Thursday, August 11, 2011

Man Ray: An American Artist in Paris

Great Artists

An original is a creation motivated by desire. Any reproduction of an original is motivated be necessity. It is marvelous that we are the only species that creates gratuitous forms. To create is divine, to reproduce is human.
Man Ray

I photograph the things that I do not wish to paint, the things which already have an existence.
Man Ray

To me, a painter, if not the most useful, is the least harmful member of our society.
Man Ray 

Man Ray [1890-1976]: Self Portrait. "Of course, there will always be those who look only at technique, who ask 'how', while others of a more curious nature will ask 'why'. Personally, I have always preferred inspiration to information."
Photo Credit: Carl Van Vechten [1880-1964]:  June 16, 1934.
Source: U.S. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division
Man Ray didn't start out with the intention of becoming a photographer. He was first a painter at which he received some notice. But it was as a photographer that he become known, a fame partly achieved by not only pushing the boundaries of photography, as a modernist, but by also being the only American to play a major role in the Dada and Surrealist art movements. He is also known for playing around with how to make distinct images without a camera by exposing photosensitive paper to light, a process resulting in photograms (Man Ray called his rayograms); and exposing a print to bright light during its development, or solarization.

Then, it might have been considered something akin to magic, to which Man Ray remarked years later in a 1967 interview in Popular Photography: "The tricks of today are the truths of tomorrow." At times this is true, but more often than not, they remain cheap gimmicks and tricks, long forgotten. In Man Ray's case, he had a following. And his photography sells for hundreds of thousands of dollars. For example, a solarized nude of Jacqueline Goddard (1930), a signed print, says, "sold for $374,500 at Sotheby’s New York in 2008.

He might also have been the first Jewish avant-garde artist, a label that he himself rejected. Although American-born, he spent a major part of his life in France, where he said he felt most at home. In the 1920s and '30s, Pablo Picasso James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Jean Cocteau and Antonin Artaud were among the famous people who posed for his camera. Even so, he was still an American in Paris, putting his native interpretation on his photographic renderings. He was naturally curious as to the way people looked and lived. His camera became an entree into people's worlds, if only for a short time.

Despite Man Ray's recognition as a modernist photographer, he worked in many mediums, including pencil, painting, and the use of ready-made objects that he incorporated into his art. Some of his known works are A Night at Saint Jean (1929), Electricity (1931), a rayogram; and The Father of Mona Lisa (1967). Art News magazine, in May 1999, listed Man Ray among the 25 most influential artists of the 20th century, for his photography and "explorations of film, painting, sculpture, collage, assemblage, and prototypes of what would eventually be called performance art and conceptual art."

Man Ray: In Paris, 1975. "A camera does not make a picture. To make a picture, you need a camera, a photographer, and a subject. It is the subject alone that determines the interest of the photograph."
Photo Credit: Lothar Wolleh, 1975.
Source: Wikipedia
The Early Years

Man Ray was born Emmanuel Radnitsky to Melach Radnitsky and Marnya Radnitsky (nee Louria) in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on August 27, 1890. The Radnitskys were Jewish immigrants from Russia. The family lived at 418 carpenter Street in Philadelphia's South Side. The parents were married by a rabbi in the spring of 1888, the same day Maryna stepped off the ship in New York City. They moved to Philadelphia just before Emmanuel was born when Melach was offered a better paying job.

They resided in Philadelphia for seven years, where two more children followed: Samuel in 1893 and Devorah in 1895. The Radnitsky family returned to New York City and settled in Brooklyn's Williamsburg area, where where Elka was born in 1897. They settled into a three-room flat on De Bevoise Street. The family moved a number of times, a common practice then, and eventually resided on Broadway in a double apartment with an extra room , which Emmanuel used as a studio. The family were traditional in their following of Judaism. Emmanuel had a bar mitzvah, at age 13, in 1903.

Emmanuel's father was a garment-factory worker who also ran a small tailoring business out of the family home. His mother helped out, as did all the children. This had an early influence on his later creative efforts. He attended Boys High School in Brooklyn (1904-1908), where he learned enough about drafting and artistic techniques to provide a grounding for his future work. "I came out with a complete technical training in the fundamentals of architecture, engineering and lettering," he said.

