Man Ray (actually Emmanuel Rudnitzky or Emmanuel Radnitzky) was an American photographer, film director, painter and object artist. Man Ray is one of the important artists of Dadaism and Surrealism, but due to the complexity of his work is generally assigned to Modernism and is considered an important initiator of modern photography and film history up to experimental film. His numerous portrait photographs of contemporary artists document the high phase of cultural life in Paris in the 1920s.
Childhood and early years
Man Ray was born in Philadelphia, the first of four children of Russian Jewish parents, Melech (Max) Rudnitzky and Manya née Luria. On his birth certificate, the boy was recorded as “Michael Rudnitzky,” but according to his sister Dorothy, the family called him “Emmanuel” or “Manny.” The family later called themselves “Ray” to Americanize their name. Man Ray himself was also very secretive about his origins in later years.
Together with his siblings, the young Emmanuel received a strict upbringing. His father worked at home as a tailor and the children were involved in the work; from an early age they learned to sew and embroider and to join a wide variety of fabrics together in patchwork technique. This experience would later be reflected in Man Ray”s work: The playful handling of different materials can be found in many of his assemblages, collages and other paintings; moreover, he liked to cite utensils from the tailor”s trade, for example needles or spools of thread, in his visual language.
In 1897, Man Ray”s family moved to Williamsburg, Brooklyn. There, at the age of seven, the headstrong boy began to make his first colored pencil drawings, which his parents did not approve of, so that he had to keep his artistic inclinations a secret for a long time. “I will do the things I am not supposed to do from now on” became his early guiding principle, which he was to follow for the rest of his life. In high school, however, he was allowed to take courses in art and technical drawing and soon acquired the tools for his career as an artist. After graduating from high school, Emmanuel was offered a scholarship to study architecture, but despite coaxing from his parents, he turned it down because a technical education ran counter to his firm resolve to become an artist. At first he dabbled, rather unsatisfactorily, in portraiture and landscape painting; eventually, in 1908, he enrolled at the National Academy of Design and the Art Students League in Manhattan, New York. As he later once said, he actually took the courses in nude painting only because he “wanted to see a naked woman.” The didactically conservative, time-consuming, and tedious classes were not for the impatient student. On the advice of his teachers, he soon gave up his studies and tried to work independently.
New York 1911-1921
In the fall of 1911, Man Ray enrolled at the Modern School of New York”s Ferrer Center, a liberal-anarchist school; he was accepted there the following year and attended evening art classes. At the Ferrer Center he was finally able to work freely and spontaneously thanks to the unconventional teaching methods. The sometimes radical convictions of his teachers, shaped by liberal ideals, were to have a decisive influence on his later artistic career, including his turn to Dada.In the period that followed, the artist – he had in the meantime simplified his first and last name to “Man Ray” – worked as a calligrapher and map draftsman for a publishing house in Manhattan. It was in Alfred Stieglitz”s well-known “Gallery 291” that he first came into contact with works by Rodin, Cézanne, Brâncuși, as well as drawings and collages by Picasso, and immediately felt a stronger connection to these European artists than to their American contemporaries. Through Alfred Stieglitz, Man Ray quickly found access to the completely new artistic thought of the European avant-garde. He obsessively tried out various painting styles in quick succession: starting with the Impressionists, he soon arrived at expressive landscapes that resembled a Kandinsky (shortly before the latter took the step toward abstraction), and finally found his own futuristic-cubist figuration, which he retained in modified form throughout his life.
The Armory Show, an extensive art exhibition held in New York in early 1913, left a lasting impression on him. The sheer size of the European paintings overwhelmed him. Man Ray later commented, “I did nothing for six months – it took me that long to digest what I had seen.” With the “two-dimensional” art of his native country in his eyes, on the other hand, ” he had virtually an aversion to paintings where there was no room for his own reflections.”
Also in the spring of 1913, Man Ray left his parental home and moved to an artists” colony in Ridgefield, New Jersey, where he met the Belgian poet Adon Lacroix, civil name Donna Lecoeur; the two were married in May 1913. Around 191415, Man Ray bought a camera so that he could reproduce his own works. On March 31, 1915, he published an issue of The Ridgefield Gazook, an anarchic satirical pamphlet of his own design that already had basic features of the later Dada magazines, as well as A Book of Diverse Writings with texts by Donna and illustrations by him. In the fall of 1915, Man Ray had his first solo exhibition at New York”s Daniel Gallery, where he sold six paintings. Presumably he met Marcel Duchamp there, who had just become known in America for his sensational painting Nude, Descending a Staircase No. 2, which he had shown at the Armory Show. It was primarily Duchamp”s revolutionary ideas and theories that made an abrupt but lasting impression on Man Ray. Duchamp and Man Ray soon became good friends.
