Today I went to see The National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition of c 150 original Man Ray portraits, covering more than 50 years of photographic practice from his proto dadaistic self portrait from 1915, when he was still using his birth name Emmanuel Radnitzky, to his 1968, when famous, portrait of Catherine Deneuve.
Before buying the ticket I knew the name, but that was about it. A quick browse of Wikipedia explained that he was active in dadaism in the post-war years in Paris, and later loosely attached to the surrealistic movement. I haven’t had much exposure to dadaism, but I enjoy surrealistic paintings, and as a teenager I had Miro, Max Ernst and Salvador Dali on my bedroom walls (sadly only posters rather than originals). So I really looked forward to the exhibition, and to see how one does dada and surreal in portraits.
According to Wikipedia, who in turn quotes Dona Budd’s The Language of Art Knowledge,
“Dada was born out of negative reaction to the horrors of World War I. This international movement was begun by a group of artists and poets associated with the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich. Dada rejected reason and logic, prizing nonsense, irrationality and intuition. The origin of the name Dada is unclear; some believe that it is a nonsensical word. Others maintain that it originates from the Romanian artists Tristan Tzara and Marcel Janco’s frequent use of the words da, da, meaning yes, yes in the Romanian language. Another theory says that the name “Dada” came during a meeting of the group when a paper knife stuck into a French-German dictionary happened to point to ‘dada’, a French word for ‘hobbyhorse’.”
So I expected to see some irrational nonsense. But apart from a very interesting self portrait from 1915, before he moved from New York to Paris, most of the portraits of men in the dada period was fellow artists wearing white (or at least light coloured) shirts, ties, jackets and sometimes waist coats. My expectations of what a revolutionary, anti-art, self-promoting artist should look like is clearly coloured by more contemporary anti artists.
It felt like Man Ray found it easier to let his humour shine through in portraits of female sitters. There was a great portrait of Mine Loy wearing a thermometer for earrings, two beautiful portraits of his muse, model and lover Kiki with an ebony head mask (noire et blanche), and the iconic Le Violon D’ingres, where Kiki resembles a violin (or bass?) complete with black f-keys painted on her back.
In his pictures from his surrealist period, backgrounds and props become more prevalent. There is, for instance, Erotique Voilee, where Meret Oppenheim is portrayed nude, apart from a thin and slim necklace, behind what appears to be a swing wheel of a printing press, which her hand and arm covered in ink. Her pubic area is partly covered by the phallic handle of the wheel. The curves of the female body are mirrored, and maybe even stylized and perfected, in the many interlocking arches of the wheels, but the ink on her skin probably signifies something dirty or filthy. Maybe a reference to “French postcards” from the same period, which portrayed naked women for more profane reasons. Oppenheim looks down – maybe to adopt a more submissive stance and avoid challenging the viewer, or maybe as an allegory of shame over her body being used.
There was also a very interesting self portrait from the same period. Man Ray is sleeping under a bust of Venus de Milo, and on the night stand is a lamp with a very dark bulb. I presume it’s a red darkroom bulb. The surrealists very often incorporated nude females (it’s not a coincidence that the movement came after Freud examined men’s tendency to focus on sex), so it’s not surprising that the artist should be dreaming about Venus. The lamp symbolises the core tool of photographers – light, and the reflections on the inside of the lampshade remind us that photographs are just reflections of reality. Or, as Magritte put it, “Ceci n’est pas une pipe”.
Man Ray used lighting very effectively. On the majority of the pictures, it’s clear that the light is deliberate and well considered, in order to achieve a purpose. Take for example his portrait of Salvador Dali from 1929. It’s a bold portrait of a bold man, with the key light from below so that the shadows fall opposite of what you’d normally expect. There are strong shadows over his eyebrows as well as on the bridge of his nose. The lighting holds the viewer’s gaze, forcing him to pay more than cursory attention to the picture. It matches Dali’s personality exceptionally well.
Many of the pictures use what can be considered Man Ray’s “preferred party trick”, solarisation. Like many other photographers before and after him, he realised that if you switch the light on in the dark room during a print’s exposure, the print changes. Most photographers who experience that quickly make another, less flawed print, but Man Ray and his assistant (and wife) Lee Miller experimented with the effect and perfected it to achieve a deliberate effect. The solarised pictures seem to “glow”, some of the tones are inverted from their more traditional representation, and distinct lines appear black as if painted on the picture.
Another effect used on several of the pictures was to make the pictures appear “foggy” with very soft focus. It makes the image appear softer and more dreamlike.
One banal thing that stood out in the exhibition was the size of most of the pictures. I think 8″x10″ was the largest size on display, and many of the heavily matted images were quite small. The reproductions in the catalogue are larger for a large proportion of pictures. This was in stark contrast to the (few) other photo exhibitions I have been to lately where many of the pictures appeared larger than life.