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If I had planned on leaving the Cindy Sherman retrospective at Fondation Louis Vuitton feeling like I knew the artist better, I was in for a surprise: Her uncanny ability to transform herself (in age, race, and even gender) left me totally disoriented.
Born in Long Island to a middle-class family, Sherman says she never felt at ease in her own skin. The wide age gap with four older siblings left her with the impression of being “the odd one out”. She turned to dressing up at a very young age, attempting to fit in.
This insecurity shows in the first black-and-white pictures included in the retrospective, from 1977-80, where she turns into a myriad different female characters, finding inspiration for her impersonations in TV programs, horror movies and even mail-order catalogues.
Upon moving to New York City in the 1980s and reaching her artistic maturity, she started experimenting with larger formats, in color. Her dressing up became more and more refined, and she started playing with prosthetics, which allowed her a greater range of impersonation. While she kept drawing inspiration from cinema, other, more controversial topics surfaced: pornography, cross-dressing, violence.
The vibrant colors and the technical prowess in her works are outstanding, and produce magazine-worthy shots. Sherman is a consummate actor, her facial expressions often even more evocative than the elaborate disguises she is wearing. And yet, in this section of the exhibition, I sensed that I was making her stories mine, projecting my own emotions, as if it were a mirror I was looking at, instead of yet another portrait of the artist.
The portraits of waning beauties are my favorites. Now in her 60s, Sherman does not need prosthetics to look older: the wrinkles we see are her own and her heroines look worse for wear, as if life had dealt them one too many blows. In an age when we as women are pushed to never look our age, it is reassuring (at least for me, who just turned the half-century mark) to see the artist proudly put it on display.
In the 1990s, ill at ease with her newfound stardom, in a radical U-turn, Sherman embarked on still-lifes featuring all kind of grotesque or downright revolting objects.
In the show at Fondation LV, these pictures are set apart from the rest, in a PG-rated room. Many focus on sex, unsurprisingly if one keeps in mind how the AIDS epidemic wreaked havoc in the artistic and intellectual circles in New York City at the time. The opposite of decorative, these pictures felt liberating to the artist, as if she was giving a middle finger to the contemporary art establishment. For the viewer, it is an altogether different experience. I, for one, was ill at ease watching them, probably the precise effect Sherman was aiming for.
But the classical art of portraiture still kept exerting a strong influence on Sherman, as evidenced by her History Portraits, spanning 20 years, presented here in a display that, at first sight, would not be out of place at the Louvre. Caravaggio, Ingres, Rembrandt give the artist an excuse to travel even further in time. While they demonstrate her usual mastery, to me they felt like exercises in style, almost as if the artist was trying to prove a point and not to tell a story.
Today, Sherman seems to be more at ease with her fame. Not only does she collaborate with powerhouse fashion houses and mainstream fashion magazines, with her most recent shots closing the exhibition, but she has also embraced the digital era. On her Instagram account, she has fun using filters and special effects to change her appearance.
It is as if times have caught up with her, a precursor of the selfie, but despite this overflow of self-portraits, I was left to wonder: Who really is Cindy Sherman?
“Cindy Sherman” is on at Fondation Louis Vuitton until January 3, 2021.
8 Avenue du Mahatma Gandhi, 75116 Paris
Open every day from 10 am to 8 pm
Full ticket price: 14€
Lead photo credit : Cindy Sherman at Fondation Louis Vuitton. Photo © Sarah Bartesaghi Truong