The National Portrait Gallery’s curator of photographs, Terence Pepper, has written a blog post on the museum’s blog following up on some of the aspects of the Man Ray exhibition. His post starts like this:
One of the many challenges in assembling a major exhibition on such a well-known photographer and artist as Man Ray was how best to share new research and balance the introduction of great, but lesser known works, together with great prints of his most iconic works.
This concern is really interesting to me, first because it defines what a successful museum exhibition should strive to do, and secondly because it helps understand “Man Ray Portraits”.
Let’s first note with relief that the exhibition starts off by a sentence explaining that the prints are vintage. I was really glad to see this, because lately, museum photography shows (notably Klein/Moriyama at the Tate or some prints in that show) had disconcerted me in their wide use of “printed later” pieces. But here, the prints have this wonderful look of vintage beauties, some very small in size, nested in their large off-white marie-louises within a thin dark wood frame (when not in a vintage frame) that contrasted with the pale grey walls. Then, the exhibition’s layout is very simple, chronological, and NOT TOO LONG. It kept me hooked from beginning to end, with short explanatory wall texts that put everything (I mean everyone) back into the context of the exciting epoch of Paris in the years 1920-30 (mainly).
But maybe this is where something goes wrong: the text slightly overshadows the images. Indeed, it is the text that brings you back to this era when Duchamp, Man Ray, the Surrealists, Gertrude Stein, Peggy Guggenheim, Hemingway, and all the other American expatriates shared a life of Bohême in Paris. Of course, this has to be so, because we, as visitors, wouldn’t be able to recognise all the protagonists without this help.
The exhibition focuses on a very tiny part of Man Ray’s activity, if you think about it: his photography (which was not the main part of his work for him, the would-be painter), and his portraits (it feels like a filtered database search). Understandably so, little is said about his use of photography as a formal experimentation method: solarisation is touched upon in the Lee Miller room, and the central horizontal windows displaying magazines (Vogue, Vu, Harper’s Bazaar) give additional material, such as a double page about rayographs. Man Ray’s portraits (as portraits always do, I suppose) sit in a particular sphere in between artistic research, documentation, assignment and object destined as a gift to the sitter. This is why you rely heavily on the text, and this is why the exhibition is not so much about Man Ray’s art as about Man Rays’s circle, or Man Ray’s exciting life among the VIP of the time, if you will. It is also referring to some of the artistic movements of the mid-twentieth century: Dada, Surrealism, the Lost Generation, the Bloomsbury group, etc.
In this respect, it goes very suitably with the Barbican’s current exhibition, The Bride and the Bachelors, Duchamp with Cage, Cunningham, Rauschenberg and Johns, and also with Schwitters at Tate Britain.
However, I would qualify this assertion by saying that there are two kinds of portraits shown: the portraits of his friends, men and women (but mostly men), who were artists or collectors and defined the history of art by their own activities; and portraits of models (mostly women, and -oh- mostly nude), which by definition are not properly portraits, because the artist does not photograph their faces in order to show them as individuals, he rather makes compositions with their bodies.
These works come closer to showcasing Man Ray’s artistic vision, I found. Sometimes these two sides of portraiture blurred and came together, especially when a model was also his lover or wife, such as the outstanding Lee Miller, who was also photographer herself, and one of the most beautiful women in the show (or should I say “a woman whose beauty comes closer to our society’s standards of beauty”).
It is a fascinating show that I would advise everyone to go see. In the meantime, I bought Man Ray’s autobiography, and dived into it.
Man Ray, Portraits | 7 February – 27 May 2013 | National Portrait Gallery