Monday 1 April 2013

The customary and the disturbing

Man Ray Portraits, National Portrait Gallery, London

When it comes to the grading of skills in the visual arts, there’s a temptation to regard photographers as being at the bottom of the scale. Anyone, we think, can point a lens and press a button. Photographers don’t have to get down and dirty learning their stuff in an art college. They might improve their style as they continue pursuing their trade, but essentially they’re one-trick ponies. Does this exhibition - the majority of which includes material which has not been previously exhibited in the UK - give us cause to re-examine this view?

Born in Philadelphia in 1890, Man Ray spent his early life in New York, turning down an architectural scholarship so that he could devote himself to painting. Initially learning photography so that he could reproduce his works of art, in 1920 he decided to work as a portrait photographer as a source of funding. But, five years earlier, Man Ray had had the formative experience of meeting Marcel Duchamp at Ridgefield art colony in New Jersey.

Duchamp was one of the original exponents of Dada — an art form which was a precursor of Surrealism and which was anti-art, designed to shock via its incongruities and obscenities. The pair attempted to establish New York Dada before relocating more fruitfully to Paris in 1921, resulting in Man Ray being at the forefront of Dada and Surrealist movements. From this period we see a photograph of Mina Loy in 1920, showing the poet, playwright and novelist in profile, her face a mixture of toughness and ecstasy. Two years later we see the novelist James Joyce in profile, looking down in despair, while a photograph of writer Ernest Hemingway in 1923 shows the moustachioed novelist in a belligerent mode.

A year later, a self-portrait shows the photographer as fierce and wary, as if expecting trouble from his onlookers. Antonin Artaud, photographed in 1926, is caught turning to us with a sneer as befits the exponent of the Theatre of Cruelty. From the same year we see, by way of contrast, a photograph showing the cross-dressing high-wire walker Vander Clyde in his performance alter ego of Barbette in fierce mode, a sort of pugilistic drag queen. A photograph of dancer and choreographer Helen Tamarisk in 1929 shows her with a tough, combative stare topped by an almost explosive frizz of hair. From 1935 we see the Marchesa Casati - socialite and future camp icon of how to maintain grace under the pressure of poverty - vamping between a pair of fake horses.

With the outbreak of the Second World War, Man Ray left France for his homeland, establishing a new base in Hollywood. Officially, he was devoting himself to painting, but he also continued his photographic portrait work. We see the actress Dolores Del Rio, circa the 1940s, with an ornate head dress and Man Ray’s wife, Juliet, is captured in 1947 with an expression that combines haughtiness with uncertainty. But there is a flat feel about his Hollywood period: it seems, somehow, enervated. Maybe he was affected by the readjustment attendant on the life of a refugee. Or perhaps the sunny but conservative climate of Los Angeles simply didn’t suit his temperament.

Nevertheless, returning to Paris in 1951 — he would make it his home until his death in 1976 — Man Ray’s creative spirit seemed to pick up again. The City of Light appeared to do more for his work than the City of Angels. From 1953 we see American Conductor Ned Rorem caught in a pose manifesting an argumentative, tough prettiness, bringing to mind Truman Capote’s estimation of him, in his unfinished novel Answered Prayers, as a ‘Quaker queer — which is to say, a queer Quaker — an intolerable combination of brimstone behavior and self- righteous piety’. Three years later singer Juliette Greco is shown surrounded by black, appropriate for the in-house chanteuse of Left Bank Existentialism. A colour photograph taken of film actor Yves Montand circa the 19505 shows him looking surprisingly uncertain, given his status as a screen heart-throb. In 1968 Catherine Deneuve is shown surrounded by objects including a chess board and books.

Was Man Ray a great photographer? Yes. Did his style evolve? Yes and no. Yes, he had a voracious appetite for creativity, especially when it came to new methods involving mechanical work. He was an enthusiast for the three-dimensional art form designed to disconcert and which would come to be known as the Surrealist Object, his most famous being a metronome with the engraving of an eye impaled on its wand. In photography, he manifested it in his development of the solarisation technique. We see a solarised portrait of his then-lover and collaborator, Lee Miller, from circa 1929 showing the photographer as if the high contrast monochrome clouds of a thunderstorm-laden sky have been superimposed upon her. We also see, from 1932, a solarised self-portrait of Man Ray, showing him in profile and giving him a similar appearance to Miller. Solarisation makes some of his portraiture stand-out, but only momentarily. It comes across as a process — some might say a gimmick — which, whilst it shows his technical skills in the dark room, does not enhance its subject matter with any deeper significance than a standard photograph.

But, when it came to portraiture, the majority of Man Ray’s work was conventional with, arguably, little discernible difference in the main body of this work over the years except for the Hollywood period. And does this lack of major evolution matter? No, for he was, arguably, more-or-less fully-formed as a photographer when he started his career behind the lens, his visual skills probably honed by his earlier architectural and painterly activities, so giving him the ability to capture his subjects in a manner simultaneously conventional yet interesting.

As well as in the majority of his portrait photographs, his mainstream side can be seen in his pre-war work for fashion magazines such as Vogue, Vanity Fair, and Harper’s Bazaar. Such magazines, in their advertorial roles, are in the business of entertaining — but not overly upsetting —the paying punters. We see a colour photograph for the front cover of the January 1937 issue of Harper’s Bazaar, showing a hand modelling a diamond ring resting on a constellation globe. It’s eye-catching, but it isn’t going to perplex the magazine’s fashion-conscious readers. (Man Ray would exhibit his more avant-garde work in the magazine Minotaure.)

Without wishing to deny Man Ray’s integrity regarding his involvement with Surrealism, his inter-war period in Paris gave him good and useful connections among the avant-garde, including the ‘Lost Generation’ of American ex-pat artists who, for one reason or another, did not feel that they could thrive in Roaring Twenties, pre-Wall Street Crash America. Also — either through wisdom or good fortune — he didn’t hatch all his eggs of creativity in the Surrealist nest. For the sake of his reputation, this was just as well — any possibility of success for Surrealism‘s attempt to shock society via visual subversion would come to an end in 1945 with the stark, simple black and white newsreels showing the horrors of the liberated concentration camps. It would go on to take its place in art history as just another artistic movement and be regarded, in some quarters, as a rather whimsical one.

And this consideration of Man Ray’s work takes us beyond questions about the limits of photography as an art-form. We are led to consider what his ultimate guiding attitude was. A phrase from the poet Lautreamont has become the standard description of the spirit of Surrealism: ‘Beautiful as the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table.’ It is, perhaps, ironic that that Man Ray — who participated in this movement which set out to challenge received social attitudes - could also produce photographs which are eye-catching, yet conventional. Perhaps he deliberately split his work into the customary and the disturbing, maintaining this juxtaposition of radically different things in a Surrealist spirit. Or perhaps he wanted to have his cake of unconventionality while eating it at the table of cafe society. There is no clear answer to this mystery, but this exhibition makes us continually ponder it.

Till 27 May

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