Under the skin: National Portrait Gallery's Man Ray exhibition

A compelling new exhibition reveals Man Ray's ability to capture the soul of his subjects. It's a rare gift that sets him apart from his fellow Surrealists. By Adrian Hamilton

It was his great friend and fellow Dadaist, Marcel Duchamp, who got Man Ray right as a photographer. “It was his achievement,” he wrote later, “to treat the camera as he treated the paintbrush, a mere instrument at the service of his mind.” Man Ray himself put it rather differently in an essay before he returned to France after his sojourn in the US during the war. “Painting is directed by the heart through the eye,” he wrote. “Photography is directed in the mind through the eye. But the desire and love for the subject direct both mediums. One cannot replace the one with the other…”

The greatest surprise of his portraits, a calling he pursued for friends and for magazines through most of the half century of his working life, was not that they were so absurdist and daring, although some undoubtedly were, but that they were so true to his subjects. For Man Ray, through all his puns, his experiments with process and his jokey juxtaposition of people and objects, was a great portraitist in celluloid, as a comprehensive exhibition of his photographic works at the National Portrait Gallery handsomely shows. His pictures of the figures from his years in Paris as well as New York, Hollywood and London are more than just documents of an age – although they are that – they are also profound representations of people as they projected themselves in the artistic and cultural circles in which they made their mark.

If that meant most of the works were produced for celebratory publications or to advertise the shows of his colleagues that is not a criticism. It was because he was a Surrealist, and an American outsider born of Russian émigré parents but living most of his life in Paris, that Man Ray was so fascinated by appearance, by celebrity and by modern media.

Take his most famous pictures, the double vision picture of Marchesa Casati in 1922 with two sets of eyes. The image was not the result of a preconceived trick but an accident of double exposure which, ever the believer in the spontaneous, he took advantage of. Vanity Fair was delighted with it and it made his reputation. Or look at Man Ray's most famous picture of his lover and model, Kiki, from the back, entitled Le Violon d'Ingres of 1924. With its turbaned head and the superimposed scroll emblems of the violin on the naked back, it's a play on the both the French painter's classic nudes and his love of the instrument. But it's also a homage to the classical portrait in art.

In nearly all of Man Ray's portraits there is a knowledge of the past and the way the great painters gave presence to faces through the use of light and the introduction of objects in the background. There is also, in Man Ray's case, a deep concern with process. In the various self-portraits he took during his life, he is very often pictured at work in the processing lab and the printing. Teasingly, he was wont to deny that he was a painter, declaring himself a “photometrographer. My works are purely photometric”. But he was also serious. Light and its manipulation in exposure and in the dark room always fascinated him. He was quite happy on occasion to develop and print the films of his fellow artists to help them achieve their effect.

He had, as all the Surrealists seem to have had, an obsession with the female nude and there are plenty of teasing examples here including a mocking self-portrait, Man Ray (Asleep) from 1930 of himself with the statue of the Venus de Milo floating above and a large electric light beside. But, unlike many of his colleagues, he genuinely delighted in their company and their individuality. Just as Picasso's artistic course could be viewed through his successive lovers, so could Man Ray's: the Montparnasse model Kiki after he moved to Paris in 1921, then the American photographer and journalist, Lee Miller, from 1929 to 1932, followed by the Guadeloupe dancer, Ady Fidelin, from 1936 to 1940, when he left war-torn France for the US, where he married Juliet Browner, who stayed with him until his death in 1976. His portraits of them, particularly Lee Miller, are suffused with a sense of both affection and admiration.

What made Man Ray such a good photographer – and so attractive to magazines – was that he didn't on the whole see his subjects as objects to be manipulated for artistic effect. He was a Surrealist but not a Dalí. His least effective works are often when he does go in that direction. Nor was he intrusive as a photographer. What he tried to capture was the sense of the individual. He understood how they wanted to look as well as how they did.

Virginia Woolf is caught in 1934, her hand half raised, in a pose that combines both intelligence and delicacy. Lady Diana Cooper, taken in 1923, is wrapped in wool, dreamy and self-consciously pretty. Nancy Cunard, heavily bangled, hair lacquered has an air of privileged determination. Ava Gardner is seen exactly as she came to him, poised, professional and knowing exactly her worth.

Men he found more difficult since, as he put it, they were so much less certain of what they wanted. But he was good with them. His portrait of Picasso in 1933 comunicates exactly the piercing gaze of his black eyes and his large workman's hands. Matisse is photographed in 1925 conservative in his tweed suit and neatly kept beard but with a terribly searching look in his eyes. Aldous Huxley keeps his bad side in shadow. Juan Gris sits by a banjo, in reference to his Cubist art. Jean Cocteau looks through a held frame. James Joyce glances down from the flashlight as if he is pondering his words.

Especially strong are Man Ray's group portraits. There's a haunting series of the Maharaja and Maharanee of Indore in London as well as touching joint portraits of Lee Miller and her father and various group portraits of Surrealist friends and colleagues. Most of his sitters look directly at the camera or just away from it. Few if any are taken as if they are not aware of it.

It's a style that many have copied since, too few of them with his care for light and his basic humanity. For his fondness for people is the overwhelming sense you get from this compelling exhibition. At bottom, Man Ray seems to me to have been a romantic. In the photographic portrait he found his way of expressing it.

 

Man Ray Portraits, National Portrait Gallery, London WC2 (020 7306 0055) to 27 May

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary

TV

Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige

TV

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
    Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

    Confessions of a former PR man

    The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

    Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

    Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
    London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

    The mother of all goodbyes

    Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
    Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

    Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

    The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
    Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions