From Pablo Picasso to Catherine Deneuve: the photographic portraits of Man Ray
Above Solarised Portrait of Lee Miller, c.1929. (©Man Ray Trust/ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2012/Courtesy The Penrose Collection/Lee Miller Archives/National Portrait Gallery, London).
I first heard that the National Portrait Gallery was planning an extensive exhibition devoted to the photographic portraits of Man Ray’s early last year whilst judging a London photography competition; and it instantly became an eagerly (for me at least) anticipated exhibition — and this morning the long wait was over, when I was lucky enough to see this comprehensive show ahead of its public opening tomorrow.
The 150 works included in Man Ray Portraits, are drawn from both public and private collections around the world — the Pompidou Centre, the J. Paul Getty Museum and both New York’s Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, with the addition of special loans from the artists estate, the Man Ray Trust Archive — and forms the first major British exhibition devoted to the influential American’s portraits, that spans his career in both American and Paris between the years 1916 and 1968.
Born Emmanuel Radnitzky in Philadelphia in 1890, and raised in New Jersey, many of the Man Ray — a nom de plume he began to use in 1912 — portraits on show will be familiar, however a significant percentage will be less so, with many prints being exhibited in London for the very first time, including studies of Barbette, Ava Gardner, Lee Miller, Kiki de Montparnasse (Alice Prin) and the French actress Catherine Deneuve, who remains one of Man Ray’s last living subjects.
Having turned down a scholarship to study architecture in favour of painting, Man Ray initially taught himself photography purely in terms of reprography, through which he sought to reproduce his artworks; however he would delve deeper into photography in 1920, when he turned to portrait photography as a means to financially supporting his painting. The following year he moved to Paris — a move largely defined by his life-long friendship with Marcel Duchamp — whom he had first met at the Ridgefield artist colony in New Jersey in 1915, and with whom he had unsuccessfully attempted to establish a proto-Dada movement.
With his close connections to both the Dada and Surrealist movements, Man Ray became ‘ideally placed’ to produce many of his now iconic images, that define this intense and vibrant period in our cultural history. It was also during these early days in Paris that he began to experiment with the photogram, or as he would term them ‘Rayographs.’ Whilst he was certainly not the first to explore the potential of the camera-less image, his work is instrumental in the development of the practice; from which we saw the emergence of the solarisation process, a technique that he would eventually utilise in his portraits, such as those of Elsa Schiaparelli, Irene Zurkinden, Suzy Solidor and of course Miller, as well as his own Self-Portrait with Camera, all of which are included in Man Ray Portraits.
‘I was very fortunate in starting my career as a painter,’ Man Ray once stated. ‘When first confronted with a camera, I was very much intimidated. So I decided to investigate. But I maintained the approach of a painter to such a degree that I have been accused of trying to make a photograph look like a painting. I did not have to try, it just turned out that way because of my background and my training.’
The exhibition also includes portraits of many of the influential and cultural elite of the first half of the 20th century — Marcel Duchamp, Berenice Abbott, Andre Breton, Jean Cocteau, Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, James Joyce, Erik Satie, Henri Matisse, Barbette, Igor Stravinsky, Yves Tanguy, Salvador Dali, Le Corbusier, Virginia Woolf, Aldous Huxley, Coco Chanel and Wallis Simpson; more formal portraits that contrast with the often highly personal and intimate studies of his friends and lovers, like those of de Montparnasse, Miller (who was also his assistant and an highly accomplished photographer in her own right), Ady Fidelin, and his last muse and wife Juliet Browner.
Throughout Man Ray Portraits we see an artist continually pushing at the boundaries of photography and experimenting with its many techniques, despite the fact that photography was never his principal artistic medium — although today it is his photography that is possibly most celebrated. He would once stated, ‘I paint what cannot be photographed, that which comes from the imagination or from dreams, or from an unconscious drive. I photograph the things that I do not wish to paint, the things which already have an existence.’
With the outbreak of World War II in 1939, he left Paris and returned to the United States, taking up residence in Hollywood, where he would devote himself once more to painting. Whilst he was largely disappointed that in America he was recognised for his photography and not for the filmmaking, painting, sculpture, and other media in which he worked; recent research has revealed, he did not completely turn his back on photography, producing ‘a number of significant photographic portraits’ in these years, several of which are included in the exhibition.
Following a decade long absence, he returned to the French capital in 1951 — where he would live until his death in 1976 — continuing his primary focus on painting as it had been in Hollywood, however he did continue to experiment with photography, this time embracing the relatively new colour medium — a little known facet of his work — which is represented in the exhibition with a number of portraits, including those of Juliette Greco and Yves Montand. Man Ray always preferred ‘inspiration to information,’ and in Man Ray Portraits, there is much to delight and inspire, from the iconic to the unfamiliar; and even the previously unsen.
Man Ray Portraits is at the National Portrait Gallery, London until 27 May 2013. From 22 June – 8 September 2013 the exhibition will be at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, before arriving at the State Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow, from 14 October 2013 – 19 January 2014. An illustrated catalogue accompanies the exhibition.