This first ever major museum retrospective of Man Ray's photographic portraits highlights both his pioneering experimental photographic techniques and his choice of powerful and beautiful subjects, that include Lee Miller and Picasso.
Ernest Hemingway called Paris a ‘moveable feast’, and he was lucky enough to arrive in time for the main course. The talent gathered there in the 1920s was truly astonishing and Man Ray appears to have photographed them all.
Man Ray, born Emmanuel Radnitzky in Philadelphia, arrived in Paris in 1921. He had already chopped up his name; now he uprooted himself, and his work shows a corresponding predilection for disconnection and disembodiment. ‘Woman Smoking a Cigarette’ (1920) is a head taken cleverly out of context; ‘Noire et Blanche’ (1926) has two of them, while Dora Maar seems to be removing her own.
Man Ray and his friend Marcel Duchamp became fellow-conspirators in a plot to disconcert the viewer: we get Duchamp in drag, or tonsured, or pensive as a parody of the romantic ideal. Elsewhere, Man Ray juxtaposes sitters with objects, imports patterns or phantoms, pounces on accidents. He disconnects the optic nerve, severs heart from mind. No wonder he loved France: his art works like a guillotine. And no surprise that, despite his ties to both surrealism and dadaism, Man Ray was never a joiner.
He didn’t need such glamorous subjects: their fame may even have dimmed his own. But for hungry nostalgics, this exhibition resembles the car in Woody Allen’s fantasy ‘Midnight in Paris’, whisking us to a privileged circle of unfettered and unmediated talent that is also a fantasy of equality among genius. We see a plump-cheeked, 24-year-old Hemingway, his first book just reviewed by Gertrude Stein; she then poses for Man Ray beneath her portrait by Picasso, whom he photographed the same year. There’s no snobbery in finding such vibrant connective threads enthralling: these sitters shimmer, and only some of that is down to pose and lighting. None of us will ever see a play produced by Jean Cocteau, with sets by Picasso, costumes by Chanel and starring Antonin Artaud – one reason the gossipy, informed annotations are so welcome. When they fail, the absence is deafening. Poor Marie Laurencin, or André Derain: it seems strange to explain Salvador Dalí – and Picasso! – yet not these less famous painters.
Still, the scope is incredible. There is fashion magazine work; marked-up or differently cropped images. Just when you think it can get no better, Lee Miller appears. They became collaborators and lovers, inventing together the eerie solarisation technique that silvers several of these images like moonlight, or nostalgia.
Man Ray, severer of heads and summoner of ghosts, does not deal in grim realities. You must look elsewhere for the quarrels, failures and suicides that annotated these lives. His images are such glittering exercises in artifice that a solitary pastoral – Ray’s wife in a sun-dappled Californian glade – is as startling as a flock of sheep in your living room. Elsewhere, all is harmony. He may have liked removing torsos, but he loved a well-proportioned face, and the exhibition ends with graceful symmetry: Catherine Deneuve in 1968, a blonde to echo Miller nearly 40 years before, with every crazed accoutrement, from earrings to chessboard, seeming to recall an earlier photograph. There were so many ideas in that one head that his illustrious friends were really just extra bodies: in the end, the most glamorous collaboration of all was Man Ray with himself.