A tearful blonde sits alone at the bar, eyes bleeding mascara. She is trying to hold herself together with a dry martini. Perhaps her date has stormed off, or never arrived in the first place.
Another girl stands alone in a car’s headlights at night, waiting for the recovery vehicle that won’t get there in time. A third kneels to pick spilt groceries from the floor, looking up at someone who is evidently staring angrily back down at her. A man’s jacket dangles ominously from her shoulders.
The character and scenario are so familiar you feel you’ve seen this movie before every time. Deja vu is the first effect of the American artist Cindy Sherman’s legendary Untitled Film Stills (1977-80), all 70 of which are on display at the National Portrait Gallery. 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.
This has been the prototype of her entire career, condensed in this enthralling lifetime survey. Sherman is the gawky boy, the Manhattan dowager, the foolish clown and the silver screen goddess; she is the mall chick, the soccer mum and the corpse. In the most recent sequence here, she appears four times over in the same lifesize image of a blonde kidult got up in athleisure, expensive extensions ironed flat. She looks 40, pretending to be 20. Sherman herself is now 65.
The more you see of her shape-shifting illusions, the more astonishing they seem. How can she be the Texan cowgirl with her wide smile and wizened tan, as well as the elderly gumshoe in mackintosh and trilby. How can she be the French film star with Gauloises and almond eyes, as well as the swarthy Neapolitan lad from a painting by Caravaggio?
It is true that this immense range of appearances is convenienced, in part, by the exceptional plasticity of Sherman’s own face, partially visible in two images in the show where she appears ageless, almost anonymous, pretty as the girl next door. But still this does not account either for the sheer variety of her transformations, or the feat of her vanishing acts.
As a student in the 70s, Sherman disappeared into the full range of figures from Cluedo, cook to colonel to scarlet woman. The greasepaint was pantomime coarse, but wholly convincing. It was almost impossible to know that each part was played by the same woman – except for the shutter release cable, clearly visible, for the taking of self-portraits.
In the 80s, according to the show’s curator, Sherman turned to the grotesque in reaction to the fame of her Film Stills. Possibly the most sinister image in her Fairy Tales sequence shows an androgynous figure in a nightgown, lost in the dark woods, moonlight catching his/her alarmingly vacant face. In another, the human presence, such as it is, has morphed into a sweating pig’s head.
And still the collectors snapped up these nightmares for their walls. Sherman has always had to dodge her own success. Her old master portraits – vast as the great paintings in the galleries upstairs – have menacing overtones. Here’s a (nearly) Raphael, Rubens and Ingres, except that the brushstrokes are parodied in extravagant and even violent cosmetics. A Renaissance century Madonna bears a breast that is startlingly crude: prosthetics used to challenge aesthetics.
The genres multiply. The style of women’s magazine covers is sent up with sardonic wit – housewife to porn star, and back, in rapid sequence; fashion photography is shrewdly pastiched, with Sherman in heroine chic poses, white as a sheet with blood-rimmed eyes.
That this is all achieved with makeup is made more or less conspicuous. In the recent photographs of ageing film stars – almost Anjelica Huston, almost Bette Davis – the special effects are laid out in full view. Different mouths painted on her own heavily concealed lips; eyebrows erased and replaced with seductive crescents or abrupt hyphens; eye shadows, eyeliners and contact lenses overriding the true colour of her eyes.
This show is a masterclass in makeup, quite apart from anything else. You can see some of her methods in an early reverse striptease, as it were, in which Sherman turns herself from spectacled geek all the way through to glamour model – with a single clear Cindy, perhaps, among the sequential stages. And staging is, of course, the point. For although all these different people seem to have the full force of real beings out there in the world, it is also crucial that we must know that they are neither real, nor quite actresses playing the part, but a single artist inventing an immense succession of selves.
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 Hillary Clinton and has taken Annie Leibovitz’s Vogue cover shoots to a makeover artist who hasn’t quite 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 snapshots. They seem to stand outside time.
The very latest work is effectively a double portrait. It shows a pale and slightly reptilian man, expensively dressed and standing in an elaborately landscaped garden. He might belong to the art world, perhaps a curator or collector. Certainly he is wearing an early Cindy Sherman T-shirt, from the Rear Screen Projections, in which she plays the part of a Hitchcock actress.
The artist appears in an eerie feedback loop of herself, young and old, male and female, posing, appearing, trying herself on, forthcoming yet withheld. Between the two faces there are so many nuances, of doubt, anxiety, innocence, reticence, candour. Who is Cindy, what is she? It is almost impossible to fix upon her in this slippery image. As in life, so in art: Sherman makes herself up as she goes along; and her camera catches the truth, that we may all be strangers to ourselves.
Cindy Sherman is at the National Portrait Gallery, London, until 15 September