Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Review: Man Ray Portraits at the National Portrait Gallery

Man Ray Portraits at the National Portrait Gallery in London is recommended for all those interested in portraiture whether by painting or photography.  The exhibition is a retrospective and chronological survey 150 vin­tage prints from Man Ray’s career taken between 1916 and 1968.  It's a one-off with many of the vintage prints never previously exhibited in the UK

Those interested in the history of the modern arts world in the first half of the 20th century in Europe will also find  it very interesting.

Entrance to Man Ray Portraits
This major photographic exhibition opens to the public on Thursday 7 February 2013.

It's the first museum exhibition to focus solely on Man Ray's photographic portraiture.  Amongst the 150 prints on display are works which have never previously been exhibited in the UK including studies of Barbette, Catherine Deneuve, Ava Gardner, Lee Miller and Kiki de Montparnasse.

The prints have been drawn from private collections - including the Sir Elton John Photographic Collection and the collections of major museums including the Pompidou Centre, the J. Paul Getty Museum and New York’s The Museum of Modern Art and Metropolitan Museum of Art, and special loans from the Man Ray Trust Archive.  The majority of the prints on display have not previously been exhibited in the United Kingdom.

My impressions were that this exhibition is
  • a landmark - most of us are unlikely to see an exhibition of this size devoted to the work of Man Ray again in our lifetime
  • an essay on modern arts in the first half of the 20th century.  Everybody he photographs are either "somebody" in the arts world or one of his muses/models/lovers
  • a dance on the edge of surrealism - friends with a lot of Surrealists, some mind-bending photographs which "pun" on other classic images but not quite a Surrealist at the end of the day
  • an education in how to create a portrait
  • an education in how to make photographic portraiture iconic and/or interesting.
"I paint what cannot be photographed, that which comes from the imagination or from dreams, or from an unconscious drive. I photograph the things that I do not wish to paint, the things which already have an existence."
Undated interview, circa 1970s; published in Man Ray: Photographer, 1981

Some facts about Man Ray (1890-1976):
  • born in 1890 to Russian Jewish immigrants living n South Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S. (Interestingly a number of the loan prints come from Israeli Museums)
  • his name was Emmanuel Radnitzky ; he changed it to Man Ray later
  • he initially worked as a commercial artist and technical illustrator for design companies in Manhattan
  • age 23, he was very influenced by the European art on display at the Armory Show in 1913
  • age 31, he moved to France in July 1921
  • he considered himself a painter and took photographs to finance his painting;
  • he became a distinguished photographer and photographed significant members of the art world and was also commissioned by Vogue and Vanity Fair to produce photo portraits of other distinguished members of the arts
  • he was associated with - but on the fringes of - the Surrealist group in Paris during the 1920s and 30s (the exhibition includes a portrait of a young Salvador Dali)
  • he moved back to the USA when the Germans invaded France and lived in Hollywood; in later years he moved back to Paris
  • he was an innovator and created new ways of taking photographs
In my view the man has an unerring eye for creating a great image.  Some of the most fascinating images are those which include crop marks  and you can see how he would take a first photo and improve on it.

Left to right - Man Ray self-portrait, 1932; Barbette, 1926; Helen Tamaris, 1929;

The exhibition brings together photographic portraits of cultural figures and friends including Marcel Duchamp, Berenice Abbott, Andre Breton, Jean Cocteau, Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, James Joyce, Erik Satie, Henri Matisse, Barbette, Igor Stravinsky, Yves Tanguy, Salvador Dali, Le Corbusier, Virginia Woolf, Aldous Huxley, Coco Chanel and Wallis Simpson. Also on show are portraits of his lovers Kiki de Montparnasse (Alice Prin) and Lee Miller, who was also his assistant, Ady Fidelin and his last muse and wife Juliet Browner.

Here are some images from the exhibition.

The beginning of the exhibition
It comprises one large gallery separated by a tall wall to create two long galleries (inward and outward)
On the left is the iconic solarised photograph of Lee Miller
Solarisation occurs when a photographic print is partially developed, then exposed to white light.
separated by partitions for the different era and locations
The walls are dense with photographs - and some are very small
In the centre is the Violon d'Ingres - a photograph of Kiki de Montparnasse which puns on a work by Ingres
His portraits include a number of artists who were his peers - and who were also in Paris
This is Georges Braque (1922) and Pablo Picasso (1922)
Two Authors in 1922
Ernest Hemingway and James Joyce
Images of Kiki Montparnesse on the left.
Schoenburg and Igor Stravinsky in the middle
Solarised photographs: self portrait on the wall, images in magazines
Moving through the 1930s to the Hollywood yearsFollowing the outbreak of World War II, Man Ray left France
for the USA and took up residence in Hollywood where he painted
and photographed film stars
Exhibition Catalogue

This is one of those occasions when I definitely recommend you buy the illustrated catalogue - if for no other reason then you'll be able to see some of the images better in the book.  Many of his prints are small and the book includes larger versions.

Besides all the images, the catalogue also includes:
  • a preface by Terence Pepper, the curator of Photographs
  • an introductory essay by Marina Warner, writer, art critic and Professor in the Department of Literature, Film and Theatre Studies at the University of Essex; and 
  • an extensive illustrated chronology of the life and career of Man Ray by Helen Trompeteler, Assistant Curator of Photographs at the National Portrait Gallery and author of Camera Portraits (her blog)
Exhibition and Tour

You can see the exhibition
I think this exhibition is going to be very popular.  There's a lot to see and the layout suggests the gallery may at times become crowded - so I'd suggest aiming to view this exhibition at quieter times of the day (and evening) and less popular days of the week if at all possible

Advanced booking at the NPG is recommended - and you can see details and the ticket website page at the end

Man Ray Portraits From 7 February until 27 May 2013
Admission: Gift Aid admission £14; Concessions £13 / £12; Standard price admission £12.70; Concessions £11.80/£10.90 

Tickets available from

National Portrait Gallery, St Martin’s Place WC2H 0HE, 
opening hours Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Saturday, Sunday: 10am – 6pm (Gallery closure commences at 5.50pm) Late Opening: Thursday, Friday: 10am – 9pm (Gallery closure commences at 8.50pm) 
Nearest Underground: Leicester Square/Charing Cross 
General information: 0207 306 0055 
Recorded information: 020 7312 2463 

Please note subscriptions only become live after you have verified the link in the email you will receive


  1. Bonjour,
    Une exposition qui ne doit pas manquer d'intérêt...
    Merci pour cette publication.
    Gros bisous.

  2. Fabulously interesting post and photos, Katherine. I have to see if I can find anything out about the lady with the wild hair...was it Helen Tamaris (did not scroll back up to check myself...)?

  3. One aside, Man Ray didn't actually come up with solarisation. It was Lee Miller who stumbled across the effect when she accidentally exposed the film to light at the wrong time. It's always been attributed to Man Ray, however, as he used it so often in his work and the original photo that was accidentally solarised was one which he had taken.

  4. Thanks for this review. When I went to the exhibition I couldn't get in, so I simply bought the catalogue. I'm guessing from your review that I can get everything from the exhibition from the catalogue.

    When I came to develop my own thoughts on the exhibition I realised how difficult it is to appreciate 'revolutionary' art after the revolution is over and the revolution has become the establishment. THe frisson of excitement the first viewers of the images must have had have long gone, and you are left with an intellectual rather than emotional response.


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