It’s very difficult to believe that this is the first major museum retrospective of the work of Man Ray. Like yesterday’s post on Duchamp, here’s an artist who played a major part in international visual art throughout the twentieth century but whose contribution now just seems like a given.
He identified first and foremost as a painter, but he’s best known for his photogram -- pictures that he called ‘rayographs’. Dadaist, Surrealist, filmmaker, fashion photographer and paragon of the avant-garde, Man Ray’s influence is permanent.
This exhibition focusses on his career in Philadelphia, New York, Hollywood and Paris between 1916 and 1976 and takes as its central conceit his photographic portraits. As one of the most significant artists of the period, we’re presented with a wide range of names to ponder on and linger over: Pablo Picasso, Ray’s muse and lover Kiki de Montparnasse, Lee Miller, Ava Gardner, Catherine Deneuve, and back to Marcel Duchamp again.
Photography is the great leveller: everyone takes pictures, everyone’s in pictures and everyone has an opinion on pictures. Arguably, it’s the most popular of mainstream art techniques. And here we have some of the best and most original. Man Ray’s striking aesthetic never ages, and through the 150 or so works that are on display here they move as gracefully as the most classical of fine art.
Man Ray Portraits is at the National Portrait Gallery until 27 May.