Man Ray Portraits at The National Portrait Gallery

2013-04-13 10.36.56The question at the back of my mind going around the May Ray exhibition of Portraits at the National Portrait Gallery was whether or not I could learn something new by seeing the photographs in a gallery setting, when so many of them are already so familiar;  so well known, how does one gain any perspective on them?

I know the work is important, that he was innovative and experimental, because I’ve read about him, but without knowing all of the history of the development of photography, can I look at the work on the walls of the gallery and see that?

Having been to see The Bride and the Bachelors exhibition at the Barbican, which explored the influence of Duchamp on the generation of American artists who came after him, it felt appropriate, given Duchamp’s and Man Ray’s friendship and collaborations to see this show too.  And it may have been that thought process that meant that I was expecting to see something surreal and strange in the photographs.  I wasn’t disappointed per se that there was little overt evidence of his relationship with Surrealism, but it did make me think about the nature of his photographic portraiture.

Many of the great and good of the artistic and literary world of the first half of the 20th century are represented in the exhibition, and, it was not always clear to me which had been taken because of a commercial commission, and which as snapshots of his social circle.  Well connected as he was, it seems unlikely that they were all his friends.  It is also evident, that, in comparison to the more retiring Duchamp, Man Ray embraced the celebrity high profile lifestyle.

While many of the close head portraits are startlingly well lit, bright faces and dark eyes shining out from a light background, when the photograph was of a person in a wider shot, sitting in a room or lounging on a sofa, the surroundings looked remarkably ordinary (with the exception of the late photographs of Catherine Deneuve whom he surrounded with clutter to enhance her luminous stillness).

One of the pieces that will stick in my memory is the surrealists chessboard, a collection of portraits of artists including Picasso, Magritte and Dali, everyone of them with neat hair and a collar and tie, and looking the antithesis of revolutionary.

I have a still unanswered question about the choice of the size of print on display in the exhibition.  Who decided how large the prints should be, or are these original ones made by Man Ray himself; and if they are, how did he decide how big or small to make them?  Because some are quite tiny.  In some instances it is the smallness which drew me in, necessitating close looking, making the image seem confined and restricted drawing the eye inwards, in others I couldn’t help but feel that the huge enlargements used in the publicity posters for the show had more of an impact.

The vast majority of the portraits are black and white, but towards the end of the exhibition there are some miniature coloured ones, small, like enamel miniatures at the centre of black mounts which dominate the images, making them puzzling and curiously hard to look at.

Have you seen the show?  What did you think?

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