Man Ray at the National Portrait Gallery

I went to see the exhibition of portrait photographs by Man Ray at the NPG yesterday. As it turned out there were no tickets left so I could go in and had to resort to buying the catalogue instead. Afterwards I read the excellent review in Making a Mark and it may be that I got as much from the catalogue as I would have from the exhibition. I will make another effort to go next week and let you know.

The catalogue however is a complete set of all the works in the exhibition, together with two interesting introductory essays. In fact, I think I think it is essential to read the introductory essays before looking at the plates because they provide so much context.

Man Ray was a fellow traveller of the surrealist and dadaist movements of the early C20; I don’t think he was ever a ‘signed up member’ but he certainly shared many of their ideas and socialised closely with many of the key members. Like the surrealists he enjoyed unexpected juxtapositions and collections of people and objects designed to surprise the viewer and perhaps triggers thoughts and connections which would not otherwise have happened. He deliberately created discontinuities and uncertainty in the mind of the viewer. And many of the most famous images in the exhibition are based on that premise. Your reaction to the images then is based on the assumption that there will be an element of surprise and uncertainty. But what happens when the viewer is no longer surprised, either because the images are so well-known that there can be no surprise or because subsequent artists attempt to create uncertainty have gone so far beyond what Man Ray and his contemporaries attempted. The effect of the images is, I think, necessarily somewhat dulled and it is very hard to see them as they were first seen. It seems to me an inevitable challenge of viewing revolutions from a safe historical distance; how can you ever recreate the edginess of watching a revolution in real time? And how can you know how you would have reacted to images without the reassurance of years of critical acclaim?

The other thing that was distinctive about Man Ray and his time was that boundaries were blurred in a way that seems obvious or irrelevant today, but I suspect was far from obvious at the time. I’m thinking in particular about the boundaries between ‘art’, ‘photography’ and ‘fashion’. Man Ray was perhaps one of the first to demonstrate that they can all be art. As Marcel Duchamp said “It was (Man Ray’s) achievement to treat the camera as a he treated the paintbrush, a mere instrument at the service of his mind”, though Ray himself sometimes expressed doubt. In 1959 he defensively explained “Everyone will tell you that I am not a painter. That is true. At the beginning of my career, I once classed myself as a photometrographer.” And his large body of work for Vogue, Vanity Fair and Harper’s Bazaar clearly took him into the realm of recording fashion as much as making art.

And at the same time, the subjects of so many of the portraits are as well or better known as Man Ray himself and leaves you wondering whether you are admiring the portrait or the subject. But in this case the portraits are often very well known. So perhaps in some cases, our perception of the subject is predominantly defined by the portrait. Tu us, are the subjects what Man Ray made them?

If this all reads a little confusingly, perhaps that is because my reaction to the images is confused. Man Ray is clearly an outstanding photographer. The images are striking and memorable; indeed, many of them are already in our memory and the exhibition or catalogue allows us to retrieve and contextualise them. Some of the images helped define surrealism, and we can still enjoy them but never with the frisson of a first ever viewing. They become intellectually interesting rather than emotionally disquieting. I conclude that if you are interested in photography or early C20 art this is an exhibition you ought to see, and a catalogue you would want in your collection. But in the end it is an exhibition which makes you think but perhaps does not really make you react. And that is the inevitable passage of time.

I would be very interested in others reactions.