Man Ray was fascinated by Duchamp”s work, especially by his depictions of simple, technically “absurd,” illogical machines with their pseudo-mechanical forms that feigned an apparent “mysterious” function, as well as by Duchamp”s manner of declaring simple everyday objects as objet trouvés to be art objects, which he called readymades. Another important source of inspiration was Francis Picabia with his train of thought on the “exaltation of the machine”: “The machine has become more than just an adjunct of life-it is really a part of human life-perhaps even its soul.” Probably towards the end of 1915, Man Ray also began to experiment with such objects and slowly made the step from two-dimensional to three-dimensional art. Man Ray soon created his first assemblages from found objects, such as the Self Portrait of 1916, which formed a face from two bells, a handprint, and a bell button. Now Man Ray also began to participate regularly in exhibitions; thus the collector Ferdinand Howald became aware of the up-and-coming artist and began to sponsor him as a patron for several years.
At Marcel Duchamp”s suggestion, Man Ray soon became intensively involved with photography and film. Together with Duchamp, whose work Man Ray documented in several photographs, numerous photo and film experiments were created in New York. Around 1920 Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray invented the art creature Rose Sélavy. The name was a play on words from “Eros c”est la vie”, Eros is life. Rose Sélavy was Duchamp himself dressed as a woman, signing works under this name while Man Ray photographed him doing so.
Increasingly, the artist became interested in the unconscious, the apparent, and the implied mystical, which seemed to be hidden behind what was depicted and “not depicted.” In the course of 1917, he experimented with all available materials and techniques and, in addition to glass printing (cliché verre), discovered aerography, an early airbrush technique, for himself by spraying photographic paper with paint or photographic chemicals.
One early aerography he called Suicide (1917), a subject Man Ray – like many other Dadaists and Surrealists among his circle of acquaintances – often dealt with (cf. Jacques Rigaut). Man Ray quickly familiarized himself with darkroom techniques. If this was initially done for the simple motive of reproducing his paintings, he soon found a similarity to aerography in the photographic enlargement process and discovered the creative possibilities of this “light painting”.
Along with his work in the darkroom, Man Ray experimented with photograms around 191920. As he said, he acted “completely mechanically and intuitively” in discovering the technique.
“Photographing without a camera” was entirely in keeping with his desire to be able to “capture and reproduce automatically and like a machine” the metaphysics he was already seeking in his paintings and objects. In a letter to Katherine Dreier, he wrote, “I am trying to automate my photography, to use my camera as I would use a typewriter – in time I will achieve that.” This idea goes hand in hand with the method of “automatic writing” that André Breton adapted for Surrealism.
Although the idea of arranging objects on light-sensitive paper and exposing them to light is as old as the history of photography itself – Fox Talbot had already created the first photograms in 1835 – Man Ray immediately coined the term rayography for the process he had developed. In the period that followed, he produced a number of such “rayographs” as if on an assembly line: almost half of his entire oeuvre of rayographs or “rayograms” was created in the first three years after the discovery of “his invention. By the beginning of 1922, he had already tried out all the technical possibilities of the time on the photogram.
Later, in Paris, at the end of 1922, he published a limited edition of twelve rayographs under the title Les Champs délicieux (the preface to this was written by Tristan Tzara, who once again clearly referred to the neologism “rayography” in it. The magazine Vanity Fair took up this “new” kind of photographic art in a full-page article. From this moment on, Man Ray”s photographic works were to make the rounds in all European avant-garde magazines. This resulted in numerous reproductions of Man Ray”s cliché verre works from his New York period (Man Ray had made the originals on 18 × 24 cm glass negatives).
Throughout his career as an artist, Man Ray never settled on a particular medium: “I photograph what I don”t want to paint, and I paint what I can”t photograph,” he once said. Through the manifold possibilities of photography, painting had indeed fulfilled its artistic purpose for him for the time being. He thus drew level with his role model Duchamp, who produced his last painting as early as 1918; ultimately, however, the eternal conundrum of painting and photography pervaded Man Ray”s entire oeuvre. He himself explained contradictorily: “Perhaps I was not so much interested in painting as in the development of ideas.
In the years 1918-1921, Man Ray discovered that photographic and object art served him, for the time being, as the best means of expressing his ideas. In fact, by 1921 Man Ray had temporarily abandoned traditional painting altogether and experimented exclusively with the possibilities of arranging and “de-arranging” objects. Unlike Duchamp, he did this by deliberately “de-arranging” objects or by depicting a familiar object in a different context. He usually photographed these objects and gave them titles that deliberately evoked other associations; for example, the high-contrast photograph of a snow whisk titled Man and, by analogy, Woman (both 1918), consisting of two reflectors that can be seen as breasts and a glass pane fitted with six clothespins as a “backbone.” One of the most famous objects in reference to Duchamp”s ready-mades was the later Cadeau (1921): an iron studded with thumbtacks, intended as a humorous “gift” for the musician Erik Satie, whom Man Ray was to meet at an exhibition in Paris at the Librairie Six bookstore and gallery.
