Monday, August 27, 2007

Unconcerned, But Not Indifferent

On August 27, 1890, Mr. and Mrs. Radnitzky, Russian-Jewish immigrants in their new American home in South Philadelphia, welcomed their son Emmanuel or “Manny” into the world. That son would condense his name over the years into the more famous moniker of Man Ray, one of the most influential artists of the 20th century. Even people with the most casual interest in art can recognize his famous Tears (above), which Man Ray created by placing tiny glass “tears” on the face of his model. Although photography was perhaps Ray’s finest medium, he excelled in sculpture and short movies as well, bringing his golden touch to whatever his brilliant mind could imagine.

After years of searching for his artistic voice, Ray attended the 1913 Armory Show in New York City and knew the direction his life would then take. He befriended Marcel Duchamp, one of the stars of that exhibit that first exposed America to the miracles of modernism, and embraced both Dada and Surrealism. In 1921, Ray moved to Paris to steep himself in modernism even more. With his colleague and lover, the photographer Lee Miller, Ray developed his version of the photogram, which he called the “Rayogram” (one example above). Placing everyday objects on unexposed film and then introducing light, Ray transformed to quotidian into the fantastical. Ray extended this technique to short films in which he’d scatter objects over long strips of film, expose the film, and then run the strips together in a projector, creating mystifying movies that defy description.

Ray’s brand of Surrealism lacks the violent edge that Salvador Dali’s sometimes could have. Unfortunately, Ray succumbed to the same brand of objectification of women that Dali and others could also indulge in. In Le Violon d’Ingres (above), Ray alludes to Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres’ practice of fiddling while he worked. By placing the “f” holes of a violin on a model’s back, Ray suggests that he also “fiddles around” while working, with a woman as his “instrument.” I love the imaginativeness that can appreciate the lines of the female form as a work of art the same way that a fine instrument is a work of art, but the objectification inherent in Ray’s title sours this image for me. Ray’s mistreatment of the beautiful, talented, and tragic Lee Miller may also color my judgment here.

Aside from Ray’s Surrealist works, my favorite images of his remain his portraits, especially his 1922 portrait of author James Joyce (above). Joyce suffered from severe vision problems and protects his eyes from the light in this pose, but Ray’s portrait captures the introspection and vulnerability of Joyce here wonderfully. Ray writes an entire biography of Joyce in a single image. Man Ray may have poked fun at his empathetic powers shown through his portraits in the epitaph he wrote for himself, "Unconcerned, but not indifferent." The list of famous artists Ray photographed (including a haunting picture of author Marcel Proust on his deathbed) documents the richness and diversity of the arts in Paris in the 1920s, a sea change in human consciousness in which Ray stood at the center. Not bad for an immigrant kid from South Philly.

1 comment:

doob said...

thank you for this entry. i myself am decidely drawn to futurism/constructivism/dada/surrealism/modernism, both as a student and practitioner of art/photography. it is nice to know that Man Ray's strength was photography. it will give me much inspiration to find more archives of his work.

(might you recommend some sources/books/links?)

your blog is so rich with knowledge that i linked a friend trained in classical fine art. did you train in art history?

found you through a google image search, when i was searching for the original of this tribute:

do you know the original piece?