Review: Man Ray Portraits

A stunning collection of Man Ray’s avant-garde photographs

National Portrait Gallery

7 February – 27 May 2013

http://www.npg.org.uk//whatson/man-ray-portraits/exhibition.php

 

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Man Ray Self-Portrait with Camera, 1932 by Man Ray
The Jewish Museum, New York, Purchase: Photography Acquisitions Committee Fund, Horace W. Goldsmith Fund, and Judith and Jack Stern Gift, 2004-16. Photo by Richard Goodbody, Inc
© 2008 Man Ray Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY / ADAGP, Paris 2012 © Photo The Jewish Museum

The first museum exhibition focused on Man Ray’s photographic portraiture is currently displayed at the Londoner National Portrait Gallery, until 27th May.

Devoted to one of the most influential artist of the Dada movement, the exhibition includes over 150 vintage prints from the American artist’s career, taken between 1916 and 1968.

The eclectic artist, best known as a painter and film maker, showed his versatility and experimentation in the field of photography with black and white glamorous portraits of beautiful divas such as Catherine Deneuve, Ava Gardner, Kiki de Montparnasse and Coco Chanel. The photographer depicted also cultural figures like his friend Marchel Duchamp, Andre Breton, Jean Cocteau, Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, James Joyce, Henri Matisse, Le Corbusier, Igor Stravinsky and Georges Braques.

Main themes of the photographs collection are obviously passion, love and women’s beauty.  Black and white tones of the first works are followed by innovative experiments with colour photography, such as his portrait of French singer Juliette Greco.

One of the most attracting work of the exhibition is stunning French actress Catherine Deneuve portrait. The artist took her picture in his Parisian studio in 1968. The photograph, appeared on the fashion Vanity Fair magazine’s cover, underlines the undeniable smartness of the young actress.

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Catherine Deneuve, 1968 by Man Ray
Private Lender
© Man Ray Trust ARS-ADAGP / DACS

Here Catherine is pictured wearing stunning spiral-shaped earrings, surrounded by different wooden objects such as a jewellery box disguised as a book and a chessboard. In fact the artist was keen on chess and used to play it with his friends such as Surrealist André Breton and Dada artist Marchel Duchamp.

Ray was also a pioneer in Solarisation; a particular technique to develop black and white photographs by exposing a print or negative to a flash of light during the development. He discovered this photographic technique by chance. He was developing some photographs in the darkroom when a sheet of plain paper accidentally dropped on some papers. Nothing appeared so the artist got irritated, threw away some objects on the soaking paper and turned on the light. He obtained suggestive bright images with a black background.

An example of this technique is Lee Miller’s portrait. Lee Miller was an American model, Man Ray’s muse and his photography assistant in Paris. In the portrait below the brightness of the whites is cleverly combined with the dark tones. The model and muse’s profile is underlined by the gentle contrast between light and shade.

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Solarised Portrait of Lee Miller, c.1929 by Man Ray
The Penrose Collection
© Man Ray Trust/ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2012, courtesy The Penrose Collection. Image courtesy the Lee Miller Archives

Man Ray Portraits is overall fresh and exhaustive. Nevertheless, a different organization of the exhibition, focused on the creativity of Man Ray’ s works, would have been more successful rather than a chronological structure. Artists’ career goes beyond the sequential order imposed by the art exhibitions’ curators.

(Photographs courtesy of National Portrait Gallery Press Office).

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