Man Ray exhibition among highlights of 2013 Edinburgh Art Festival

This article is from 2013

Man Ray exhibition among highlights of 2013 Edinburgh Art Festival

credit: Man Ray

Was Man Ray an innovative, mercurial photographer or a shallow, celebrity-obsessed snapper?

Was Man Ray an innovative, mercurial photographer or a shallow, celebrity-obsessed snapper? Bidisha ponders this complex conundrum at the centre of his work

Man Ray was the perfect chronicler in a new age of cinema images, magazine scoops and celebrity culture. But was he a great artist himself, or a three-hit wonder? The Man Ray images most people know best are the 1929 solarised profile of his colleague, friend and lover, Lee Miller; Noire et Blanche, the image of a strikingly pale model posing eyes down with a black carved mask; and Le Violon d’Ingres, from 1924, which shows a lover’s back with the image of two f-holes from a violin superimposed on it.

In all three images, the women’s faces are blank, looking away, down or to the side, the trio’s flesh and shape used only for their physical beauty and not personality. In two of the three images, the women are overtly likened to objects: a mask and a violin. They have the easy, pleasant slickness of magazine editorials. They all look great on postcards, posters and tea towels. But does it go any deeper than that?

A major exhibition at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery aims to fill in this blankness and add substance to the style. Displaying more than 150 new prints drawn from collections all over the world and covering a great sweep of time from 1916 to 1968, it’s a classy glide through a now-vanished world where the rich, the famous, the talented and the ambitious gathered to collaborate and converse.

Man Ray worked in New York, Paris and Hollywood and published internationally, but he made his name during the Parisian inter-war years and his freshest work dates from then, before he had ‘made it’. Dancers, authors, artists and performers flocked to him, and he responded to them as a peer rather than an acolyte, producing some iconic, defining portraits.

The images are memorable due to the friendly, clubby, equal relationship between photographer and subject, and because many of the subjects had not yet reached the height of their fame. They have a freshness which is remarkably free of ego given that his sitters included Jean Cocteau, Henri Matisse, Aldous Huxley, James Joyce, Marcel Duchamp, Pablo Picasso and Ernest Hemingway.

Later images, of young Catherine Deneuve to give the most famous example, advertised all the surface beauty and impeccable starriness which Hollywood expected from its photographers. Indeed, by the end of his career, Man Ray was working for Vogue, Vanity Fair and Harper’s Bazaar, and his work, though still original, integrated perfectly into their world of ease, elegance and glamour.

Working in crisp and strong black and white, intriguingly composed and sleekly produced, Man Ray’s photographs don’t just reflect the confidence of a new creative elite: they also demonstrate his own technical curiosity and inventiveness. Man Ray trained as an artist, was involved with the Dadaists as a young man in New York, and in 1925 exhibited alongside Jean Arp, Miró and Picasso at the now-famous first Surrealist exhibition in Paris.

As a result, he saw himself as an innovator, a creator and an experimenter. Alongside Lee Miller he invented solarisation, a developing process which turned monochrome prints into glittering charcoal and shimmering silvery white. But he also experimented with many other techniques for capturing, developing and printing work, and even in his later years, working with fashion magazines, he pioneered the art of the dramatic crop, honing in on lips or other details, balancing sensuality against severity.

Part of the pleasure with Man Ray’s work is the feeling of participation and wishing to be in his well-connected and creative milieu. But then something always brings me up short, and it’s the question of gender and female dignity. Man Ray was clearly enormously inclusive and popular, and it’s all to his credit that he obviously liked talented, complex, adult women. There are some storming portraits of genius women: Virginia Woolf looking half ethereal and half annoyed, as if she’s working out an important sentence in her head; Coco Chanel, as self-possessed, strong and chic as always; Elsa Schiaparelli, grand yet obviously rather excellent fun. The women who survived this coterie all had a strong sense of their own artistic identity, destiny and ambition.

But there are also countless empty-eyed nudes, unmuscled female bodies lying about the place, odd dancers and models and other hangers-on whose names mean nothing because they had no opportunity to achieve anything, were erased from history or were looked at, taken, used (sexually and artistically) and then thrown away.

What happened to dancer Helen Tamiris, whose wild black hair and fierce gaze are so striking in her picture? What happened to Kiki the dancer once Man Ray got tired of her naked body? It’s a classic schism that haunts the viewer through the exhibition: the women who are naked, unsporty and beautiful look like there isn’t a thought in their heads; the men who are clothed, urgent, and plain look like they’re thinking interesting things.

It is a good piece of feminist irony that while the most beautiful of Man Ray’s lovers/subjects was Lee Miller, she went on to demonstrate, powerfully and independently, that her beauty was the least interesting thing about her. Her own politicised and intelligent work as an international photojournalist strikes Man Ray’s lack of gravity into sharp contrast. It is depressing to look at Ray’s early images of Miller-the-young-model and see them being presented as definitive and used to sell this exhibition. Man Ray’s Paris images betray none of the international political turmoil and uncertainty of the years leading up to the Second World War, which Miller documented
But perhaps, in a year where The Great Gatsby is back in cinemas with a blingy new adaptation, and curiosity with celebrity culture reaches ever more extreme heights, shallowness is what we want because shallow is what we are. This Man Ray show is a must-see not despite but because of its troubling, unimportant, beautiful hollowness.

Man Ray Portraits, Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Queen Street, 0131 624 6200, until 22 Sep, Mon­­­—Sun, 10am–5pm (Jul, Sep); Mon­–Wed, Fri–Sun, 10am–6pm (Aug), Thu, 10am–7pm (Aug), £7 (£5).

Man Ray Portraits

Man Ray was an American original. He was a painter, a photographer, a maker of Dadaist readymades, a scene-maker and the man responsible for some of the wittiest and most pungent artworks of the modernist era. He's also the man originally responsible for putting a camera in the hands of Lee Miller, for which documentary…