Man Ray - Alchemist of Art

Natella Voiskounski

Magazine issue: 
#2 2010 (27)

The Spring 2010 exhibition “Alias Man Ray: The Art of Reinvention” at the Jewish Museum in New York was a highlight of the city’s artistic season, revealing in particular the artist’s Jewish identity. Man Ray, later titled a “prophet of the avant-garde” in America, was born Emmanuel Radnitzky in 1890 in Pennsylvania, the eldest child in a Jewish family of Russian origin. Emmanuel was nicknamed “Manny”, and from 1912 onwards, when the Radnitzky family took the surname Ray, he began to use “Man Ray” to label himself as an artist; while never completely rejecting them, he nevertheless came to free himself from his familial roots. As Man Ray he concentrated on building up an artistic identity which found its realization in creative photography, the visual arts, film-making, poetry, literature and philosophy.

The exhibition offered a rare opportunity to come to know Man Ray’s multi-faceted artistic personality and follow the different and diverse paths he took to give vent to his burning imagination. Unlike previous shows presenting Man Ray either as a creative photographer, an active anarchist-Dadaist, or a Surrealist, the Jewish Museum exhibition sees him, in his own words, “as a product of his time” for whom “everything is art”. Like Midas, he had “a golden touch” that turned anything he was creating into an artefact of the highest order. The viewer was captured by the fascinating results of the artist’s experimental motivation to mix genres of art, to combine the uncombinable, and to open new horizons, mocking himself and insulting his companions-in-art by violation of the established rules. As Ray once put it: “... I was a revolutionary. And so I went on, more and more determined to do all the things that I was not supposed to do.”

But to reach a revolutionary impulse one needs experience of a certain kind, as well as an element of provocation — Man Ray was to get such impetus at the International Exhibition of Modern Art, the Armory show of 1913. He was impressed and, even more stunned by the works of his European contemporary avant-garde artists: Paul Cezanne, Marcel Duchamp, Raoul Dufy, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso just to mention a few. He remembers: “I did nothing for six months. It took me that time to digest what I’d seen.” His paintings dated the year that followed are still “within” the tradition. His inner readiness to smash the boundaries of the two-dimensional painterly world is expressed in his poem of 1915 “Three Dimensions”:

“Several small houses
Discreetly separated by foliage
And the night —
Maintaining their several identities
By light

Which fills the inside of each —
Not as masses they stand
But as walls
Enclosing and excluding
Like shawls

About little old women —
What mystery hides within
What curiosity lurks without
One the other
Knows nothing about. ”

Another stimulus for an expansion of his provocative artistic imagination was Man Ray’s encounter in 1913 with Marcel Duchamp, which prepared Ray for the artistic feast that was Paris after World War I; their meeting was to bring Duchamp considerable collaborative understanding, as well as a mutual friendship that would last half a century. Artistic legacies of their closeness can be found in Man Ray’s 1923 “Portrait of Marcel Duchamp ‘Cela Vit’” — an experimental “merge” which he would call “neither a painting nor a photograph”; in 1930 he made a widely-known photo-portrait of his friend “Marcel Duchamp, Solarized Portrait”, an artwork of amazing plasticity and plausibility that fixed Duchamp’s extravagant Dadaist/Surrealist image of “a guru of irony”.

The Jewish Museum exhibition opened a door on Man Ray’s inner vision shifting due to unpredictable visual elemental forces. He was converted to Dadaism, which appealed to both his character (as he once put it, “Dada is a state of mind”) and inclination; as noted by the exhibition’s curator Mason Klein, Man Ray remained “a lifelong Dadaist, whose constancy lay in his obdurate refusal to be typed, or to compromise his Whitmanesque individualism founded on an unconstrained independence...” Together with Duchamp Man Ray published the first (and only) issue of “New York Dada”. They depicted on its cover, for future generations, the result of their collaboration — a perfume bottle with a photo of Duchamp in drag, shot by Man Ray, with the following key words: dada, new york, april, 1921. The words, printed in lower-case letters and in a very small font and set upside down in seemingly endless rows, appear like a code, a ciphered message. But this Dada message was to prove vain and lost, and a disappointed Man Ray wrote: “Dada cannot live in New York. All New York is dada, and will not tolerate a rival.” The message may have been lost — but not the perfume bottle with Duchamp’s inscription that reads “Rrose Selavy” (Eros, that is life) which was sold at a Christie’s auction in February 2010 for an absolutely incredible sum — $11 million; the purchase itself might be regarded as a Dada-like extravagant gesture, though according to Dada scholar Francis Naumann it is “one of the most provocative works of art ever made, a simple bottle of perfume whose liquid long ago evaporated, but whose essence, to be sure, will continue to influence artists long into the future.”

The major part of the Jewish Museum exhibition is given over to Man Ray’s Paris years. It was there that he met the now internationally-known artistic elite of Modernism, and started his career as a creative photographer. He was prepared for “bohemian” life in Paris by his hectic and Dadaist-style behaviour in New York. Having settled in Montparnasse he found himself in the maelstrom of Parisian artistic life, meeting American and British expatriate writers like Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, and Ernest Hemingway. According to Sylvia Beach whose bookshop Shakespeare and Company was often visited by “the Crowd”, Man Ray became one of the portraitists of this host of genuine talents, and soon, as she remembered, “the walls of my bookshop were covered with their photographs. To be ‘done’ by Man Ray and Berenice Abbott [Man Ray’s assistant] means that you were rated as somebody.”

