Man Ray was master of an art form for which he nonetheless professed “a certain amount of contempt”: photography. His first love was painting, and he persistently denied the artistry of the medium that made him famous. But it is largely thanks to his photographic work — explored in an impressive new exhibition at Shibuya’s Bunkamura Museum — that few critics today bat an eyelid at this medium’s inclusion among the “arts.”
Man Ray was born Emmanuel Radnitysky in downtown Philadelphia in 1890. When an up-and-coming artist, he had used photographs merely to record his more conventional work, including collages and sculptural pieces. But by the time the Great Depression shook the world economy in 1929, he had established himself as a Paris-based photographer. Financial necessity, however, obliged him to churn out commercial work, principally fashion shoots, throughout the following decade. After he fled soon-to-be-occupied Paris for Hollywood in 1940, photography took second place to painting once again — and for good.
Posterity has judged Man Ray’s photography rather more positively than he did. Images such as “Ingres’ Violin” (1924) and “Glass Tears” (1932) are as iconic and as instantly recognizable as some of the greatest paintings of centuries past.
What makes the current exhibition so rewarding, however, is the way it takes the viewer beyond such familiar frames. Its display of more than 550 works drawn from a privately owned Japanese collection proves Man Ray to have been a tireless technical experimenter, an outstanding portraitist, the taker of lively holiday snaps (and some frankly mediocre cityscapes), a lover of the female form — and, yes, an artist.
A series of self-portraits, by turns irreverent and enigmatic, opens the exhibition. Man Ray spent his life behind the lens, and when he appears in front of it the effect is often elusive or ironic: His eyes stare unblinking through a circular aperture (“Round Window,” 1927); his image is distorted into a hemisphere, like the perplexing anamorphic portraits popular in the 17th century (“Distortion,” undated); he sits gun in hand, with a noose round his neck and a bottle of poison before him (“Suicide,” 1929); or he sports exactly half a beard and mustache (“Half-shaved Self-Portrait,” 1943).
These enigmatic images are in striking contrast to the photographer’s portraits of friends and art-world acquaintances that so often seem to capture the essence of their subject.
One of Man Ray’s closest friends was Marcel Duchamp, whom he had met in 1915 when both were members of New York’s proto-Dadist group. It is no coincidence that Duchamp became one of Man Ray’s most-photographed subjects. Duchamp took an interest in photography, and his notorious “Nude Descending a Staircase” (1912) was undoubtedly inspired by the consecutive-series images of pioneering 19th-century photographer Etienne Jules Marey.
Man Ray appears likewise to play with the idea of successive movement in one striking picture of Duchamp, “Rotating Sheet of Glass” (1920). Here, Duchamp stands beside one of his creations, a rectangle of glass painted with horizontal lines. Spinning fast and captured with a slow exposure, the rectangular glass with lines on it creates the illusion of a circle. The artist, meanwhile, has perhaps moved or stepped into or out of the frame — his form is transparent and ghostlike.
The human form appears even more insubstantial in a picture taken 12 years later, a nude study of Meret Oppenheim who, after Man Ray’s break-up with Lee Miller, became his assistant and muse. Meret lies on the floor, the contours of her body in starkly lit relief against the dark planes of floor and wall. In places, though, silver light pools around her hair, waist and ankles, as if her silhouette has begun to liquefy.
The haunting effect is created by briefly exposing the photograph to light during the development process. Man Ray named the technique “solarization,” and several examples on display show its beautiful characteristics — a flattened tonal range, a silver-gray luminosity and heavy black outlines. The best solarizations possess all the subtlety and beauty of drawings. One striking image of a hand is like the true-to-life perfection of innumerable Old-Master studies of the same.
Man Ray also paired positive and negative studies, provoking the viewer to reflect on both subject and on perception.
Sometimes the insight seems to be psychological — the paired portraits of the Marquise Casati hint at a concealed double nature, a doppelganger that we all carry within. Other works impress by the way they alert the viewer to the “negative space,” so vital yet so unnoticed in artistic composition. One negative makes brilliant the space between the profiles of two women kissing, revealing tight, sensuous contours unseen in the positive print, where the eye is distracted by the women’s features.
Man Ray even used solarization and positive-negative pairings in his fashion photography — one negative, of a woman in a classical-style dress, evokes the graceful black-figure vases of Athens. Often, though, the la mode shots look what they are — bread-and-butter work on which the photographer subsisted during the lean years of the ’30s.
Forming a coda to the exhibition are a group of cityscapes, almost uniformly unremarkable. The best are infused with Man Ray’s sense of irony (“The Window-cleaner” , a towering view of a skyscraper in which the subject is a mere speck), yet most deploy techniques used to better effect elsewhere, as in two unusually angled shots of the Pont Neuf in Paris, all shadow, curves and negative space.
The lasting impression of this exhibition, though, is of Man Ray’s sheer instinctive artistry. One of his finest pieces is the 1931 solarization, “Egg and Shell.” Humorous, enigmatic and suggestively beautiful, it has elements in common with the works of Man Ray’s Surrealist contemporaries Rene Magritte and Giorgio de Chirico. Place “Egg and Shell” next to Magritte’s “Clairvoyance” (1936) or a canvas by de Chirico and the conclusion is inescapable: They are all art.