Man Ray Portraits, NPG London: review

I was particularly excited this morning.

Two reasons for this: firstly, to make my own opinion about the duchess of Cambridge’s portrait, and secondly, to see the Man Ray exhibition.


Man Ray, Le Violon d’Ingres (1924)

As you may know already, I LOOOOOOOVE Dada. I studied it at uni, along with Surrealism. I even thought of writing my M.A. dissertation about Surrealism and Sexuality, and having done a lot of research, I had intended to use several Man Ray’s pictures, like those two (!!! explicit material !!!): those pix belong to a four-piece set, “Printemps, été, automne hiver” (you can recognise – ? – Kiki de Montparnasse’s lips – that’s her too in Le Violon d’Ingres above; I’m afraid I can’t tell you who’s the male… model). Oh, they are NOT part of the exhibition, sorry…

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It is a rather traditional exhibition, i.e. Man Ray’s works are presented in a chronological way, and the scenography is quite austere, if not a little bit boring. There were quite a few people early this morning, and the experience was alright, although I believe it’d be unbearable to visit the 6 rooms dedicated to the american photographer when it’s busy. Indeed, most of the photographs are small in size, making it difficult to appreciate if your view is blocked by other art lovers.

I don’t think the NPG meant to focus on Man Ray’s innovative techniques, for they are vaguely evoked (solarisation, photograms). And to be fair, it doesn’t matter.

So, you start in NY, in the late 1910s, early 20s: it’s DADA time. Man Ray met Marcel Duchamp, whose Nu descendant un escalier had provoked such a scandal back in 1913 at the Armory Show. They shared the same interest in chess game, evolved in the same intellectual/arty circles: and BAM! They became friends.

Man Ray made so many portraits of Duchamp, I guess it’d have been ludicrous to have them all exhibited here. Among those that are present:


Tonsure of Marcel Duchamp (1919)

Rrose Sélavy (1921), an absolutely fabulous portrait of Marcel Duchamp’s female alter ego; he does look though like a bad transvestite. 3 years later, Man Ray and Duchamp improved greatly Sélavy’s appearance, making it more credible I guess (below).


If you’re not so much acquainted with Man Ray’s works, the pictures I’ve used so far can already give a strong sense of mise-en-scène: Man Ray’s photographs are all about posing, aesthetics and elaborate scenographies. No wonder why the fashion world was so fond of him. Chic, sexy, alluring. Those words describe perfectly most of his production. In fact, in this exhibition, there are really few pictures that are purely anecdotical (a dozen maybe?).

Now back to the fashion world. Vogue, Vanity Fair and other glossy magazines very regularly commissioned him, as they knew he would perfectly deliver highly glamorous photographs.

Like Noire et Blanche (1926), featuring, again, Kiki de Montparnasse:


Coco Chanel’s famous portrait (1935)


and many others…

You therefore understand why some socialites like the Marquise Casati (also an important collector) wanted her portrait done by Man Ray. Sadly, you can only see the one where she poses as Sissi the Austrian Empress (really?) in 1935,


and not the one I love (taken earlier in 1922):


Women… they are everywhere. Of course you will find many portraits of Man Ray’s fellow artists and friends (the entire Surrealist posse, writers like Miller, musicians like Satie…),


but seriously, the guy (just like most of the Dada and Surrealist lads) was a womaniser. But then again, he was surrounded by beauties: Nusch Eluard, Dora Maar, Meret Oppenheim… And some of those muses became his lovers: Lee Miller (former model who turned out to be an extremely talented photographer), Ady Fidelin, Juliet Browner (his wife and last companion).

From left to right: Nusch (NOT the blonde one), Juliet, Lee, Dora, Ady and Meret.

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I wish someone could make my portrait like those ones… *SIGH*

The exhibition finishes with Hollywood (and it’s far from being the most interesting bit) and the last years in Paris. It is quite sweet, they show pictures of Man Ray and Juliet when they’re old, in their everyday life (I loved the photograph of Man Ray wearing a beret and glasses in his favourite café in St Germain-des-Prés). At that time, Man Ray had decided to concentrate on his paintings, but made from time to time some rather touching portraits of central Parisian figures, like the ever-so-chic bohemian Juliette Gréco, or Yves Montand. I do envy him, for he was so lucky to be part of one of the 20th century most exciting artistic movements, hung out with the most creative bunch of people of his time, produced some artworks that will always be remembered as avant-garde masterpieces.

It’s on till May, and you’d better go.

2 thoughts on “Man Ray Portraits, NPG London: review

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