It was impossible to be a Dadaist in New York, Man Ray believed, because the city itself was the epitome of manic, anarchic Dada.
So on July 14, 1921, he set sail for France and took the photographs that form the heart of the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery “May Ray Portraits.” For many, these encapsulate the seductive spirit of Paris between the wars.
As befits a Dadaist, Man Ray was a paradoxical person. He was born Michael Emmanuel Radnitzky in Philadelphia and brilliantly re-branded himself with a new name both punchy and slightly futuristic.
The notion of the human ray seemed to permeate the best of his portraiture. His subjects -- including such artists, musicians and writers as Le Corbusier, Hemingway, Stravinsky and Schoenberg -- seem to radiate a powerful, enigmatic force. Picasso stares charismatically out of the frame. Dali looks equally intense, but weirdly melodramatic with a light below his face.
Often, Man Ray seems to give the people in his pictures his own magnetic intensity of gaze.
While he is best known for his photographs, he started out as a painter and continued to protest that painting was a much more serious matter than photography.
“In my opinion,” he told Time magazine in 1954, “ninety- nine percent credit should go to Mr. Zeiss and Mr. Eastman and one percent to the man who happens to be behind the camera.”
Of course, he was being modest and also quixotic. In truth, he was, like Henri Cartier-Bresson, an example of a trained painter whose eye and imagination functioned incomparably better through a lens than they did on canvas.
His paintings are second string stuff for the most part. What he did in his finest photographs was much what an outstanding painter or draughtsman might do: distill the image until less becomes much, much more.
His “Solarized Portrait of Lee Miller” (c. 1929) is quite similar to a line drawing, for example. The process of solarization, discovered by Miller and Man Ray, involves partially re-exposing the image while it is being processed. The result here was to remove much detail while leaving a strong outline around the subject.
Here is a perfect visualization of art deco femininity, her hair as sleekly styled as the top of the Chrysler Building. It’s interesting to discover from other less successful snaps in this show that Miller, like many true beauties, was ravishing only from certain angles.
In profile, as she usually appeared, she looked fabulous; full-face she was verging on plain, as she appears in the double portraits with her father Theodore from 1931.
This example shows that, in Man Ray’s case, most of the credit should not go to the camera manufacturer. He was a magician with shutter and lens. And the more he transformed what he saw, the more successful he was.
Occasionally, his photographs came close to the other genre of art in which Man Ray was memorably successful: the Surrealist object. The latter consists, essentially, in putting two incongruous elements together. “Gift” (1921) was a flat iron with vicious spikes protruding from its base.
Less aggressive, and equally striking, is the photographic “Le Violon d’Ingres” (1924). Its basis was the naked back of Man Ray’s companion of the mid-1920s, an artists’ model nicknamed Kiki de Montparnasse (aka Alice Prin). On the image of her curvaceous anatomy he sketched a couple of cello apertures, completing the visual analogy with a stringed instrument.
In an article from 1950, Man Ray wrote some reflections that are fairer to his own achievement. Painting was controlled, he suggested, by the heart; photography by the mind. “But desire and love for the subject direct both mediums.”
“Man Ray Portraits” is at the National Portrait Gallery, St. Martin’s Place, London WC2H 0HE through May 27. Information: http://www.npg.org.uk//whatson/man-ray-portraits/exhibition.php or +44-20-7306-0055.
(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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