Saturday, 25 May 2013

Man Ray: Portraits

National Portrait Gallery
7 February  27 May 2013

Le violin d'Ingres. Museum Ludwig Cologne, Photography Collections (Collection Gruber)
© Man Ray Trust / ADAGP © Copy Photograph Rheinisches Bildarchiv Köln
Some definitive portraits, but not enough to deserve an entire show, especially given the routine quality of many of the other images.

First off, as a record of European modernist pioneers, particularly in Paris, this exhibition is wonderful. The artist seems to have known, and photographed, everyone. He also has a talent for capturing either the intensity, or surprising lack of it, in some of his subjects.

Here is wide-eyed Picasso (over several decades), there is plump stately Matisse. On one side we are in the brooding presence of Schoenberg, in a timeless expressionist image reminiscent of his own mask-like painted portraits; on the opposite side we party with the ravishing Peggy Guggenheim, evoking the high hopes and new freedoms of her era.

Next, as expected, some surrealistic images, including portraits of muse and student Lee Miller and Ray himself, especially one of him sleeping under a female torso. But these are period pieces.

Then, we notice the size of the prints. Sometimes familiar images are revealed to be smaller (or larger) than we expect. It isn’t clear whether these historic prints reflect Ray’s intentions – there is an example of him producing two different crops for an image, which suggest he had some interest in this, though I didn’t notice much difference.

Some of the later colour portraits are printed so small as to part of the portrait miniature tradition, and presumably this was Ray’s intention. But hardly an inspired idea, and the actual portraits are bland fashion images.

And the fashion portraits are especially dull, and comprise too much of the exhibition, as if hackwork must be displayed simply to prove he did it.

The relation between cinema and photography seems particularly striking looking at these portraits. Perhaps directors and actors were influenced by the poses in Ray’s photos, but it mostly seems the other way around.

So the stilted unsmiling images of the silent era give way to disarmingly self-confident images of the 1960s, with variations recorded between these periods. 

Overall, a curiosity rather than a living body of work.

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