In this survey of one the great photographic pioneers, the National Portrait Gallery focuses exclusively on Man Ray’s portraiture of friends, peers and muses, as well some commercial. It’s a fun, nostalgic trip through circles celebrated, but to completely discount the surrealism and technological innovation that made him influential as a cultural figure as well as a photographer is, ultimately, to do the great man a disservice, despite the gallery’s remit.
Portraits of Man Ray’s celebrated contemporaries are shown alongside his personal and often intimate portraits of friends, lovers and his social circle. His versatility and experimentation as an artist is illustrated throughout his photography although this was never his chosen principal artistic medium. The exhibition brings together photographic portraits of cultural figures and friends including Marcel Duchamp, Berenice Abbott, Andre Breton, Jean Cocteau, Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, James Joyce, Erik Satie, Henri Matisse, Barbette, Igor Stravinsky, Yves Tanguy, Salvador Dali, Le Corbusier, Virginia Woolf, Aldous Huxley, Coco Chanel and Wallis Simpson. Also on show are portraits of his lovers Kiki de Montparnasse (Alice Prin) and Lee Miller, who was also his assistant, Ady Fidelin and his last muse and wife Juliet Browner.
There are many portraits to browse, and this has light airy feel to it, but browsing is the accurate description here. Rather than engage directly with the loose biography such curation implies, one is left with the sense that Ray was at the service of those he photographed, an observer of the changes of his times rather than an instigator of any of them. But Ray was a heavyweight! Not only did he, with then muse Lee Miller, pioneer new photographic techniques such as the Photogram, but he was a key player in the Dadaist movement and best friend and accomplice to Duchamp. He was a mover and a shaker, not the witless hanger-on this show might make one think. Indeed, the only sense of the man we get is through some particularly dour self-portraits.
It is fair enough, on the other hand, that the National Portrait Gallery should focus on an aspect of an artist’s work that fits their agenda, particularly when he devoted so much time to portraiture. These are still great images, elegant and graceful, attuned to a classicist aesthetic in which women become icons, sculpted of flesh. It’s still a pleasure to walk through, and the gallery makes no claims of a comprehensive retrospective, yet one can’t help but feel we are only seeing half a man, and, idealist that he was, I’m sure he would have said that if an artist be known by his commercial work he might better be forgotten.
Words: Kerim Aytac
Man Ray: Portraits at The National Portrait Gallery until 27 May