Man Ray was an invention. Born Emmanuel Radinski, Ray changed his name when he was 15 because of the way the other kids in his Philadelphia neighbourhood made fun of his “foreign” sounding name. He even invented an entire history to go with his new moniker, claiming in his autobiography that he was christened Man Ray after the doctor who had delivered him announced to his father, “it’s a man.”
Taking portraits of his friends and acquaintances, his work ranging from nudes to fashion to surrealist pictures, painting, a pioneering body of film work, the occasional sculpture and publishing a proto-fanzine called The Ridgefield Gazook, , (which these days reads remarkably like Chris Ware) Man Ray created himself as he imagined he should be; cool, debonair, always in a shirt and tie.
Ray became friends with expatriate artists Marcel Duchamp (a country rube from a family of artists) and Francis Picabia (a shiftless son of a millionaire whose family had made their fortunes from rubber plantations in Vietnam) in New York in 1915, when he was 25 years old. He worked in advertising and publishing while experimenting with painting and photography.
In Paris, where he lived from 1921, Ray realised that the only way he could make a living was as a photographer. He made a decent income from photographing paintings by Picasso, Braque and Matisse and many others. He hung out with gorgeous women rich and poor – his girlfriend of three years was Lee Miller, a former Vogue model and photographer – Nancy Cunard, the heir to the shipping line millions, as well as his mistress, the noted Parisian beauty Kiki of Montparnasse. Ray was a guy who arrived in just the right place, at just the right time, and who also happened to be immensely talented. He produced some the iconic images of early 20th Century Modernism and his creativity as a photographer made him famous in his lifetime.
It would be easy, therefore, to make a mediocre Man Ray show – put up a few of the classic images, a sculpture or two, a film in the theatre and there you would have a standard but uninspiring exhibition. So it’s to the considerable credit of curators Judy Annear of the Art Gallery of NSW and Emmanuelle de L’Ecotais of the Pompidou in Paris, that Man Ray is a brilliant show. Collecting together over 200 works from the period 1917 to 1939 and selection of material from 1940 to 1970, the show manages to give you a wide selection of Man Ray’s photographic work from his New York period with Duchamp, his fashion and portrait work, landscapes, a selection of documents and a continuous screening of 14 films from his earliest Le Retour Á La Rasion (1923), to his last, Juliet (1940). There’s also a modest but representative sample of rayographs, the artform that Man Ray invented that used objects on photographic paper exposed to light.
The show does have its fair share of icons – pictures like the double exposed Portrait of the Marquise Casati, the photograph Le Violon D’Ingres that features the back of a naked woman cut with the F’s of a violin and classic portraits of Yves Tanguy, Meret Oppenheim, Salvador Dali, Max Ernst and Dora Maar.
But the show’s real strength is the unexpected intimacy of the images. Mainly sourced from the collection of Lucien Treillard, who was Man Ray’s assistant in the last ten years of the artist’s life, many of the prints are not full scale vintage prints but contact prints made directly from the artist’s negatives. These small-scale shots are like a window into Ray’s mind and some of the images show his mark-ups – the portrait of Tanguy for instance has a pen outline of what the final print would show. Other works, like the series Erotique Voilée, which is normally seen as a single image, are shown complete.
The other high point of the exhibition is the sense of the artist you get from the amassed work. Although revolutionaries in their time, the Dadaists and the Surrealists artists and their works are now the stuff of car commercials. You feel like you know Man Ray and that that he doesn’t have much to say to you. But the exhibition reminds you that while the artist rubbed shoulders with the great names of 20th Century art, he remained at heart a suburban kid from Philadelphia and, although he created great art, his attitude remained modest. Making a typically obtuse film called Emak Bakia in 1926, the images were abstract and unlike anything anyone had ever seen before. He concluded the film, however, with an upbeat and climactic ending because, he explained, “so that spectators would not think I was being too arty.”