In the much idealised view of ’20s bohemian Paris, Man Ray seems to encapsulate what we now consider the artistic ideal: a dramatic and obscure photographer encircled by an alluring flock of intellectual friends and lovers. Man Ray’s associations with two of the early 20th century’s modernist art movements, Dadaism and Surrealism, have helped cement his status as a great influence on early photography.
In spite of this, it’s easy to see how Man Ray might be overlooked nowadays. For the Dadaists there is Marcel Duchamp, with his rather avant-garde urinals, whilst Surrealism is strongly associated with Dali’s falsified Freudian paintings. Yet both movements stood for so much more in post World War I Europe.
This exhibition focuses on Man Ray’s portrait photography – largely work he produced for magazines such as Vogue and Vanity Fair. The rooms are filled with photographs of his famous friends, ranging from modern intellectuals, to actresses and socialites. Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein sit agreeably alongside Lee Miller and Kiki de Montparnasse, a celebration of a cultural zeitgeist.
The portraits, mostly in elegant black and white, are beautifully presented and Man Ray’s work clearly shows a desire to seize an emotion within the characters he knows. Yet among many viewers the words were spoken aloud ‘that would be easy with Instagram now’, suggesting that there is perhaps something amiss in our relationship with photography despite the fact that it is an art form. We view development of the now famous Solarisation technique as old-hat now – photography having lost something along the past few decades.
The singular flaw in this exhibition of inspirational works is possibly the simplification of it: it is easy to present a retrospective of an artist’s work, but the information behind it is missing. Without intention and understanding of the individuals photographed the work is little more than the end of a story. Great care has been taken to display these photographs in chronological order, but there is little information as to why. Although Man Ray’s work is impressive in its own right, there is certainly a feeling of having pictures thrust upon you rather than being able to look and see what you are being shown.
Man Ray Portraits is open until Monday 27 May at:
National Portrait Gallery
St Martin’s Place
Solarised Portrait of Lee Miller, c.1929 by Man Ray The Penrose Collection © Man Ray Trust/ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2012, courtesy The Penrose Collection. Image courtesy the Lee Miller Archives