Even though his marriage to Adon Lacroix, which had introduced him to French literature and works by Baudelaire, Rimbaud, or Apollinaire, was short-lived – the marriage was divorced in 1919 – the artist continued to engage with French literature. The influence is particularly evident in Man Ray”s 1920 photograph The Riddle or The Enigma of Isidore Ducasse, which shows a package tied up with burlap, but its contents remain hidden from the viewer. The solution to the mystery could only be found through knowledge of the writings of the French author Isidore Ducasse, who was also known as the Comte de Lautréamont. Ray took as his starting point that passage from the 6th canto of the “Cantos of Maldoror” that had become famous, in which Lautréamont had described “the chance meeting of a sewing machine and an umbrella on a dissecting table” as a metaphor for the beauty of a youth. The Dadaists” interest in Ducasse, who had died 50 years earlier, had been aroused by André Breton, who saw early Dadaist surrealist thought in the writings. The subject of the object wrapped in fabric, however, can also be interpreted as Man Ray”s reflection on his childhood in his father”s tailor”s workshop; Man Ray had created the object “in itself” only for the purpose of photography.
On April 29, 1920, Man Ray founded Société Anonyme Inc. with Marcel Duchamp and artist Katherine Dreier as an association to promote modern art in America. April 1921 saw the publication of New York Dada together with Duchamp. In New York, Man Ray was meanwhile considered the main representative of the little-noticed American Dadaism; exactly when he came into contact with the European Dada movement is unknown, presumably around 191920 a letter-written “triangular contact” between Marcel Duchamp, who was, however, never actively involved in Dada, and Tristan Tzara, the movement”s spokesman and co-founder, emerged. In a letter to Tzara, Man Ray complained about the ignorance of the New York art scene: “… Dada cannot live in New York. New York is Dada and will tolerate no rival it is true: all efforts to publicize it have been done, but there is no one to support us.” Man Ray later stated, “there had never been such a thing as New York Dada because the idea of scandal and provocation as one of the principles of Dada was totally foreign to the American mind.”
Man Ray”s ambivalence toward America and his enthusiasm for France, as well as his urgent desire to finally belong to the progressive European art world, finally culminated in July 1921 in the artist”s decision to follow his friends Marcel Duchamp and Francis Picabia to France.
The Paris years 1921-1940
Man Ray arrived in France on July 22, 1921. Duchamp immediately introduced him to André Breton, Louis Aragon, Paul Éluard and his wife Gala (later the muse and wife of the Spanish artist Salvador Dalí) and Jacques Rigaut in Paris at the popular Dadaist meeting place Café Certa in the Passage de l”Opéra. Europeans quickly accepted Man Ray, who soon became fluent in French, as one of their own.
Man Ray initially spent a lot of time exploring the metropolis of Paris, but soon focused on the center of the Paris art scene: Montparnasse. In the cafés of the Rive Gauche, on the Boulevard du Montparnasse, he met a wide variety of artists: Matisse, Diego Rivera, Piet Mondrian, Salvador Dalí, Max Ernst, Yves Tanguy, Joan Miró and many others. Most of them later found their way into Man Ray”s photographic work as portraits.
Towards the end of the year, Man Ray moved into the famous artists” hotel Hôtel des Ecoles on Montparnasse. In early November, Man Ray participated in a collective exhibition at the gallery of the art dealer Alfred Flechtheim in Berlin, together with Max Ernst, Hans Arp and Marcel Duchamp. Man Ray, who did not travel to Berlin himself, sent for it a painting of Tristan Tzara with an axe over his head and sitting on a ladder, next to him the oversized portrait of a female nude (Portrait Tristan Tzara Tzara and the Axe, 1921). At the behest of Tzara, who wanted to establish the new Dada artist from America for “his movement,” the first exhibition of Man Ray in Paris took place at the Librairie Six before the end of December that year.
Around the same time, Man Ray”s “official photography” was created by the Dadaists, who had meanwhile fallen out with each other. In the Dada group, which was riddled with egocentrics and indulged in excessive debauchery, Man Ray did not find the support he was hoping for, especially since visual artists received little attention in this scene dominated by literati. The Dadaists, in their absurdity, had already laconically and jokingly declared Dada dead: “You read everywhere in the magazines that Dada has been dead for a long time; it remains to be seen whether Dada is truly dead or has only changed tactics;” and so Man Ray”s first exhibition with the Dadaists became more of a farce; the lack of sales also secretly troubled the artist. Caused by a controversy sparked by the rebellious André Breton in preparation for his “Surrealist Manifestos,” and a related dispute Breton had with Tzara, Satie, Eluard, and other Dadaists, a split occurred between Dadaists and Surrealists on February 17, 1922, with a censorship resolution against Breton. Among the 40 signatories of the resolution was Man Ray. This was the first and last time that Man Ray took a stand on an artistic doctrine.
Unsuccessful in painting, Man Ray made the decision in early 1922 to devote himself seriously to photography. Although he had already made numerous portraits of Picabia, Tzara, Cocteau and many other protagonists of the Paris art scene since his arrival in Paris, he now wanted to secure portrait photography as a source of income and specifically seek out clients. “I now turned my attention to renting a studio and setting it up so I could work more efficiently. I wanted to make money – not wait for recognition that may come or may never come. “This decision was accompanied by a pressing desire to free himself from the previous burdensome situation “competing with the other painters”. His first commissions came, of course, from the art scene: Picasso, Georges Braque, Juan Gris, Henri Matisse and many others had their pictures taken by him in the spring-summer of 1922. Still living and working in a hotel room, Man Ray lamented in a letter to his friend and patron Ferdinand Howald: “I still live and work in a hotel room, which is very cramped and expensive. But the studios here are impossible-with no water or light for the night unless you can pay a very high price, and even then you have to find one first.”
