It's going to be one of those rare events that remain a landmark for decades to come. "You remember the Man Ray sale in '95?", people will ask nostalgically around the year 2020.
Man Ray (1890-1976) was a crazy, original polymath at the heart of the mid-20th-century art scene. He and Marcel Duchamp, two of the founders of Dada in the years immediately following the First World War, lifted the concept of art out of its material manifestation into the realm of pure ideas. Man Ray wrote: "In whatever form it is finally presented: by a drawing, by a painting, by a photograph, or by the object itself in its original material and its original dimensions, it is designed to amuse, bewilder, annoy or to inspire reflection, but not to arouse admiration for any technical excellence usually sought in other works of art."
He was so far ahead of his time that the international art world is only just catching up with his viewpoint in the 1990s. His work would look quite at home among today's Turner Prize selections: It's Springtime, for instance, two metal bedsprings mounted on a metal plaque, or Le Manche dans la Manche, a hammer inser-ted in a milkbottle (the title translates into English as "the handle in the sleeve"). Both objects are included in the sale and are estimated to fetch £ 7,000-£10,000 each.
Man Ray's fame, however, rests primarily on his photographs - though Sotheby's auction could change all that. By approaching photo-graphy as a medium of artistic expression on a par with painting or sculpture, he helped liberate it from its mechanical boundaries. He is regarded, along with Alfred Stieglitz, as one of the founders of art photography.
His Le violon d'Ingres, a 1924 photograph of the curvaceous rear view of his lover, Kiki de Montparnasse, with two violin sound holes painted on her ribs, has become a 20th-century icon. There's a silver copy print made around 1971 in the auction estimated at £20,000-£30,000 and a 1969 hand-drawn lithograph of the same image at £600-£800.
A vintage print of his Glass Tears - Lee Miller's face with small glass balls glued under her eyes - made the first big price for his work at auction, selling for £122,500 at Sotheby's in 1993, reputedly to Elton John. Then in April 1994 a photograph of Kiki de Montparnasse made almost twice as much; Noire et Blanche of 1926 shows Kiki at a table holding an African mask and sold for $354,500 at Christie's, New York, the current Man Ray auction record.
Man Ray's creativity can be divided into periods related to the women in his life almost as clearly as Picasso's. The two chief muses of his early years in Paris were the elegantly rounded Kiki, an artist's model who posed for Kisling, Foujita, Utrillo and Soutine, and Lee Miller, a dazzling American blonde who worked as Man Ray's assistant, became a photographer in her own right and later married the British painter and art historian Roland Penrose.
But Man Ray was much more than a photo-grapher. He began as a painter and was no mean poet; he made strange "objects" that transform everyday items - they are closely related to his friend Marcel Duchamp's "readymades". Contempor-ary artists would call them sculptures but Man Ray prefered "objects", a less pretentious term. Many of them were originally created as one-offs in the Twenties and Thirties, then re-peated as editions in the Sixties and Seventies.
Man Ray considered the editioned work just as significant as the one- off - it contained the same idea. He had no time for the art world's obsession with "originals". When someone asked him for a "vintage print" of one of his photographs he would growl, "I'm not a wine".
Man Ray was born Emmanuel Radnitsky on 27 August 1890 in Philadelphia, the son of an immigrant tailor from Kiev. The whole family changed its surname to Ray in 1911 - so much easier for Americans to pronounce and spell - and Emmanuel, already known as "Manny", settled on "Man Ray" as his new persona. He liked to be listed under M rather than R.
Graduating from high school in 1908, he turned down an architecture scholarship in order to devote himself to painting, which he combined with a succession of odd jobs. Alfred Stieglitz, the photographer who promoted avant-garde painting through his Gallery 291, was the first important modernist Man Ray came across and he was stunned by the impact of the Armory Show in 1913 which included all the big names from Europe: the Fauves, the Cubists, Picasso, Brancusi, Duchamp. By the time he actually met Duchamp in 1915, the same year that he bought his first camera (in order to make a record of his paintings) he had run through a variety of painting styles from American Ruralist to Cubism. Appreciation of his paintings has always been muted; his obsessive search for new ideas meant that he changed style constantly - no painting of his is ever instantly recognisable as a "Man Ray".
