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Man Ray goes on show at the National Portrait Gallery

Surrealist photographer gets his first show in a British museum.

The first major museum retrospective of Man Ray’s portraits will open at the National Portrait Gallery on Thursday, featuring more than 150 prints taken by Man Ray between 1916 and 1968.

Born in Philadelphia in 1890 as Michael Emmanuelle Radnitzky, Man Ray took the sort of stylised pictures that mussed the line between observation and manipulation. As a long-time resident in the Parisian branch of Dada and Surrealism, this is not surprising. Once mentored by the pioneering, poetically prone photo-experimentalist Alfred Stieglitz, Ray operated within a circle that both rejected the formalities and constraints of the art world while striving for work that was, indeed, artful.

Man Ray is perhaps more familiarly associated with the Surrealists but he was an original Dada convert whose close friendship with Marcel Duchamp lasted 55 years. Much taken with the works of Duchamp and other cubists at the New York Armory show of 1911, Ray allowed himself to be persuaded to move to Paris in 1921 when avant-garde art was in at its flourishing, fuck-you peak; four years after his friend submitted a urinal to the Society of Independent Artists.

Photography, far less than a century old, was in many ways still evolving. Ray kept company with the likes of Andre Breton, Pablo Picasso, Tristan Tzara, Salvador Dali, Gertrude Stein and Merete Oppenheim: taking their portraits, fiddling with the boundaries of the medium, simultaneously pushing the Parisian art scene forward and becoming one of its greatest historians.

The Portrait Gallery delineates its show by period,  stepping through of the artist’s portrait work in New York of the late 1910s, to Paris through the twenties and thirties, then Hollywood for a decade followed by his return to Paris from 1956 until his death in 1971.

His creative relationship with American photographer and model Lee Miller is also explored. The two met in Paris in 1929. Together they invented Solarization, a process of light-dark inversion in a photographic negative. The contrast filters which can now be washed over any digital photograph at the light tap of a finger owe these two a great deal.

For a self-taught photographer who came to the medium as a way of recording his paintings, and later his ready-mades, the brilliance of Man Ray is undoubtable. Black and white was the non-optional setting of the time and Man Ray made the most of it - blending silky smoke noir with visual punnery like a wise-cracking Humphrey Bogart. In two of the most ravishing portraits of his muse Kiki de Montparnasse - Le Violon d’ingres and Noire et Blanche – he suggests her as both a voluptuous cello and a lifeless ivory mask.

An early review from the Telegraph’s Alastair Sooke calls the show a “neat, accomplished exhibition” but laments feeling “rather flat” after leaving the gallery. He chalks this up – observantly – to the fact that so many of Man Ray’s photographs have been reproduced ad nauseam. But imagine it’s 1924 and you’ve never seen those shapely f-holes seared on Kiki’s hips as she lounges in the folds of her robe – it would blow you away. Seen in the flesh now, perhaps it may only serve to remind us that yes, this man is good. But that is still worthwhile - even if this collection is less an exclamation point and more a reassuring full stop at the end of sentence you’ve read many times.

Man Ray Portraits is on at the National Portrait Gallery from 7 February until 27 May.

(Helen Tamiris, 1929 by Man Ray, Collection du Centre Pompidou, Mnam/Cci, Paris, © Man Ray Trust / ADAGP, Paris © Centre Pompidou)

(Solarised Portrait of Lee Miller, c.1929 by Man Ray © Man Ray Trust/ADAGP, Courtesy The Penrose Collection. Image courtesy the Lee Miller Archives)

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


Charlotte Simmonds is a writer and blogger living in London. She was formerly an editorial assistant at the New Statesman. You can follow her on Twitter @thesmallgalleon.

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SRSLY #13: Take Two

On the pop culture podcast this week, we discuss Michael Fassbender’s Macbeth, the recent BBC adaptations of Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Cider with Rosie, and reminisce about teen movie Shakespeare retelling She’s the Man.

This is SRSLY, the pop culture podcast from the New Statesman. Here, you can find links to all the things we talk about in the show as well as a bit more detail about who we are and where else you can find us online.

Listen to our new episode now:

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SRSLY is hosted by Caroline Crampton and Anna Leszkiewicz, the NS’s web editor and editorial assistant. We’re on Twitter as @c_crampton and @annaleszkie, where between us we post a heady mixture of Serious Journalism, excellent gifs and regularly ask questions J K Rowling needs to answer.

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If you’d like to talk to us about the podcast or make a suggestion for something we should read or cover, you can email srslypod[at]

You can also find us on Twitter @srslypod, or send us your thoughts on tumblr here. If you like the podcast, we'd love you to leave a review on iTunes - this helps other people come across it.

The Links

On Macbeth

Ryan Gilbey’s review of Macbeth.

The trailer for the film.

The details about the 2005 Macbeth from the BBC’s Shakespeare Retold series.


On Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Cider with Rosie

Rachel Cooke’s review of Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

Sarah Hughes on Cider with Rosie, and the BBC’s attempt to create “heritage television for the Downton Abbey age”.


On She’s the Man (and other teen movie Shakespeare retellings)

The trailer for She’s the Man.

The 27 best moments from the film.

Bim Adewunmi’s great piece remembering 10 Things I Hate About You.


Next week:

Anna is reading Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner.


Your questions:

We loved talking about your recommendations and feedback this week. If you have thoughts you want to share on anything we've discussed, or questions you want to ask us, please email us on srslypod[at], or @ us on Twitter @srslypod, or get in touch via tumblr here. We also have Facebook now.



The music featured this week, in order of appearance, is:


Our theme music is “Guatemala - Panama March” (by Heftone Banjo Orchestra), licensed under Creative Commons. 



See you next week!

PS If you missed #12, check it out here.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

Anna Leszkiewicz is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.