THE LACKADAISICALLY controversial Man Ray stands or falls - and usually falls - by his contributions to the arts of painting and sculpture. But, as the exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery demonstrates, his photography is of another order. Here is camerawork that combines luck - the chance of being around with a good eye at the right time - with sinister charm.
Ray's work in the traditional media doesn't look so good and in truth isn't good. It's more a token of his general vanguardism and his clever American eye on Europe. Born in Philadelphia in 1890, he went to art classes in New York and was in Paris by 1921. There he became a part of the international dada movement that believed in anything subversive. Man Ray's photographs of Marcel Duchamp, respectful of that arch-subversive, gave a twist to the upside-down hierarchies of Twenties fame. Like many good photographers, he was instinctively attracted to people who would subsequently become legends.
He snapped Duchamp quickly, and made his own art snappily. He saw how to make surreal objects that side-stepped the usual procedures of sculpture. Everyone knows his Cadeau (1921), the flat iron with nails protruding from its surface. This piece looks rather furtive, as though it were better in its photographs. The equally well-known Object of Destruction (1923/59), a metronome that winks and clicks with a photograph of an eye (Lee Miller's) at the end of its long finger, is a little more intriguing - but not for long, as is the way with metronomes.
Exciting yesterday in Paris, somewhat dead now: that is the story of Man Ray's internationalism. The paintings show him to have been the pasticheur of De Chirico and Magritte. Occasionally he hit something. One intriguing painting, cleverly entitled Man Ray (1914), is a futurist-abstract miniature that turns out to spell his own name if you look at it for long enough. I wonder about the sprightly bullfight picture, Course de Taureaux, a mixture of Mir and Picasso. The Serpentine gives the date as 1925-26.
I think it could have been painted a decade later, Man Ray's paintings being unusually laggardly within the context of the high-brow avant-garde.
He was more on the mark with the camera. His rather ordinary instrument (a Kodak, available to anyone) served his instinct for the time and the style of the Franco-American love affair. In the darkroom, a silver gelatin gave a beautiful and obviously lubricious sheen to photographs that might indeed have dealt with modern, shimmering love, but they lack heart and remind one of magazine photography. TH
! `Man Ray, 1890-1977' continues at the Serpentine Gallery, Kensington Gardens, W2 (071-402 0343), to 12 March.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies