The works showcased in this exhibition are arranged chronologically according to specific stages of Man Ray’s artistic career, commencing in New York and concluding in Paris. Some of the artist’s most celebrated images including his portrait of Marcel Duchamp dressed as his alter ego Rrose Sélavy and the now iconic Le Violon d’ingres are among the first we encounter. Despite having been reproduced ad nauseam Le Violon d’ingres still retains a unique aura, commanding our attention and piquing our curiosity. The image reveals the artist as a a man before his time, exploiting the conceptual possibilities of image manipulation in a pre-photoshop era.
The exhibition continues with a focus on Ray’s artistic output following his relocation from New York to Paris. Drifting from one image to the next feels like being present at a haute culture roll call-Picasso, Braque, Joyce, Hemingway and Stein-a veritable who’s-who of 1920’s Paris. A thread of continuity quickly emerges which lays emphasis on the celebrity. Moving amid avant-garde circles as well as the upper echelons of society, Man Ray is exposed as an important chronicler of his time-a posture which is reinforced by the featured self-portraits which frequently show Man Ray with camera in hand, as if legitimising his position as undisputed portraitist of the era’s artistic elite.
Man Ray was affiliated with both Dada and Surrealism and the exhibition is peppered with examples of the absurd taste and punning humour for which these movements were famed. Juan Gris is posed beside a banjo (an instrument which became synonymous with the cubist movement) and Jean Couteau is shot through a frame. Also punctuating the exhibition is documentation of Man Ray’s long line of lovers, including the Magnum photojournalist Lee Miller. Perhaps the most arresting photograph of Miller shows her posing by a window. A net curtain casts an arresting shadow over her nude torso accentuating her feminine curves. It’s a fitting image to summarise the surrealist fascination with the female body as well as the artist’s interest in the formal qualities of photography. Man Ray was once mentored to Alfred Stieglitz, a devotee of the pictorialist movement which advocated photography as an artistic enterprise. Given this fact, it is of little surprise that formalist concerns such as the play of light and shadow, pattern, form and shape emerge in Ray’s practice, perhaps standing as evidence of the imprint Stieglitz left on the artist.
Together Miller and Ray perfected a photographic process of light/dark inversion known since 1692 as the Sabattier effect. The lead image for the exhibition-a profile image of Miller-showcases the ethereal aesthetic this solarisation process produced. Having seen this image blazoned on billboards all over London I was eager to experience the actual print. Disappointingly, when faced with the original I found my ability to appreciate the innovation of Ray’s solarisation somewhat blunted. On a daily basis we are inundated with all manner of altered images, warped through lens effects, vintage filters and general tricks of the camera. One can achieve a similar effect to Ray’s solarisation with a simple swipe of the finger on an iphone photo editor. Unlike Le Violin d’ingres where strange juxtaposition engages the mind by re-imagining the traditional nude, the primary success of Ray’s solarisation lies with its ability to engage the eye, yet when the aesthetic novelty wears off, the eye quickly wanders.
Man Ray’s talent as a portraitist is the ultimate achievement of the show. He succeeded in bringing his subjects vividly to life, immortalising something of their uniqueness. His sitters seem to embrace their public personas; in flowing gown Peggy Guggenheim is the quintessence of social elite, pools of shadow accentuate Dalí’s animated features cementing in our minds his notorious eccentricity, a pensive Joyce is photographed with downcast eyes as if contemplating his words. Personally, the real surprise of the exhibition was the absence of Dada and Surrealism’s intrinsic irreverence and subversion in many of the showcased portraits. In this way the exhibition revealed another side to Man Ray, one which sporadically trades the surrealist discourse for what is essentially a more conventional approach to portraiture. Indeed it could be argued that, at times, Man Ray’s image-craft is eclipsed by the personalities of his sitters. Yet in adopting a more conventional or stylistically restrained approach the artist has succeeded in capturing the idiosyncrasies of each sitter which hang like clues to their interior selves and it is this ability which is the mark of a great portraitist. Above all else Man Ray’s love for his subject is clear and it seems fitting that he once noted “Painting is directed by the heart through the eye…Photography is directed in the mind through the eye. But the desire and love for the subject direct both mediums. One cannot replace the one with the other…”
Man Ray: Portraits, until 27 May, The National Portrait Gallery, St Martin’s Place, London, WC2H 0HE.
1. Catherine Deneuve, 1968 by Man Ray, Private Lender © Man Ray Trust ARS-ADAGP / DACS.