A version of this review appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, March 15th 2013.
review by Nigel Warburton
Although he thought of himself as a painter, posterity celebrates Man Ray (1890-1976) as a creator of Dadaist objects and as an experimental photographer. Yet for much of his early life he worked more prosaically as a studio portraitist, photographing his contemporaries on commission. His interest in photography ebbed and flowed over a career that lasted five decades and as he moved back and forth across the Atlantic, but he nevertheless bequeathed an impressive portfolio of portraits of the artistic, musical, and literary avant garde, many of which are included in this National Portrait Gallery exhibition, the first to show the full range of his portraiture. In this chronologically arranged parade of stars Marcel Duchamp, Henri Matisse, Picasso, Braques, Salvador Dali, Ernest Hemmingway, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Eric Satie, Stravinsky, Bernice Abbott, Lee Miller, and even Catherine Deneuve all feature. Portraits of the famous are interspersed with those of more obscure contemporaries and friends, together with nudes, fashion photography, and self-portraits. The 150 or so prints, mostly vintage, are simply framed, minimally captioned, and presented in 5 rooms that tell the story of Man Ray’s periginations: ‘New York 1916-20’, ‘Paris 1921-8’, ‘Paris 1929-1937’, ‘Hollywood 1940-50’, and ‘Paris 1951 – Later Years’.
Man Ray loved women. No one visiting this exhibition could fail to realize that. In his experimental, affectionate and erotically-charged portraits of lovers, his artistry and originality are unmistakable. His portraits of men, in contrast, are more formal, less inspired, frequently cold, and occasionally stiff: their main interest lies in their sitters’ subsequent fame. Few fulfill the photographic promise of his early portrait of his friend Marcel Duchamp in a wicker chair (1916) – a remarkable image by any standards that would still hold our interest had Duchamp remained an unknown.
There are previously unseen portraits on display here, and visual discoveries to be made by those prepared to jostle and move in close enough to appreciate the smaller prints, but it is the familiar and iconic images that stand out, enhanced by juxtaposition with other photographs of the same sitters. Although the ‘Violon d’Ingres’ (1924), that picture of Kiki de Montparnasse’s naked back with the ‘f’ holes of a violin superimposed, is now a cliché (and scarcely a portrait), its presentation here alongside others of Kiki allows us to see it as of a specific spirited individual rather than of ‘a woman’s back’. The title doesn’t simply allude to the woman-into-violin Surrealist joke, or to the pose and patterned turban reminiscent of an Ingres nude, but also to Ingres’s habit of playing the violin to visitors to his studio: from this ‘violon d’Ingres’ came to mean any favourite pastime for which the person in question was less known, a second string to one’s bow, as it were. Man Ray’s ‘Violon d’Ingres’ combines a visual, an art historical, and a linguistic pun, and, perhaps, too, a more private message about his relationship with Kiki, and with women in general – a literal objectification, woman as instrument. As Marina Warner points out in the exhibition catalogue, the 1920s were unenlightened times, and the notion that women might become playthings for men a given. Yet Man Ray’s attitude to representing women was more complex than many, driven as it was by Surrealist notions of Eros and a willingness to explore the near dream imagery of desire and fantasy.
In another familiar photograph, ‘Noire et Blanche’, which is of Kiki with her head resting on a table next to the African mask which she props up with her hand, her pose as if asleep, is reminiscent of, and possibly inspired by, Brancusi’s sculpture ‘Sleeping Muse’. Originally captioned ‘Visage de nacre et masque d’ébène’ (mother of pearl face and ebony mask), it first appeared in Vogue in May 1926. In the exhibition it is displayed near a less familiar variant from the series in which Kiki stands cradling the mask against her cheek. Also in the exhibition – and easily missed - is a small and intimate portrait of Adrienne Fedelin (‘Ady’), Man Ray’s later companion. Ady was a dancer from Guadelope, and hers is one of the few non-white faces included. In this snapshot-like photograph from 1937 she is standing in a dressing gown, smiling, facing the camera, her hand resting on a white bust of Man Ray’s head echoing Kiki’s in ‘Noire et Blanche’. The naturalness of Ady’s smile contrasts with the controlled closed-lipped pose of almost every other woman depicted, reminding us of the degree to which Man Ray directed his sitters and controlled their poses.
The highlight of the exhibition is a remarkable solarized portrait of Lee Miller in profile from 1929 which has the calm beauty of a Renaissance painting by Baldovinetti that hangs a few hundred yards away in the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery. Miller was Man Ray’s assistant, lover and model, before leaving him to become a photographer and journalist, subsequently working on the frontline in the Second World War, and documenting the liberation of Dachau. The serenity of the Miller portrait belies their tempestuous three-year relationship that, when it ended, left Man Ray with a suicidal energy that he eventually re-chanelled into his art: Lee Miller was the inspiration for ‘Indestructible Object’, the famous metronome with a photograph of an eye attached to its arm, that the viewer was encouraged to attempt to destroy.
Man Ray left Paris for the States in 1940, settling in Hollywood with his new partner Juliet. There he made portraits of film stars, including Ava Gardner,, before returning to Paris in 1951 where he continued to photograph until the late 1960s. But as this rich and varied exhibition reveals, it was in the artistic crucible of Paris in the 1920s and 30s in the Golden Age of Surrealism, living among the artists, writers and composers who were to become the founders of modernism, that he reached his apogee as a portraitist. [ends]