In July 1922, Man Ray finally found a suitable residential studio with kitchen and bathroom at 31 Rue Campagne Première, and his new studio quickly became a popular meeting place for painters and writers. Anglo-American émigrés became another important source of commissions, and over time he painted numerous portraits of artists passing through, primarily writers such as James Joyce and Hemingway, who met in literary salons such as that of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, or in Sylvia Beach”s renowned bookstore Shakespeare and Company. While this was the established Parisian literary scene, Man Ray did not immortalize any of the leading French writers, with the exception of Marcel Proust on his deathbed, whom he photographed at Cocteau”s express request. Soon, Parisian aristocrats also took notice of the unusual American: the blurred portrait of the eccentric Marquise Casati, a former mistress of the Italian poet Gabriele D”Annunzio, showing the Marquise with three pairs of eyes, became one of Man Ray”s most significant photographs, despite the motion blur. The Marquise was so enthusiastic about the blurred photo that she immediately ordered dozens of prints, which she sent to her circle of acquaintances.
It was at this time that Man Ray discovered nude photography for himself and found his muse and lover in Kiki de Montparnasse, civil name Alice Prin, a popular model for Parisian painters. Kiki, whom Man Ray had met in a café in December 1922 and who was his companion until 1926, quickly advanced to become the photographer”s favorite model; countless photographs of her were taken in the 1920s, including one of Man Ray”s most famous: the surrealist-humorous photo Le Violon d”Ingres (1924), which shows the naked back of a woman (Kiki) wearing a turban with the two f-shaped openings of a violoncello painted on it. The photograph became one of Man Ray”s most published and reproduced works. Man Ray chose the title Le Violon d”Ingres (The Violin by Ingres) as a French idiom for “hobby” or “hobbyhorse” presumably in an ambiguous allusion to the painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, who had devoted himself preferentially to playing the violin and painting nudes. Ingres” painting La Grande Baigneuse (The Turkish Bath) was obviously the model for Man Ray”s witty photo puzzle.
Man Ray had already made some experimental short films in New York with Marcel Duchamp; for example, the most “disreputable” strip showed a pubic hair shave by the eccentric Dada artist Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven. Later in Paris, Tristan Tzara immediately associated him with this film and boastfully introduced Man Ray as a “prominent American filmmaker” at a Dada event appropriately called Soirée du cœur à barbe (The Evening of the Bar Heart). That evening in July 1923, Man Ray screened his first “feature-length” 35mm film: the three-minute black-and-white silent Retour à la raison (Return to Reason), a commission from Tzara. The film shows staccato animated rayographs: dancing needles, grains of salt, a thumbtack, and other objects that Man Ray had spread on the filmstrip and then exposed, and finally fragments of writing, spinning rolls of paper, and egg cartons. The film ends with the spinning torso of Kiki de Montparnasse, on which a window cross emerges as a play of lights. The experimental film received much attention and Man Ray”s studio at 31 rue Campagne Première soon became a focal point for many film enthusiasts and young filmmakers seeking advice. In 1924, Man Ray himself appeared as a “performer.” In the films Entr”acte and Cinè-sketch by René Clair, he played alongside Duchamp, Picabia, Eric Satie, and Bronia Perlmutter, Clair”s later wife.
In 1926, financial success finally came Man Ray”s way: American stock market speculator Arthur S. Wheeler and his wife Rose approached the artist with the intention of entering the film business. The Wheelers wanted to promote Man Ray”s film projects “without conditions,” only one film was to be completed within a year. Arthur Wheeler secured a sum of $10,000 for Man Ray. In short, Man Ray handed over all commercial assignments to his new assistant Berenice Abbott and concentrated completely on the new film project because of the newly won artistic freedom. In May 1926, Man Ray began filming in Biarritz.
Finally, in the fall, the nearly twenty-minute film Emak Bakia, set to jazz music by Django Reinhardt, was screened in Paris; it premiered in New York the following spring. Man Ray outlined his work as a “pause for reflection on the current state of cinema.” With no particular plot, Emak Bakia was based on improvisations that played with rhythm, speed, and light, reflecting on the medium of film itself. The film was intended to be a cinepoeme, a “visual poetry,” as Man Ray also emphasized in the subtitle.
The film was received ambivalently. Man Ray, who for the most part planned everything carefully, already had a suitable explanation for possible critics: “You can also look at the translation of the title ”Emak Bakia”: It”s a pretty old Basque expression and it means give us a break.” Critics gave Man Ray that break and ignored the film. The medium of film was not considered art at the time, and so Emak Bakia remained unknown outside the New York avant-garde.
About a month after his disappointing New York film debut, Man Ray returned to Paris. With his assistant Jacques-André Boiffard, he produced two more surreal films of a similar nature: L”Étoile de mer (1928) and Le Mystère du château de dés (1929). With the introduction of talkies and the sensational success of Buñuel and Salvador Dalí”s L”Age d”Or (The Golden Age), however, Man Ray largely lost interest in the medium. In 1932, he sold his film camera. During his “exile” in Hollywood in the early 1940s, he would briefly turn to film one last time.
