Man Ray, high-modernism and a bizarre shaped bowler hat

Born in Philadelphia in 1890, Emmanuel Radnitzky – better known as Man Ray, was a pioneering American Modernist. His work in sculpture, painting, film and most significantly photography helped widen the definition of ‘Art’ in the early part of the 20th century, as well as providing a fascinating document of Bohemian life in the Paris of the 1920s and 30s.

This exhibition, the first major retrospective of Man Ray’s work by a major institution, focuses solely on his portrait photography.

Though the high price of the exhibition (£14.00, £12.00 concessions) may deter potential visitors, the quality of the camera-work and the fascinating figures Man Ray photographed means this exhibition is essential viewing for anyone with an interest in High-Modernism – so long as you have the money to spare.

The work on show is beautifully presented in three long, slender galleries divided chronologically according to different stages in the artist’s career. Different pieces are shown in different sizes, the biggest being about the size of an A3 piece of paper and the smallest little bigger than a post-it note, meaning it is hard to breeze past anything as the variation in scale consistently demands the viewer’s attention.

One of the most striking aspects of this exhibition is how well the photographs have aged; indeed, their innovation is all the more impressive viewed from an era where a seven-year-old has access to a more advanced camera than Man Ray ever would have. Throughout the exhibition there are many examples of the photographic techniques pioneered by Man Ray and Lee Miller (his sometime assistant and sometime lover as well as an important artist in her own right) such as solarisation and photograms, which have retained their other-worldliness, but more impressive still is Ray’s sense of composition and his ability to bring out the psychology of his sitters.

Two of the exhibition’s highlights, the portraits of Pablo Picasso from 1922 and 1933 respectively, show Man Ray’s photographic sensitivity at its finest. Though by the 20s Picasso was one of the most famous living artists, Ray shows him dressed like a bank-clerk and with his hands hidden in his pockets, seemingly unsure of himself; his conservative dress is contrasted with his radical work which sits out of focus in the background. Ten years later, Ray was able to capture the solidity, the steeliness of Picasso’s artistic vision. The doubting, experimental side of Picasso’s work is not on show; with his hair slicked to his head, one hand placed firmly under his chin and the other gripping his elbow, Picasso stares into the camera’s lens and seems to see both his equal and his adversary.

Other sitters also receive multiple portraits, most prominently those of Lee Miller (another highlight) but also Marcel Duchamp, Georges Braque and more, including a number of self portraits of the artist himself. One piece from 1926 combines 3 portraits of the model Rose Wheeler into one image, showing her in both left and right profile and head on. In this piece (and many others) Ray is able to capitalise on the dramatising effect of black and white photography; the figures fade into black in the spaces in between and, though it is clearly the same woman, they seem to inhabit the same space.

There are also a number of double, triple and group portraits in the exhibition, including a fantastic ‘Surrealist Chessboard’ from 1934. In this piece 20 portraits of the leading Surrealists, with alternating black and white backgrounds, are placed alongside each other to form a pattern present not only in the alternating backgrounds but in the men’s hairstyles and outfits, a rhythm Ray owes to the immaculate style of the 1930s.

The effortless style of Man Ray’s sitters is one of the things that makes his work so aesthetically pleasing, and gives a strong sense of the society of the time. Even outside of the fashion pieces portraits like that of Le Corbusier (1930) in his trademark round glasses and bowtie are almost painfully stylish, painful because they are an unconscious product of the time.

Period interest is one of the main attractions to this exhibition, and the quantity of famous figures portrayed is phenomenal, stretching far beyond the plastic arts. Key figures from all the various cultural strands of the early 20th century are shown, a few have already been mentioned but other big hitters include James Joyce and Aldous Huxley (both coincidentally shielding their bad eye from the camera, elsewhere another monocular Modernist, Tristram Tzara, shows his bruise unabashedly at the camera), Virginia Woolf, Coco Chanel, Igor Stravinsky, Erik Satie, Gertrude Stein & Alice B. Toklas, Henry Miller, Peggy Guggenheim and later in Ray’s career wonderful colour portraits of the French singers Juliette Greco and Yves Montand. All this alongside dozens of portraits of the famous painters and sculptors of the day.

In fact arguably this exhibition is just as much about the culture of early 20th century Paris as it is about the work of one artist. This aspect is apparent both in the group portraits and the more candid shots such as that of Robert Delaunay, stepping out of his house casually posing with a pipe, or Andre Derain sat behind the wheel of a monstrous Bugatti type 43.

Despite the extensive range of the exhibition sadly some of Ray’s best shots are absent. One such is the portrait of Francis Picabia from 1922, who like Derain was shown behind the wheel of a car. In this photo, Picabia wears the doubtful gaze of a man of slipping reputation, his worried eyes contrast with his firm grip on the steering wheel, a grip which gains extra significance considering his (at some points almost literal) love for machines.

The exhibition also does not feature any of Man Ray’s portraits of the semi-hermetic Constantin Brancusi, who he befriended in the late 1920s. Brancusi, who was sceptical about all modern technology and only consented to a portrait some years after Ray first approached him, was photographed wearing a bizarre shaped bowler hat, full beard and with a huge white dog on his lap – more Romanian peasant than Modernist pioneer. Though it would have been nice to seen these pictures in the originals, reproductions of both portraits appear in Ray’s autobiography Self Portrait (Penguin Books, 2012) which is available in the exhibition shop.

Man Ray: Portraits spans five decades and features hundreds of pieces by one of Modernism’s great documenters. Though there are no examples of Man Ray’s works in other fields, his portraits alone suffice to establish him as one of the greatest American artists of all time. Not only this but they provide a fascinating insight into one of history’s most concentrated cultural hotspots, Paris in the 1920s and 30s…its lucky that someone remembered to bring a camera.

Until May 27. Visit the exhibition website here