I have spent many a Sunday afternoon admiring the Kings and Queens sitting in their gold gilt frames in the National Portrait Gallery. But I must admit that the gallery’s latest offering of Man Ray’s portraits provides a pleasant change.
National Portrait Gallery exhibition poster
On entering the exhibition, we are greeted by walls of vintage black and white Man Ray prints, small in relation to the frames that encompass them. Arranged informally but neatly – sometimes in one row, at other times in three – it feels like I am walking into Man Ray’s studio. His Female Nude (1920) welcomes me; a woman lolls on a bed in a rather ungainly manner, her hair untamed, her stomach slightly rolled, her gaze downwards.
Man Ray: Female Nude (1920)
Juxtaposed with this intimate portrait, a snap – it certainly seems to be a quick, unposed shot – of his close friends Joseph Stella and Marcel Duchamp (1920) sits on the opposite wall.
Man Ray: Joseph Stella and Marcel Duchamp (1920)
The two men, slumped on a sofa, stare directly into the camera, their faces almost blank if not a little perturbed by Man Ray’s camera clicking. Along with these men, Man Ray (born Micheal Emmanuel Radnitzky) was a key player in the Dadaist and Surrealist movements in 1920s Paris, and the exhibition traces his photographic career from avant-garde 1920s Paris to 1940s Golden Age Hollywood and finally back to Paris.
Man Ray: Noire et Blanche (1926)
Whilst there are certainly remnants of Man Ray’s surrealism and experimentation with photographic techniques– such as the Aztec-esque mask in Noire et Blanche (1926) – most portraits are simply concerned with intimately capturing the true subject and the real person. And it is here where Man Ray shines. In Virginia Woolf (1934), Woolf is shown raising her hand slightly, staring into the distance, lost in thought. His portrait Pablo Picasso (1922) captures the painter at work, rugged and natural, with his latest creations in the background. And I would suggest that here lies the greatest strength of the exhibition; curator Terence Pepper has constructed Man Ray’s world portrait by portrait, and we momentarily find ourselves as members of the literary and artistic groups dotted along the walls. The chronological structure spanning the years 1916 to 1968 aids our journey.
Man Ray: Virginia Woolf (1934)
Contemporary copies of Vanity Fair, Harper’s Bazaar and VU featuring Man Ray’s work allow us to delve even further into Man Ray’s world, complimenting his fashion portraiture. Sensual portraits of women draped in clothing and clad in jewelry, such as Jacqueline (1930) have a freshness to them, whilst Lee Miller – model, British Vogue’s first female war correspondent and Man Ray’s lover for a time – is seen as sexy model as well as playful woman in Lee Miller with a Circus Performer (1930).
Man Ray: Jacqueline (1930)
Just as this exhibition is soft and considered, so is Man Ray’s portraiture. Even royalty are strikingly informal, as Maharaja and Maharanee (1927) well illustrates. As ever, we see the intimate connection between the couple and Man Ray. Perhaps this is Man Ray’s greatest strength.
Man Ray: Maharaja and Maharanee (1927)