Art review: Man Ray Portraits
7 February – 27 May 2013
St Martin’s Place, London, WC2H 0HE
National Portrait Gallery – map
Review by: Alexa Williamson
Rating: ***** (out of 5)
Usually when one goes to a gallery, it may be beautiful and you learn alot, however you still feel like you are in your present location and in you present (ie moment and time period), and it is rare that a gallery can create an actual feel of an artist’s life, era and place that he lived in. However, the National Portrait Gallery, through the fantastic works on display, words, lighting and curation of the exhibition is able to bring back the feel of 1920s and 1930s Paris for this show – and it is amazing to feel like you are in Man Ray’s actual, shadowy, lyrical, surrealist and literary/artsy world.
Most of us are not familiar with Man Ray, but after visiting the exhibition you are glad that you met him. In my opinion, his best and most inspiring works are indeed those created in 1920s and 1930s Paris where his photographs bring us in to close contact with the following artists, writers, composers and high society and fashion figures (to name only a few): Jean Cocteau, Aldous Huxley, Salvador Dalí, Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, Henri Matisse, Marcel Duchamp, George Braque, Yves Tanguy and Le Corbusier. Those are just some of the men, but there are also the women: Peggy Guggenheim, fashion designer Coco Chanel, and numerous photos of Lee Miller (his lover for several years, and his student who he made the photographic technique of “solarisation” with), plus a photographic portrait, done in London, of Virginia Woolf.
Besides photographing various famous artists and even doing things like creating a “Surrealist chessboard” with 16 photos of different male surrealist artists (1934), you come to love Man Ray’s style and photographs as they are noir beauty – shadowy, dark and silhouetted. They are also – at least in his 1920s and 1930s Parisian period – mainly in black and white, which in the 21st century has come to be unique and rare. Plus, Man Ray’s photographs have a simple attractiveness. There are many close-up head and shoulders photographs that are simple subjects of who he is photographing – not busy or overly complex subjects. If Man Ray’s work comes across as mysterious and breathtaking it is because of his work with light and shadow and the way in which he photographs his subjects. Unlike some modern photographers, Man Ray does not create puzzling or bizarre scenes to intrigue the viewer. He capture your attention through the simple ingenuity and beauty of how and what/who he photographs.
The exhibition is about six rooms including a room with his work in New York, New York before he went to Paris, his work in Paris in the 1920s (two rooms if I remember correctly), his work in Paris in the 1930s (again another two rooms), his work in Hollywood in the 1940s (where he went to avoid World War II and married model and artist Juliet Browner) and his work after he goes back to Paris after World War II. In the last room, we also see photographs of Man Ray in Paris, plus bold photos of Picasso and a UK Sunday Times photoshoot with french actress Catherine Deneuve in it.
Man Ray’s work is strong, solid, elegant and memorable. Much worth the visit to learn who he is, what avant-garde, pre-World War 2 Paris was like and to see a well-conceived exhibition. The NPG’s well-written, concise and informative Plain English about the exhibition, as well as its staging, are some of the elements that make it an educational, alluring and altogether enjoyable journey.
Official information about the exhibit (found in the exhibition):
(highlighting it as a it is a perfect nutshell of what NPG is doing/displaying in the exhibition)
“This exhibition traces Man Ray’s life and work from early photos taken in New York between 1916-20, his time in Hollywood during the 1940s to his final post-war years in Paris. Man Ray’s most prolific period was at the centre of the avant-garde and literary circles of 1920s-30s Paris.
Born Michael Emmanuel Radnitzky in Philadelphia, 1890, Man Ray initially taught himself photography in order to reproduce his own works of art. In 1912, he began to change his signature on his paintings from ER to Man Ray and the Radnitzky family adopted his shorter surname.”