2 March 2013

Man Ray Portraits at the NPG

Man Ray was an American who spent most of his adult life (1890-1976) in Paris, so perhaps it isn't so surprising that in the UK many people’s first encounter with his work is through that of Lee Miller, the American photographer who married a Briton, Roland Penrose, who she first met in Paris.  Miller’s famous 1937 image of a picnic on the Ile Sainte-Marguerite, includes Man Ray and his amour of the time, Ady Fidelin. The two of them are in another photograph from the same holiday which is the cover of Peter Calvocoressi’s Lee Miller Portraits from a Life (left), in which the picnic photograph can be found, too.

Miller’s fascinating life and photographic work has been the subject of many exhibitions in the UK in recent years, owing much to the efforts of her son Antony Penrose and the energetic team at Farley Farm House. I knew that she had been Ray's assistant, model and lover in Paris in the 1930s and that she seemed to have had a key role in the discovery of a photographic technique, solarisation (see Ray’s 1929 image of Miller in the National Portrait Gallery poster, left), while she was with him. However, it wasn't until I saw a US DVD about his work that I began to appreciate the extent of Man Ray's achievement not just as an outstanding photographer but as an artist and as a contributor to Dada and Surrealism (eg Le Violon d’Ingres 1924, with his lover at the time, Kiki de Montparnasse, below). His most productive period was spent in Paris from 1921, when he arrived from New York under the aegis of Marcel Duchamp, and 1940 when Ray had to return to the US as the Nazis advanced across Europe.

Ray seems to have mixed with and photographed most of the Parisian inter-war avant garde (think Woody Allen’s cast from Midnight in Paris and many more). The NPG show includes portraits from this period of Gertrude Stein (but see this later post), Dali, Picasso, MirĂ³, Cocteau, Hemingway, Joyce, Vlaminck to name but some, and, of course, Duchamp and Miller. There are also photographs from his time in New York before leaving for France. The show ends with Ray’s portrait work in Hollywood in the 1940s and after his return to Paris in 1951, all of which seems a little uninspired in comparison with the 1920s and 30s.

With over 150 works in a fairly confined area, this exhibition is best avoided at busy times when the admission of £14 may seem a high price to be paying. If the NPG’s catalogue seems unaffordable at £35 (£25 paperback at the NPG), the Tate’s Man Ray in Paris by Erin Garcia, which ranges more widely than portraits, might be worth buying at £14.99. Interestingly she points out that, although it was portraiture that Ray relied on financially and made him well-known to tout Paris, he found it frustrating and artistically unrewarding!

Man Ray Portraits continues at the NPG until 27 May.


The ArtFund has produced this to show the “weird and wonderful connections between [Man Ray’s] most famous subjects".

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