In 1908, he was offered a grant to study architecture, but refused it, which disappointed his parents' aspirations of upward mobility. In 1912, the family changed their last name to Ray, largely to guard against anti-Semitism sentiment that was fermenting in the United States. Emmanuel, who was called Manny, took on the shortened version of Man, and started calling himself Man Ray. Around the same time, Man Ray moved to Springfield, New Jersey, where he tried to establish an artist community. He also began work as an advertising draftsman, a profession that he held until 1919.

One of his early influences was Alfred Stieglitz; Man Ray was a regular visitor to Alfred Stieglitz's 291 gallery in New York City, where he was exposed to current art trends and earned an early appreciation for photography. It is there that he also met Marcel Duchamp, the French artist associated with the Dada and Surrealist movements, with whom he would form a long relationship. He bought his first camera in 1915, initially to photograph his paintings. In October to November 1915, Man Ray had his first one-man show at the Daniel Gallery: thirty paintings and some sketches. After the closing, Arthur J. Eddy bought six paintings for $2,000. By December 1915, Man Ray moved back to New York City to Lexington Avenue.

By 1917 Man Ray started developing his own ideas of art and artistic convention, Wikipedia  says:
During this time he began to gain a reputation within the New York avant-garde art community for his advanced intellect and defiance of artistic convention, and, with Duchamp, he founded Société Anonyme, an organization dedicated to promoting international avant-garde art and artists in the United States. Man Ray moved to Paris in 1921 to gain exposure to the newest European art movements, and while there he was an active and influential member of the Dada and Surrealist art movements.
Portrait of Man Ray and Salvador Dali, Paris: ""There is no progress in art, any more than there is progress in making love. There are simply different ways of doing it," Man ray said in a 1948 essay, "To Be Continued, Unnoticed."
Photo Credit: Carl Van Vechten [1880-1964]:  June 16, 1934.
Source: U.S. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division

 The Paris Years

Once installed in Paris, arriving on July 14, 1921, Man Ray became associated not only with Marcel Duchamp, but also with other influential members of the Dada movement. It began during the First World War as essentially a protest movement and whose purpose through theatrics and humour was an attempt to shake up the melancholy of post-war period. It was essentially defeatist in nature and action and looked at the world as absurd. Its adherents included Hans Arp, Max Ernst, Francis Picabia and the poet Tristan Tzara. It lasted a few years and by 1924 melded or was overtaken by Surrealism. An example of Man Ray's work from that period is Rayograph (1923). 

Man Ray also became a commercial photographer, probably as a way to earn a better and more secure living. As one biography website says:
Man Ray also pursued fashion and portrait photography and made a virtually complete photographic record of the celebrities of Parisian cultural life during the 1920s and '30s. Many of his photographs were published in magazines such as Harper's Bazaar, Vu, and Vogue.
By 1923, he said: "I am an established photographer." He also made a number of short modernist films, including Le Retour à la Raison (1923), Emak-Bakia (1926); L'Étoile de Mer (1928); and Les Mystères du Château de Dé (1929).

To Hollywood and Back

During the Second World War, Man Ray left Europe resided in Hollywood, California from 1940 to 1951. Man Ray married twice. His first wife was Adon Lacroix,a Belgian poet whom he met in New York in 1913, married in 1914. They were separated in 1919, and were formally divorced in 1937. He had a number of love affairs in Paris, including with Alice Prin (Kiki de Montparnasse) and Lee Miller, a photographer of the Surrealist school.

While back in America, Man Ray met Juliet Browner, a first generation Rumanian-Jewish dancer and experienced artist’s model. In a double wedding in Beverly Hills, California, in October 1946, Man Ray married Juliet Browner and Max Ernst married Dorothea Tanning.

Man Ray and Juliet Browner moved to Paris after the war in 1951. In Paris Man Ray concentrated his energies on painting, which he did until his death. Man Ray died of a lung infection in Paris, France, on November 18, 1976; he was eighty-six. He is buried at Cimetière du Montparnasse, Paris. His epitaph reads: “unconcerned, but not indifferent.”

Note: A good biography of the artist is Man Ray: American Artist by Neil Baldwin.