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The maverick genius of Man Ray

He was the American artist who came to embody Paris’ ‘crazy years’. CHRIS SULLIVAN examines a creative force whose work continues to inspire

Man Ray is a giant in the art world. His work, The Gift – a simple wrought iron clothes ‘iron’ with nails attached to its surface – hit Dada firmly on its dichotomous head while his photographic portraits, unconventional with their off-kilter framing and perspective, are not only ground-breaking but define Paris in the 1920s and ’30s as no other chronicler ever could.

A pantheon of 20th century artists and geniuses drawn from his immediate circle of friends and associates, his subjects, among many others, include James Joyce from Ireland whose book, Ulysses was the first word in Modernist Literature, Normand Marcel Duchamp who created the blueprint for art as we now know it and some of the greatest composers to ever live, such as Russian Igor Stravinsky. Then there was the 20th century’s most important painter Picasso, the architect who shaped the modern world, Le Corbusier, and the two fashion designers who forever changed the way women looked – Coco Chanel and Roman Elsa Schiaparelli. And what is apparent from these shots is that Man Ray was not some voyeur wheeled into record these transnational malcontents. He was one of them.

Ray was born Michael Emmanuel Radnitzky in southern Philadelphia in 1890 to a Russian Jewish tailor. The family moved to Williamsburg, Brooklyn in 1897 where, due to prevalent anti-Semitism, they changed their surname to Ray. As young Emmanuel was known as Manny, the change to Man Ray was but a step away.

After showing much promise in all things artistic he – having worked in his father’s sweat shop and much to his parent’s chagrin – settled on life as an artist, eking a living doing the odd illustration and enrolling in the Ferrer art school in the city.

Conveniently placed, by the age of 23 Ray was well versed in the new European art. He had been enough of a regular at eminent photographer and modern art advocate Alfred Stieglitz’s 291 Gallery at 291 Fifth Avenue, to paint the man’s portrait. Stieglitz is now regarded as one of the world’s greatest-ever photographers, responsible for breaking the likes of Matisse and Francis Picabia in the US. Ray’s decidedly Cubist painting of him offers an inkling as to his own future.

On February 17, 1913, Ray visited the Armory Show, one of the biggest and most important art exhibitions of the early 20th century. Held in the armoury of the US National Guard, in Manhattan, it featured works by, among many others, Cezanne, Van Gogh, Matisse, Picasso, Brancusi and most notably, Marcel Duchamp, with his sensational, Nude Descending a Staircase.

Undeniably, Man Ray was so taken by Duchamp’s work that he changed tack and decided that the Frenchman’s stance as an art terrorist who used the form to provoke and disarm was his only way forward.

The following year, he married the Belgian poet Adon Lacroix. Europe was beckoning.

But first, Ray moved out to an art colony in Ridgefield, New Jersey, and had his first solo exhibition in 1915. The same year he met Duchamp, who had emigrated to the US from Paris after the outbreak of the First World War. Though the two men were very different – Duchamp was privileged, classically taught and cerebral while Ray was disadvantaged, intuitive and jolly – their fraternal friendship, based on a penchant for the subversive and an overwhelming desire to invert and upset the status quo, grew.

In 1916 Man Ray, under the Frenchman’s massive influence, ditched traditional painting and assembled his first proto Dada object, Self Portrait. Consequently, their collaboration increased. Man Ray helped Duchamp with The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass), worked on Duchamp’s Kinetic art and photographed Duchamp dressed as a woman as his alter ego, Rrose Sélavy. In 1921 this odd couple published New York Dada – a magazine that, although devoted to the form, was met with indifference so they both upped and moved to Paris. ‘Dada cannot live in New York,’ proclaimed Ray, ‘All New York is Dada and will not tolerate a rival.’

As soon as they reached the French capital, Duchamp declared Ray the unofficial photographer of the Dada and Surrealist groups and, even though, the young American was entirely (perhaps befittingly) self-taught, he settled nicely into the role. He then found a home in Montparnasse (the famed artist’s quarter that Lee Miller stated in 1975 was the ‘centre of everything’) and fell in love with one of the scene’s premier faces, artist’s model and bon viveur, Kiki de Montparnasse. He set about creating his infamous Dadaist collages and photographing Bohemian Paris. Man Ray, was soon at the heart of all that was happening in this city of unlimited possibilities, his studio as much a place to be seen as the famed artist’s hangout as The Café de Flore.

Indeed, artists, outcasts and nonconformists had flocked to Paris after the First World War from all over the world in search of the liberté, égalité and fraternité that so marked the city. A great big boisterous heaving genius that never slept, Paris, in the 1920s, was the hub of the artistic world where debate, single mindedness, sexual experimentation and liberty ruled the roost and whose inhabitants – fiercely proud of their city and its ideologies – fought to preserve such.

During the early 20th century Paris had embraced all things alien including African Art – that fuelled the likes of Picasso and Matisse – and was booming. All was going swimmingly until the First World War when the front line, just 15 miles away, saw the Hun literally breathing down the city’s neck. Thus, when the war was over Parisian’s en masse uttered a great sigh of relief, lived as if every day was their last and discovered a lust for extravagance and hedonism that had the era named, ‘Les Années Folles’ or the ‘crazy years’. To add to the melee, refugees such as the White Russians flocked there to escape persecution alongside Jews who’d escaped the pogroms in the Ukraine.

