City Guide to Edinburgh, Scotland

City Guide to Edinburgh, Scotland

Edinburgh Art Festival: Man Ray Portraits Review


By Vivien Devlin - Posted on 21 June 2013

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Virginia Woolf by Man Ray, front cover Time Magazine 1937.
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“To create is divine, to reproduce is human." - Man Ray

A major retrospective of Portraits by the legendary American photographer Man Ray has opened at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh, running until 22nd September as part of the Edinburgh Art Festival, 2013.

Curated by the National Portrait Gallery, London, around one hundred photographs as well as vintage magazines and illustrative ephemera, have been sourced from galleries, museums and private collections worldwide.

Oozing effortless glamour, style and sophistication, this is a fascinating selection of famous faces, celebrities and socialites from the world of arts, music, literature and fashion over 50 years, c. 1918 – 1968.

Man Ray (Michael Emmanuel Raditzky), was born in Philadelphia in 1890. He studied painting in New York inspired by European contemporary artists and through his friendship with Marcel Duchamp he embraced Dadaism, the radical anti-art movement.

In 1921, he followed the pilgrimage of American expatriate artists and writers to Paris, as one of the Lost Generation – Stein, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, et al, - to join the Modernist, avant garde society of intellectuals and romantics. As Stein believed, “It’s not so much what Paris gives you, as what it doesn’t take away.”

In Paris, Ray gave up a career in painting to concentrate on his own innovative style of photography, through which he aimed to “treat the camera as he treated the paintbrush, a mere instrument at the service of his mind”.

This exhibition celebrates the inspirational, artistic era of Paris between the wars, with close up shots of Picasso, Duchamp, Dali, Matisse, Cocteau, Schoenberg, Stravinsky – all in serious thoughtful mode, never looking at the camera lens. James Joyce sits in profile, head bent forward, a pose due allegedly to a recent eye operation.

A rather revealing domestic scene shows Gertrude Stein in her famous art-lined Salon in 1922, sitting relaxed with a bemused half smile on her face, a cup of coffee and glass of wine to hand. Opposite, looking stern and uncomfortable is her beloved companion, Alice B Toklas, without any refreshment.

The beauty of women’s faces and figures illustrates May Ray’s skill to capture the essence of gentle femininity and emotional sexuality. Many of the finest intimate nude images, understandably, are of his lover and muse, Lee Miller, whom he met in 1929 when she became his assistant and model. Here her stunning beauty and slender body is the focus of subtle, shadowy life studies which evoke his genuine passion for the subject.

The Exhibition Poster image is a Solarised portrait of Lee Miller, a technique in photo development he devised, where the light and dark tones are reversed to create a shimmering, sleek, metallic effect.

Through commissions for Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, he was able to experiment with dramatic lighting, clothes and jewellery - Nancy Cunard with dark eyeliner and both arms laden with huge bracelets is eccentrically stylish and shows his eye for fashion.

In 1943 Man Ray came to London to show an exhibition of his work, where he met Virginia Woolf; despite a dislike of having her photograph taken, he persuaded her to visit his studio.

In this unusual portrait of the novelist, she is elegantly dressed and her face made up with glossy lipstick. The right hand is poised mid-air as if holding a pen, and her brooding eyes denote sharp intelligence. “By far the best taken of her” remarked her husband Leonard, and the iconic image was reproduced for the front cover of Time magazine in April 1937.

His fascination with Hollywood and the movie industry is also covered, alongside images of film stars, Ava Gardner and Catherine Deneuve. While he travelled widely between Europe and USA exhibiting his work, Paris was always his spiritual home, where, after his death in 1976, he was buried at Montparnasse Cemetery.

This is a unique opportunity to view such an extensive and inspiring collection of Man Ray Portraits which clearly demonstrates his experimental and dramatically surreal approach to the fine art of photography.

Man Ray Portraits is at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, 22 June - 22 September 2013.