Man Ray, the photographer of Montparnasse

Exhibition Review of “Man Ray Portraits” in the National Portrait Gallery, London

In a time when politics became like the feudalist and absolutist dictatorships before the French Revolution, the Surrealists tried to fight against society’s decline and banality. “Freedom from all conformity” declared both Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray. They were successful in inventing a new aesthetic and their motto was that “provocation can generate salvation” instead of scandal, in a time when it was rare to disobey dictatorship.

One word that was heard on the streets of that days increasingly was “revolution”. The exhibited works in the National Portrait Gallery are contrasting against that philosophy and artistic spirit, as they exhibit photographs that flatter. They are beautiful and representational portraits of the famous in the arts: Man Ray photographed almost every famous modern artist that we know today; sulptors like Jean Arp and Constantin Brancusi, painters like Georges Braque, Salvador Dali and Picasso, fashion designer Coco Chanel, film makers, writers and performers.

Man Ray got very soon in touch with the most important intellectuals of that time, such as Louis Aragon, André Breton, Paul Éluard and Tristan Tzara.

Joan Miró by Man Ray, 1930s Paris

Though not all portraits were conventional: They were representational, but in the very sense of the word, in the extreme: He depicted Miro with a rope in the background, that Max Ernst used in his attempt to hang the Catalan painter. Fascinating about it is, that through Miro’s gaze and the setting of the picture, the viewer is inclined to interpret it as a serious, official representation. The surrealist were too good in their ability, to create legends about themselves.

Another portrait shows Yves Tanguy with erected hairs, and Montparnasse artists who weren’t photogenic at all, like Maurice d’Vlaminck.

Man Ray’s portraits were subsequently published in Harper’s Bazaar, Time Magazine, Vanity Fair, Vogue and Vu, the french picture magazine that existed just until 1940.

Man Ray had a high affinity for young women and he photographed a lot of nudes. Kiki, Meret, Nusch, Natasha, and many others, to whom Juliet would be added in later years.

Man Ray, Violin d’Ingres, 1924, Paris, Centre Pompidou

Probably the most important for him was Kiki, who is also known through the famous “Violin d’Ingres” (see Ill.) She is seen from the back and weares an orientalistic turban, that reminds on Ingres’ “Turkish Bath” of the Louvre. Characteristical are the f-holes that Man Ray applied later in post processing, a technique, that he used as well for other portraits.

Kiki de Montparnasse’s real name was Alice Ernestine Prin. She was born into a very poor family and had never known her father, and was even set out by her mother. She had never loving parents, thus was “a primitive creature”, but very talented. As a young women she modelled for all the famous painters in Paris’ glory 20s. She had high aspirations, sang in the nightclubs and was called the “Queen of Montparnasse”, even if this role was just her surface. Her true life was that of a lover and muse of Man Ray. He always celebrated and loved women, but at the same time transfigured them to something else. In literature and research after her life Kiki became a symbol of this time and a legend. Kiki was sensuality and eroticism for Man Ray, even more than that: Sometimes an obscene object in his pictures, a fashion, where Louis Aragon was also part of and contributed his texts. Mixed up with the mythicism of Montparnasse, it was transgression: Kiki was also “a white ivory statue crafted by Pygmalion, a bacchante”… (further information in the exhibition catalogue of Guido Comis and Marco Franciolli for the Museo d’Arte, Lugano).

The Surrealists admired Ingres. The most famous proponent is probably Picasso, who’s surrealist phase was strongly comprehended to his classicist phase.

Cahiers d’ Art published Man Ray’s photographs in 1934 and Minotaure his text, with Picasso making a drawing of Man Ray.

Illustration by prometheus bildarchiv. The exhibition was open until 27th of May 2013 in the National Portrait Gallery