Man Ray took many pictures of fellow artists who thrived in the “Années folles”, the French version of the Roaring Twenties, which started shortly after World War 1 and sparked an era of artistic dynamism. So the exhibition is a worthy opportunity to see portraits of artists of that era and beyond
, especially publicity-shy artists like Braque, Foujita, Vlaminck, Derain, Tanguy, Hemingway, along with more famous artists like Picasso, Cocteau, Breton and Dali. My friend D, who was with me at the NPG, was telling me how she was haunted by thoughts of Ernest Hemingway when travelling in Cuba and could finally put a face to the name. Man Ray also photographed art patrons: look for the beautiful portrait of Peggy Guggenheim in a Poiret gown and Gertrude Stein with her partner Alice B. Toklas in the Paris home that became a salon for artists and writers.
It is easy to get absorbed by Man Ray’s photographs even in small formats. Man Ray was a key contributor to the Dada and Surrealists movements, but it is arguably difficult to see a Dada influence in his photographic portraits, at least in the works presented at the NPG. Surrealism does show in his photography works, like the acclaimed Violon d’Ingres, where Man Ray superimposed sound holes onto the image of the back of a female nude making the woman’s body a violin. But it is Solarisation (a process Man Ray developed with Lee Miller in which a film is exposed to light during developing) which became a more prominent feature in his photographs than either surrealism or dadaism.
The exhibition also shows his two lovers who turned into muses. The first was known as Kiki de Montparnasse, nicknamed Queen of Montparnasse, a French artist’s model, singer, actress and painter, who posed for many artists of the time and became Man Ray’s companion. The most famous works of Man Ray featuring Kiki are in the exhibition: the surrealist Violon d’Ingres and the superb Noire et Blanche, which contrasts Kiki’s white face resting on a table like the head in Brancusi’s Sleeping Muse sculpture, with an African ceremonial mask. His second muse was Lee Miller, a fashion model who emerged as a photographer in her own right and a war correspondent for Vogue. The 2007 V&A exhibition of her works was the most inspiring photographic exhibition I have ever seen. One of my favourite works in the current Man Ray show is Lee Miller (Triptych), showing her Venus de Milo-like body adorned with shadow lines. After the National Portrait Gallery in London, the Man Ray Portraits exhibition is presented the Scottish National Portrait Gallery on Jun 22 – Sep 22.