Van Leo, the Cindy Sherman of WWII Cairo

THE DAILY PIC: Our critic puts 1940s self-portraits, at the New Museum, in context.


These are three of the pile of self-portraits by, and of, the Egyptian photographer known as Van Leo, who shot them in the early 1940s in Cairo. They are now the star attraction at “Here and Elsewhere”, the important show of (mostly) contemporary Arab art the New Museum in New York. That’s the subject of the latest Strictly Critical video from me and my pal Christian Viveros-Fauné.  Van Leo’s amazing photos present him playing an ascetic, a pilot, a thug, a starlet and many other roles, and both Christian and I  read them as absurdly early precedents for the persona-shifting self-portraits of Cindy Sherman, made 35 years later.

I don’t suppose that’s wrong, but thinking longer, harder, I realized that they come out of such a different context that our reading needs to change: The series was begun during the utter chaos of the military battles, and political strife, that engulfed Egypt during World War II.  What looks to us like standard postmodern “play” had to feel different then. Van Leo’s self-portraits either betray the most extreme, whistling-by-the-graveyard denial of crisis, or they are an act of firm opposition to the standard, fixed ideals of maleness and culture that got the world into such trouble.

Although it could also be that Van Leo’s context and Sherman’s aren’t actually as different as they look: Being a woman stuck in a patriarchal system may engender just as much of a sense of personal crisis as being a man in time of war. Both Sherman and Van Leo fought back by attacking the foundations of fixed identity. (Courtesy New Museum, New York; photo by Benoit Pailley)

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