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Man Ray Portraits - Man Ray


Exhibition review for Photomonitor.co.uk (April 2013)



Photography was barely 100 yrs old when Emmanuel Radnitzky became Man Ray and followed his friend Duchamp to Paris in 1921.  Like the medium itself, Ray would go on to reinvent himself as the only American to participate in both Dada and Surrealist circles there, becoming one of the chief chroniclers of that unrepeatable moment in time.  Influenced by Steiglitz, his contribution to photography has a storied influence on contemporary art; his practise also embodied painting, literature, assemblage and filmmaking.  The National Portrait Gallery has produced the first, and overdue, exhibition of Ray’s work at a British national museum, showing photographic portraits from his fifty-year career.  Including both his commercial and personal work, the exhibition traces the arc of a restless artist who produced some of the most iconic images of the era.  His syncretic practise and deep engagement with process led to technical and conceptual innovations that would make their own indelible mark in the history of photography.  


Exhibited chronologically, the 150 original vintage prints are small in size (some barely 7 cm high) thereby rewarding the closest viewer, with many containing Ray’s self-penned crop boxes that reveal the pared-down modernist aesthetic that would become his trademark.  The interwar period is undeniably the most captivating of the exhibition, mostly due to the force of his subjects’ personalities and stature.  It was also the pinnacle of his creative output during which time Ray stretched the boundaries of the medium.  With the discovery (accidentally by then-assistant Lee Miller) of solarisation, as well as photograms (which he called Rayographs) and later a unique colour printing process, he enabled a seamless fusion of both concept and subject.  Duchamp as alter ego Belle Haleine, Virginia Woolf caught as if in mid-stream-of-consciousness, Le Corbusier graphically framed by a tripod’s shadow, Picasso, Stravinsky, Chanel and Matisse, they are all here revealing something of their own subjectivity, with their cultural significance highlighted but never occluded by Ray’s inquisitive lens.


Ray reaches his apogee as a portraitist when photographing his lovers.  He employs surrealist devices of disruption, and of course, photographs them nude, often with objects that allude to and fuse the sitters’ inner and outer states: Meret Oppenheim smeared in ink behind the etching press or Lee Miller’s solarised profile creating a halo effect.  As a product of his time, Ray adopted the standard surrealist, sexist notions of desire, but these nudes go beyond objectification, inspired by the intimacy between Ray and his lovers/sitters.  The photographic breakdown of strict representation becomes complete in Ray’s most famous work Le Violon D’Ingres.  The back of lover Kiki de Montparnasse is adorned with the ‘f’ holes of a violin, alluding to her role as both instrument and lover, as well as combining art historical reference and linguistic play.  Though Violon (like other portraits here) suffers from its overly wide-spread circulation, it remains an important early conceptual and surrealist work in photography.


Finally, it is fitting that many of the self-portraits throughout this far-reaching exhibition depict Ray as technician.  Whether with camera or concocted drum set, or dreaming under a lamp, we glimpse the man behind the lens, orchestrating his own persona and connecting the brightest stars of 20th century modernism.

Man Ray Self-Portrait with Camera', 1932 by Man Ray, The Jewish Museum, New York, Purchase: Photography Acquisitions Committee Fund, Horace W. Goldsmith Fund, and Judith and Jack Stern Gift, 2004-16. Photo by Richard Goodbody, Inc © 2008 Man Ray Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY / ADAGP, Paris 2012 © Photo The Jewish Museum


'Solarised Portrait of Lee Miller', c.1929 by Man Ray, The Penrose Collection © Man Ray Trust/ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2012, courtesy The Penrose Collection. Image courtesy the Lee Miller Archives

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