Some of his photographs of these famous authors were shown at the New York exhibition, including that of James Joyce (from 1922); “Ernest Hemingway with Banjo” (1923); the Surrealist Philippe Soupault (1921); “Andre Breton in Front of Giorgio de Chirico’s ‘L’enigme d’une journee’” (from 1925); and “Jean Cocteau, Sculpting His Own Head in Wire”, c.1925. His 1936 photograph of Salvador Dali made the cover of “Time” magazine.

On his arrival Man Ray became acquainted with Hemingway’s friend, the model Alice Prin, who was also known as Kiki de Montparnasse, with whom he quickly fell in love. The seven years of their love affair were highly productive and inspiring. Kiki became his Muse, and Man Ray commemorated her in his iconic artwork “Le Violon d’Ingres” (1924), one of the best-known photos ever made, even among those to whom Man Ray himself means nothing.

Man Ray’s next love affair, with Lee Miller, an American model and photographer, enriched the artistic world with another masterpiece — the drawing “Object of Destruction”, as well as an object, the “Undestructible Object” (on the cover of the Jewish Museum catalogue), and a series of her portraits. A detailed caption to his drawing of a metronome with a cut-out photo of Lee Miller’s eye reads: “Cut out the eye from a photograph of one who has been loved but is seen no more. Attach the eye to the pendulum of a metronome and regulate the weight to suit the tempo desired. Keep going to the limit of endurance. With a hammer well-aimed, try to destroy the whole at a single blow.” This instruction tells much about Man Ray’s strong inherent need for self-expression of his rage, hatred and disillusion...

Other figures he encountered were from Paris society more than from its artistic world. Thus another of his favourite models was Jacqueline Goddard, whom Somerset Maugham called the most beautiful woman he had ever known. Captured by this fair-haired beauty Man Ray created his “Jacqueline Goddard” in 1930 — a negative print, in which black is white, and Jacqueline’s hair seems to be floating in the air. As a fashion photographer he portrayed in 1934 Elsa Schiaparelli, the renowned haute couture designer who found inspiration in her friends’ Dadaism and Surrealism (she had come to Paris from New York with Picabia and Man Ray). No less notable were his portraits of the Marquise Casati, the extravagant and scandalous beauty who declared she wanted to be a living work of art. It was for her that Leon Bakst designed his fascinating attire and whose graphic piece, alongside dozens of paintings by other artists, portrayed this flame-coloured femme fatale. Her image inspires fashion designers up to the present day.

Man Ray stayed in France for almost 20 years and managed to leave just a few days before the Nazi occupation of Paris: “For someone who maintained no traditional sense of Jewish identity, whose existence was defined entirely by his artistic persona, the impending Nazi invasion of Paris meant the imminent loss of a world that had provided him with an anonymous visibility,” wrote the curator Mason Klein.

On his return to the USA he opened a new — Hollywood — page in his life, and it was there that he met Juliet Browner who became his model, his Muse, his partner in chess and spouse. Those were extremely productive years, marked by a series of exhibitions: in 1941 at the M.H. de Young Museum in San Francisco; 1943, the Santa Barbara Museum of Art and Mills College Art Gallery; 1944, the Pasadena Art Institute; 1945, at the Julien Levy Gallery in New York (“Man Ray: Objects of My Affection”); and in 1948 at the Copley Galleries in Beverly Hills (“To Be Continued Unnoticed”). But in spite of such attention, Man Ray called Hollywood “a beautiful prison”, while he “longed for the day when he could return to France”. His dream came true in 1951. In Paris, leaving behind the artistic ferment of the USA, he concentrated on collecting anything that could be regarded as Surrealist. 1963 saw the publication of his selective autobiography “Self Portrait”. Some of his paintings from this period were exhibited, but they failed to attract attention similar to his early works. Man Ray died in Paris at the age of 86 in his studio at Rue Ferou.

Man Ray existed between light and shadow, between Narcissism and reticence, something noticed by the majority of those who had life-long contacts with him. He manifested keen interest in his own personality, as well as in physiognomic changes in his image, though (as is not rare) he sometimes “constructed” them himself. Viewers’ curiosity to see how the artist looked like during his New York Dada years is satisfied by a number of photographs featuring Man Ray with his family, in his studio, in front of his tapestry alongside a number of self-portraits, and in a rare photograph from around 1915 attributed to Alfred Stieglitz.

Man Ray created not only self-portraits but an “Auto Portrait”, from 1933, now in the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington. This piece of art is another example of artistic mockery and unrestrained artistic liberty: a bronze cast of a life mask with the artist’s glasses on is set in a coffin-like wooden box tightly packed with crumpled newspapers — a hint to prove his being alive, while published criticism was entombed. This is how the “Auto Portrait” was interpreted — namely, with a certain emphasis on a coffin; today it has reached another, more communicative, message — as a mystical experience of communication with a life mask, a mask translating the impulses of life. This is true not only about his “Auto Portrait” — the whole of the brilliant Jewish Museum exhibition is a mystical spiritual visual practice of communication with an artist who, as the epitaph on his tombstone says, was “unconcerned, but not indifferent”.

So who was the master of the “shots of the who’s who of modernism”? Michael Rush, commenting on the exhibition “Man Ray at Rue Ferou. 19511976” at the Zabriskie Gallery termed him as “Surrealism’s Renaissance Man”. Man Ray’s inventive mind enabled him to look at any object as a source of inspiration and self-expression, to invent new art mediums, to develop something that was really original. His depicted irons burnt, his invented photographs-rayographs needed no camera. He foresaw the future of Art and Artist: art as a mixture of genres and media, and artists as painters, sculptors, photographers, film-makers and whatever else, all in one — one artist. His influence on generations to come “to be continued noticed”.





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