At the beginning of the 1930s, Man Ray devoted himself almost exclusively to photographic art, after he had once again given painting a clear rejection: “Painting is dead, past that I only paint sometimes to convince myself completely of the nullity of painting.” Rayography – he used the term in the meantime for his entire photographic œuvre – was now tantamount to painting for Man Ray. At the time, only Raoul Hausmann, El Lissitzky, Moholy-Nagy, and Christian Schad worked in a comparably similar way.
In addition to progressive publications such as VU or Life, which were primarily devoted to artistic photography and published large photo spreads, fashion magazines such as Vogue or Harper”s Bazaar soon became aware of the inventive photographic artist. As early as 1922, Man Ray had produced fashion photographs for the fashion designer Paul Poiret. Finally, from 1930 on, he regularly took fashion photographs for Vogue and Harper”s. Well-known photographs from the time show, for example, the fashion designers Coco Chanel or Elsa Schiaparelli (ca. 193435). In the course of “real” fashion photography, Man Ray thereby abandoned the purely abstract photogram style and concentrated on surreal-dreamlike arrangements, which he mixed with experimental techniques: for example, he often worked with reflections and double exposures during the period. A well-known series was the Portfolio electricité (1931) as a noble advertising publication for the Parisian electricity company CPDE. The portfolio was created in collaboration with Lee Miller, a young, good-looking ambitious American who was determined to become Man Ray”s student. Miller had come to Paris in February 1929 on a letter of recommendation from Edward Steichen and was soon working with Man Ray in front of and behind the camera. With her, Man Ray perfected his technique of solarization and pseudo-solarization (Sabattier effect), which had been kept a closely guarded secret until then, and achieved completely new possibilities in imagery through the effect”s sharp contrast separation. Lee Miller was also convincing as a model in front of the camera: the elegant nudes and fashion photos with the beautiful, undercooled-looking blonde resembled anatomical studies due to the new accentuating but not completely abstracting solarization technique. At this time, Man Ray also experimented with color photography, discovering one of the first processes to produce printable paper prints from color negatives. In 193334, the Surrealist artist magazine Minotaure published a color image of Man Ray, two years before the first Kodachrome film was released. In Minotaure, Man Ray had previously published Les Larmes as a black-and-white picture spread.
The collaboration with Lee Miller had an irritating effect on Man Ray. Unlike his earlier models and lovers, such as the unabashed Kiki, Miller was sexually independent, intelligent, and very creative. His fascination with Lee soon developed into a strangely obsessive-destructive love affair that was also reflected in Man Ray”s work. His subjects increasingly revolved around sadomasochistic fantasies, took on a sexual fetishistic character, and played with the idea of female subjugation, hinted at as early as in his famous Object of Destruction (1932), a metronome that in its most famous version featured a photograph of Lee Miller”s eye and was smashed to pieces in the original, to his most famous oil painting A l”heure de l”observatoire – Les Amoureux (The Observatory Hour – The Lovers, 1932-1934), which presumably shows Lee”s lips but evokes the association with an oversized vagina hovering over a landscape. The artist destroys “his” model, reducing or idealizing it, as in earlier works, into the object of his desire. Man Ray was increasingly fascinated by the writings of the Marquis de Sade; some of his works point directly to de Sade”s thought, such as a portrait of Lee Miller with a wire cage over her head, a woman”s head under a glass bell jar, or photographs of bound, depersonalized female bodies. Ultimately, the artistic as well as private relationship between Man Ray and Lee Miller failed, and in 1932 Miller returned to New York. She later became a famous war photographer.
With the departure of Lee Miller, Man Ray”s creative output suffered a creative collapse. In the years that followed until his flight to America in 1940, he attracted more attention through exhibitions that consolidated his international reputation as an artist than through stylistic innovations. Although his commercial fashion photographs were perfectly and routinely staged, they did not provide any real new creative impulses. Alongside the emerging modern photojournalism with its “new” innovative photographers such as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Chim and Robert Capa in their political emotionality, Man Ray”s cool studio productions now seemed “static” and outdated.
Soon, lively street reportage, such as that of the much younger Robert Doisneau or that of a Brassaï, who had initially pursued equally surrealist approaches, displaced Man Ray”s art photography from the magazines. At a Paris cultural symposium in 1936, the Surrealist Louis Aragon drew a direct comparison between the “snapshot photographer” Henri Cartier-Bresson and the studio photographer Man Ray: “… he (Man Ray) embodies the classical in photography a studio art with everything that this term means: Above all, the static character of photography in contrast with the photographs of my friend Cartier, which contrasts with the peaceful postwar period and really belongs to this time of wars and revolutions by its accelerated rhythm. “
Man Ray observed this development just as Aragon did, but ultimately did not join the “new” trend of fast-moving realistic photography; rather, he withdrew even more into his own dream world. At times, with the exception of a few commercial fashion photographs, he even abandoned photography altogether and turned back to painting. He felt confirmed in his decision when A l”heure de l”observatoire – Les Amoureux was well received at a major retrospective of Surrealist art at the New York Museum of Modern Art. The painting was so important to Man Ray that he repeatedly included it in numerous photographs: fashion photos, self-portraits, and nudes.