In addition, hundreds of black American soldiers simply stayed on after the war. They loved Paris and Paris loved them while at home they were still being lynched. The French capital, with its burgeoning egalitarianism and its fascination with African arts, became the destination for these Afro-Americans until no hip party was complete without a black jazz band and Montmartre became known as Harlem sur Seine. Others followed such as 19-year-old Josephine Baker, who opened at La Revue Nègre at the Theatre Des Champs Elysees in 1925 and, often appearing in an outfit consisting only of fake bananas, became the toast of Paris.

Writers including John Dos Passos and Ernest Hemingway had also stayed on after military service only to be joined by among others Ezra Pound, James Joyce, F Scott Fitzgerald, Henry Miller, Samuel Becket and Anaïs Nin, while artists of every nationality congregated in this city of lights.

Appropriately, many a wealthy American decamped to the city. Some were at all not happy with Prohibition, others were gay, oppressed and harassed. Cole Porter, composer of such standards as I Get a Kick out of You moved there as did banking heir and poet (and extreme hedonist) Harry Crosby, heiresses Nancy Cunard and Peggy Guggenheim and real estate beneficiary Gertrude Stein. In 1920 there were an estimated 8,000 American expats living in the city but by 1925 they numbered 40,000. Indeed Paris, with its all night bars, eccentric sex shows, cross-dressing, gay bathhouses, naked saturnalias, brothels and overt cocaine must have seemed like Heaven.

Paris became this great big melting pot where race, colour and creed were of no consequence and where anything and everything went – the only common denominator being that everyone was proud to be a part of what was then the greatest and most tolerant city on earth.

Certainly, Ray’s work in Paris between the world wars leaves one with an indelible impression of avant-garde Paris that, peppered with moneyed aristos slumming it with cross-dressing artists and dandified poets, seems to have been one great big party where sexual ambivalence, eccentric excess and cross-pollination between the arts and artists were not only expected but applauded.

Of course, Ray’s photographs were often as mischievous as the era. He played with the medium, used visual puns, and exposed himself to the happenstance of objective chance, being entirely unafraid to turn a mistake into a feature. Namely, both his signature devices ‘solarisation’ and ‘Rayographs’ were the result of error – the former occurred after Lee Miller prematurely turned the studio light while the latter concept was fortuitously realised after he by placed an object such on a sheet of photosensitized paper that he exposed to light.

Looking back, even though he refused to join the Surrealist Movement, Ray’s shtick – as illustrated by his photograph, Le Violin de Ingres that sees the back of Kiki marked with f-shaped scrolls so that her figure resembles a violin whose music we could never hear – was fundamentally surreal.

Indeed, as a first-generation American, born of Russian-Jewish parents and raised in Brooklyn, Ray was a natural Surrealist as their membership mirrored the internationality of Paris at the time. Andre Breton was French, Tristan Tzara was Jewish-Romanian, Giorgio di Chirico hailed from Greece, Max Ernst and Méret Oppenheim were German, Joan Miro, Bunuel and Dali were Spanish, Picabia was Cuban-French, Magritte was Belgian and Kansuke Yamamoto obviously Japanese.

Fundamentally libertarian, socialist (with the exception of the right wing Dali, who was expelled for his refusal to take a stance against Franco’s fascist regime) and anti imperialist, the group was a reaction against the ‘rationalism’ that had guided European culture and politics in the past. Thus it was considered very groovy and as such, was embraced by creative types the world over.

Man Ray ploughed through the twenties, got over his break-up with Miller in 1932 and continued creating images that are now overwhelmingly familiar (such as Object to be Destroyed – his shot photograph of Miller’s eye attached to the pendulum of a metronome) and exhibited all over the world while supporting himself and his art with commissions from Vogue, Tatler and Vanity Fair. In 1934 he jumped ship to Harper’s Bazaar where he was doing rather well contributing a range of incredible fashion images that changed the way people looked at the form. He influenced Norman Parkinson, Horst P Horst and later Erwin Blumenfeld, Martin Munkácsi, Helmut Newton and Guy Bourdin and created the blueprint for all fashion photography to come while his visual puns inspired decades of advertising campaigns. He was on a roll.

His run of good fortune ended with that of his adopted city when, in 1940, the Germans subjugated Paris. Ray, as many other Jews, had no option but to flee the city and return to the US via Lisbon. He then settled in Hollywood, eventually abandoning fashion photography for fear that his commercial reputation was eclipsing his artistic one. He sometimes photographed the era’s movie stars but mostly concentrated on painting, occasionally teaching art at the Art Center School in LA.

Man Ray moved back to his beloved Paris in 1951 with his wife of five years, Juliet, and settled back in Montparnasse. By now a French institution, it’s said that each time he visited his favourite restaurant, La Coupole, in his dotage dressed in his trademark beret and horn rims, the staff and regulars stood up and applauded. He died in Paris aged 86 of a lung infection. His epitaph reads ‘unconcerned, but not indifferent’.

Man Ray epitomized the liberal, egalitarian, all-embracing ethic that made the Paris of the 1920s the centre of the artistic world and the greatest and most culturally influential decade in history where anything seemed possible. ‘Its never been my object to record my dreams,’ he said. ‘Just the determination to realise them.’

Chris Sullivan wrote for The Face, was GQ Style Editor, London correspondent for Italian Vogue and has regularly contributed to The Times, The Independent, Guardian and the FT

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