid photos. It’s like something you might find on a teenage bedroom wall, something we might associate with a young person working out their identity. It’s a glimpse into the workings of the artist’s mind.

Cindy Sherman’s photographs are weird, strange and often uncomfortable to look at. They’re provocative too, prompting the viewer to ask – who is this woman? What kind of life does she lead? In an instagram age where we’re more obsessed than ever with appearance this is an exhibition that asks all the relevant questions about image and identity and delves into the grey space between what’s real and what’s artificial. Enthralling and powerful, we can’t stop thinking about it.

Cindy Sherman at the National Portrait Gallery
27 June - 15 September 2019
National Portrait Gallery St Martin's Place, WC2H 0HE
— Daisy Allsup
27th June 2019