The sculptor Alberto Giacometti introduced Man Ray to the young artist Meret Oppenheim around 1934. Oppenheim posed for him in the photo series Érotique voilée (1934). The most famous shot shows Oppenheim naked, with her hand smeared with printing ink, in front of a copperplate engraving press. Two other important works were also created around this time: The books Facile (1935) and La Photographie n”est pas l”art (1937). Facile was written with Man Ray”s old friend Paul Éluard and his second wife Nusch. The book captivated with the finest, partly solarized partly inverted or double-exposed nude photographs of Nusch Eluard and a novel layout that, balanced between text and image, left plenty of meditative white space to evoke a sense of infinity. Besides Nusch Eluard, only one pair of gloves is pictured. The other work, La Photographie n”est pas l”art, was more of a portfolio created in collaboration with Breton. It was intended to be a photographic antithesis to Man Ray”s photographs of the 1920s: While these were characterized by the depiction of “beautiful” things, La Photographie n”est pas l”art provided a sarcastic response to the society of the late 1930s, which was threatened by war and decay, with harsh, sometimes repulsive and disturbing subjects.
The fatal effects of National Socialism soon became apparent in Paris. From 1938 at the latest, the situation in the once hospitable metropolis had changed drastically; the discrimination and persecution of the Jewish population escalated into acts of violence against everything “foreign”. For Man Ray, the immigrant with Jewish ancestors, this was no longer the place where he had been so warmly welcomed almost twenty years before. The end of his time in Paris had come. His last major appearance before going to America was in 1938 at the Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme in Georges Wildenstein”s Galerie Beaux-Arts in Paris, which marked for him the very personal high point of Surrealism. From then on, Man Ray”s visual language became increasingly somber and pessimistic. An important painterly résumé of his “beautiful Parisian times” was to become the painting Le Beau Temps, created in 1939 shortly before the beginning of World War II and his departure for America. It is both an autobiographical balance sheet and an artistic description of the situation. The painting has a similar structure to many works of the Pittura metafisica:
The picture is not only a balance sheet of his previous oeuvre, but it also has several autobiographical elements; the Minotaur, for example, is a stylistic reference to Picasso, with whom Man Ray was friends and whom he admired throughout his life. With Picasso, Dora Maar, the Eluards, as well as Lee Miller and Roland Penrose, Man Ray had spent many happy hours in the south of France with his then-lover Adrienne. The door, finally, is an allusion to André Breton, to his preoccupation with surrealism and its connotation of a “door to reality”. For Man Ray, it seemed to signify the painful entry into a new reality, or a symbol of “closing the door behind you.”
Very soon after the work was completed, an odyssey across Europe was to begin. After a failed escape from Paris by plane, he finally reached Portugal by train via Spain. On August 8, 1940, he embarked in Lisbon aboard the Excambion for New York.
In exile in America 1940-1951
In the late summer of 1940, Man Ray arrived in the port of New York. Although still an American citizen, he was a stranger in the country of his birth. He left behind not only his friends and his status as an artist in Paris, but also his most important works of the last twenty years: photographs, negatives, objects, and numerous paintings, including his masterpiece A l”heure de l”observatoire – Les Amoureux. Most of the works he had probably hidden with friends, yet numerous works were destroyed or lost during the war. Upon his arrival, Man Ray was seized by a deep depression. Moreover, his traveling companion and friend, the exalted Salvador Dalí, immediately attracted the attention of photo reporters, while he sank into insignificance. Dalí had managed to publicize his name and his art overseas all the years before, whereas Man Ray had stayed almost exclusively in Europe; so it was not surprising that Americans knew next to nothing about him. At an exhibition participation at the Museum of Modern Art in December 1940, only three old photographic works from the 1920s by him were shown, which received little attention alongside a multitude of more recent works by “down home” artists Edward Weston and Alfred Stieglitz. Despite his lack of artistic fame, Man Ray quickly found commissions as a commercial photographer, but the struggle to ever find recognition as an artist again was to occupy Man Ray for the rest of his life.
Without a patron or a respectable gallery, the situation looked bad for him as an artist in New York, and so nothing kept him there. If the Francophile Man Ray had initially considered New Orleans, he probably followed the general call, which many Europeans followed at the time, to go to Hollywood. During the war, Los Angeles, especially the resident film studios, supported the art scene more than any other U.S. city. Man Ray arrived in Hollywood as early as November 1940. Since former colleagues of his such as Luis Buñuel and Fritz Lang were already working successfully there, he also hoped to regain a foothold in the film business; but this was to prove to be a mistake: The commercially oriented studio bosses were not interested in “art” in Man Ray”s sense. He soon saw his career in film come to an end. Disappointed, Man Ray later recapitulated in his autobiography that he “… put the camera aside in the knowledge that his approach to filming was completely different from what the industry and the public expected of him.” Nevertheless, he remained in Hollywood for eleven years, working as an unofficial consultant on film projects or contributing objects or paintings as props. His only notable contribution remained Ruth, Roses and Revolvers (1945), a scripted episode for Hans Richter”s film Dreams That Money Can”t Buy, completed two years later, in which Alexander Calder, Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, and Fernand Léger also participated. In these years, Man Ray devoted himself increasingly to painting again, only occasionally reaching for the camera, and when he did, his second wife Juliet was the main subject. Juliet Browner, whom Man Ray had met in Hollywood in 1940, was young and lively and always inspired him to new ideas. He created numerous series of portraits of Juliet, which he added to throughout his life. Only his first wife Adon Lacroix, Kiki de Montparnasse and Lee Miller had previously had a similarly strong influence on the artist.
