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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.