He hated New York and felt immediately at home in Paris when he followed Duchamp there in 1921. He became court photographer to the avant-garde; there are photographs of Picasso, Braque, Juan Gris, Jean Cocteau, Andre Derain, Getrude Stein, James Joyce and many of their contemporaries in the sale. He also photographed the rich and famous for money, made fashion photographs for Vogue and Harper's, invented a type of abstract image made in the dark room which he christened a Rayograph, and continued to paint and make objects. He was closely involved with the Surrealists in the 1930s and contributed to all their major exhibitions.
The Second World War chased him temporarily out of France. He moved in 1940 to Hollywood where he met his second wife, Juliet Browner - he had married a Belgian poet called Adon Lacroix in 1914 but they separated five years later. Juliet was a dancer who had studied with Martha Graham. Man Ray and Juliet had a double wedding in 1956 with Max Ernst and Dorothea Tanning. In 1951 Man Ray and Juliet returned to Paris, where they settled for good. "They were together for 30 years. She was a real wife," says Naomi Savage, Man Ray's photographer niece.
In the postwar years Man Ray's fame spread round the globe. He had his first retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1966; editions were published of several of his eccentric "objects"; he was encouraged to make lithographs to allow his fans a cheap way to collect his art (there are several in the sale priced in the low hundreds); and Andy Warhol devoted a series of paintings and serigraphs to him. His work was particularly popular in Italy, Belgium and Japan. He died with an important and growing reputation.
Juliet lived on in Paris after her husband's death in 1976, keeping his studio more or less untouched and treasuring mementoes of their life together. She died in January 1991 and over the next two years the French state elaborately negotiated the transfer of a large selection of items to the Pompidou Centre in lieu of tax . All his negatives - some 12,000 - have gone to the Pompidou, together with about 150 paintings, photographs, drawings and objects. The museum didn't take all the plums, however; a careful selection of items was made to fill gaps in its existing collection. Man Ray's most important Surrealist painting, Le Beau Temps (1939), has been left in the sale. It carries the top estimate at £600,000-£800,000.
Overall, Sotheby's are expecting the sale to earn between £2.2m and £3.2m and the proceeds, by a curious quirk of fate, will be divided between members of Juliet Man Ray's family, who hardly knew her husband and take little or no interest in his art. Juliet was the daughter of a pharmacist in the Bronx and had five brothers and one sister who died young. The sale proceeds, together with the substantial income from Man Ray's copyrights, will be divided between the brothers, who are all still alive, and her sister's children. Gregory Browner, a retired New Jersey policeman, moved to Paris to look after Juliet in her final days; Eric, an automobile mechanic, has taken a lead role in seeing that the estate is properly administered.
"Man Ray would have been the first to appreciate the Surrealist aspect of the heirs," his niece Naomi Savage comments. "He was totally involved with his work when he was alive but couldn't have cared less what happened to it after his death. The whole idea of what he and Duchamp were doing was to destroy the commercial market for art."
According to Timothy Baum, who was Man Ray's dealer in America during his lifetime, Sotheby's auction is better supplied with important art than most studio sales. "Man Ray sold a lot in his lifetime and his widow lived on for 16 years, during which time all sorts of public and private collectors flocked to buy what was left. But there are still refreshing and original works in the sale which were retained by Juliet for her private pleasure."
The highlights Baum picks out include Le Beau Temps and the 1915 Futurist abstract Arrangement of Forms No 1 (£50,000-£70,000). "I'm a big fan of his American period," says Baum. "He was as qualified as most contemporary painters of landscape and still life - the 1914 Reaper and Wood Interior, for instance." Painted in blazing Fauve colours and echoing the French painters' primitivism, both of these pictures are valued by Sotheby's at £50,000-£70,000. Among the photographs, Baum picks out the profile of Marcel Duchamp (£20,000-£30,000) and portraits of Gertrude Stein, Hemingway and Picasso.
"There is no question that Man Ray must be considered the number one portrait photo-grapher of the 20th century. His sitters would agree. Those were the images they chose for reproduction in their biographies."
The editioned "objects" he describes as a very good, representative selection but points out that the real stars are the unique pieces that Man Ray made for Juliet. A work that comprises wooden letters spelling JULIET, covered in aluminium and glued inside an old cigar box, is titled "Lettres a Juliet", a pun on the word for "letters". Then there is a leather-bound book that has been hollowed out into a box with a mirror lid. The spine is embossed "Man Ray - Lvres d'Or" and "Exemplaire de Juliet Man Ray". "I still use this box to keep special treasures in," she confided in a 1988 biographical note on her husband. Sotheby's value the letter-box at £12,000-£15,000 and the book at £9,000-£12,000. Aficionados are likely to pay a good deal more. !Reuse content