In the mid-1940s, Man Ray began giving sporadic lectures on Dadaism and Surrealism. During that time, he created numerous objects, which Man Ray called Objects Of My Affection. He exhibited ten of these objects at the Pioneers of Modern Art in America exhibition at the Whitney Museum in New York in 1946. The new works evinced humor and a certain self-irony; for example, Man Ray described the Object Silent Harp (1944), which consisted of the neck of a violin, as the “Violon d”Ingres of a frustrated musician. He can hear color as naturally as he can see tones.”. On October 24, 1946, he and Juliet Browner were married in a double wedding along with Max Ernst and Dorothea Tanning in Beverly Hills. Around 1947, Man Ray received the good news from Paris that his house in Saint-Germain-en-Laye and many of his works had been spared by the war. Together with Juliet, he set out for Paris in the summer to sift through the collection. With the exception of the painting Le Beau Temps, Man Ray shipped all the works to Hollywood. He returned to America in the fall of the same year. In 1948, he combined the works brought over from Paris with a new abstract geometric painting cycle, Equations for Shakespeare, for an exhibition titled Paintings Repatriated from Paris at the William Copley Gallery in Los Angeles. Strictly speaking, Equations for Shakespeare was a reprise of a series begun in Paris ten years earlier. For the exhibition at the Copley Gallery, a lavish catalog To Be Continued Unnoticed was produced, which, as an unbound folder, in addition to an exhibition catalog, also included numerous reproductions of work drawings, objects, and photographic works as well as exhibition reviews from earlier years in the characteristic nonsense style of the Dada magazines of the time, brought together in a conceptual context. The exhibition opening on December 13, 1948 was a major event and once again recalled the “good” Paris years. Numerous international visual artists, writers, and filmmakers were among the guests at Café Man Ray, as the vernissage was called in allusion to the Parisian coffee houses. Man Ray”s exhibition was both the culmination and conclusion of his work in Los Angeles. Despite the respectable success on the West Coast, Man Ray felt that the response of the public in the U.S. was too low, and so it was natural for him to return to Paris in 1951.
Return to Paris 1951-1976
In May 1951 Man Ray and his wife Juliet moved into a Paris studio apartment on Rue Férou, which he lived in until the end of his life. In the following years, despite intensive exhibition participation in Europe and overseas, it became quieter around the artist, who now preferred to devote himself to abstract variations or reproductions of earlier works (including Cadeau, reproduction 1974) and occasionally experimented with color photography. He also continued to pursue portrait photography; in the 1950s1960s, for example, he produced photographs of Juliette Gréco, Catherine Deneuve, and other fellow artists. At this time he also produced works in acrylic, such as the so-called Natural Paintings between 1957 and 1965, in which he experimented with random arrangements of impasto acrylic spreads (Decembre ou le clown, Othello II, 1963). In 1958 he participated in the exhibition Dada, Documents of a Movement at the Kunstverein Düsseldorf and in a Dada exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. The following year, 1959, he worked as a cinematographic consultant on Pierre Prévert”s short film documentary Paris la belle. In 1960 he was represented at the Photokina in Cologne; at the 1961 Venice Biennale he received the gold medal for photography. In 1963 Man Ray presented his autobiography Self-Portrait in London. For the fiftieth anniversary of Dadaism in 1966, Man Ray participated in a major Dada retrospective shown in Paris at the Musée National d”Art Moderne, the Kunsthaus Zürich, and the Civico Museo d”Arte Contemporanea in Milan. In 1966, Man Ray received his first major retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. In 1974, on the occasion of his 85th birthday, a solo exhibition of 224 works organized by Roland Penrose and Mario Amaya was held at the New York Cultural Center under the motto Man Ray Inventor-Painter-Poet, and was subsequently shown in 1975 at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, the Alexander Iolas Gallery in Athens, and finally at the Palazzo delle Esposizioni in Rome. Man Ray died in Paris on November 18, 1976. He was buried at the Cimetière Montparnasse. The inscription on his tombstone reads: “unconcerned, but not indifferent”.
His wife Juliet Browner Man Ray took care of Man Ray”s estate until her death in 1991 and donated many of his works to museums. She established the “Man Ray Trust” foundation. The foundation owns a large collection of original works and holds the artist”s copyrights. Juliet was buried next to Man Ray.
Many of Man Ray”s objects were created for the sole purpose of being photographed and were subsequently destroyed.
Man Ray remained enigmatic to many people, difficult to access, and only gained attention late in life. The sheer scope of his complex oeuvre makes it difficult to categorize him in terms of form and style. He united almost all directions of modern art of the early 20th century, which is why he was often generalized as a “modernist” or “innovator of modernism”. Along with Marcel Duchamp and Francis Picabia, Man Ray was the driving force of New York Dada, but even there he was clearly on the threshold of Surrealism. André Breton called Man Ray a “pre-Surrealist” because many of his works pointed the way for the later movement. Although Man Ray produced many writings with art theoretical approaches and reflections throughout his life, he himself was never really interested or involved in any manifestation or dogmatic superstructure of a particular art movement. With this “outsider position,” born partly out of necessity, and the urgent desire to constantly reinvent himself, he probably followed his friend and mentor Duchamp.
The French museum director and exhibition organizer Jean-Hubert Martin sketched Man Ray as “a tireless wanderer in the boundless realm of creativity. In photography, he tried out everything without ever allowing himself to be trapped in conventions. His oeuvre is incredibly diverse and quantitatively still not fully grasped. His numerous object assemblages, composed of all sorts of things, have a stimulating effect on the imagination.”
Typical of Man Ray”s work is the idea of constant mechanical repetition and reproduction, also in commercial terms, thus anticipating a fundamental principle of Andy Warhol and of Pop Art in general. Man Ray also has biographical similarities with Warhol: both came from poor immigrant families and later moved in higher social circles, from which they mostly drew their commissions, but were essentially loners.
Importance for photography
Man Ray moved from painting to photography and, in the process, erased the boundaries between “documentary-utilitarian” and “creative” photography: On the one hand, as a contemporary witness, he provided important photographic documents from the “infant years” of modern contemporary art in the 20th century; on the other hand, through his joy in experimentation, he expanded the spectrum of “light photography” of the time, at a time when it was believed that “everything had already been photographed through.” He portrayed almost all the important people of the cultural scene at the creative zenith of Paris in the 1920s, creating an oeuvre like only Nadar before him.
Man Ray triggered an important impulse for Surrealism with his variety of techniques, the photo collage, the rayogram – respectively solarization. By suspending the ordinary meaning of objects and giving them a dreamlike, sensual, even erotic component, he differed from his European contemporaries such as Moholy-Nagy or Lissitzky, who, following the ideas of the Bauhaus and Constructivism, sought the sober non-objective image.
The art theorist Karel Teige, on the other hand, described him as a “second-rate cubist painter who, thanks to the fashion of the time, became a Dadaist, stopped painting and began constructing metamechanical constructions – similar to the supremacist constructions of the Russians Rodchenko and Lissitzky – in order to eventually photograph them with a precise knowledge of the photographic craft.” Which highlights Man Ray”s dilemma that photography was not considered “art” for a long time: The Dadaists, dominated by literati, valued him as a friend and documentarian, but they denied him artistic recognition as a painter and photographer.
While most contemporary American artist colleagues and critics such as Thomas Hart Benton regarded him rather distantly-disparagingly as a “craftsman” – since photography was “inseparable” from mechanics and at most recognized Alfred Stieglitz, Paul Strand, and Edward Steichen – only Georgia O”Keeffe, who was herself concerned with the possibilities of photography, was willing to single him out as a “young painter with ultramodern tendencies. On the occasion of an exhibition at the Vallentine Gallery in New York, the critic Henry McBride called him “…an origin Dadaist and the only one of importance America has produced.”
For many photographers and filmmakers Man Ray was advisor, discoverer, teacher and spiritus rector at the same time: among them are well-known names like Eugène Atget, Berenice Abbott, Bill Brandt or Lee Miller.
Importance for the film
Man Ray produced only four short films in the 1920s, which, along with Buñuel”s and Salvador Dalí”s sensational works An Andalusian Dog (1928) and L”Age d”Or (The Golden Age), are considered pioneering works of poetic-surrealist experimental film. In addition, he mostly acted in an advisory capacity on other film productions. Through his acquaintances with René Clair, Jean Cocteau and other filmmakers in the early 1930s, Man Ray also became involved with the poetic realism of French cinema. Man Ray”s stylistic influence on cinematography can be found in numerous art films; for example, Marcel Carné, Jean Genet or Jean Renoir, or in the underground films of the postwar period by, for example, Kenneth Anger, Jonas Mekas or Andy Warhol.
In 2017, a spider native to Cuba was named after him: Spintharus manrayi.
Unless otherwise noted, the main article is based on the chronologically divergent monographs and reviews of works by Merry Foresta, Stephen C. Foster, Billy Klüver, Julie Martin, Francis Naumann, Sandra S. Phillips, Roger Shattuck, and Elisabeth Hutton Turner, some of which appeared in abridged form in the original English-language edition Perpetual Motif: The Art of Man Ray (German edition: Man Ray – Sein Gesamtwerk), Edition Stemmle, Zurich, 1989, ISBN 3-7231-0388-X. Notes on the technique are based on Floris M. Neusüss: Das Fotogramm in der Kunst des 20. Jahrhunderts. DuMont, Cologne 1990, ISBN 3-7701-1767-0.