“I have finally freed myself from the sticky medium of paint, and am working directly with light itself.” So enthused Man Ray (born Emmanuel Radnitzky) in 1922, shortly after his first experiments with camera-less photography. He remains well known for these images, commonly called photograms but which he dubbed “rayographs” in a punning combination of his own name and the word “photograph.”
The son of Jewish immigrants—his father was a tailor and his mother a seamstress—Radnitzky grew up in New York City, where he studied architecture, engineering, and art, and became a painter. This nickname answered a need for integration. When his family arrived in America, they were fleeing the Jewish pogroms instigated by Tsar Alexander III of Russia. The Radnitzkys then became the Rays upon arrival to the United States.
As a young man, he was a regular visitor to Alfred Stieglitz’s “291” gallery, where he was exposed to current art trends and earned an early appreciation for photography. In 1915 Man Ray met the French artist Marcel Duchamp, and together they collaborated on many inventions and formed the New York group of Dada artists.
In 1922, six months after he arrived in Paris from New York, Man Ray made his first rayographs. To make them, he placed objects, materials, and sometimes parts of his own or a model’s body onto a sheet of photosensitized paper and exposed them to light, creating negative images. This process was not new—camera-less photographic images had been produced since the 1830s—and his experimentation with it roughly coincided with similar trials by Lázló Moholy-Nagy. But in his photograms, Man Ray embraced the possibilities for irrational combinations and chance arrangements of objects, emphasizing the abstraction of images made in this way.
Man Ray’s experiments with photography carried him to the center of the emergent Surrealist movement in Paris. Led by André Breton, Surrealism sought to reveal the uncanny coursing beneath familiar appearances in daily life.
With Eluard, Man Ray became the illustrator for Les Mains Libres, published in 1937. The realization of this work is based on the automatic writing and drawing of the two artists. Both Man Ray and Eluard devoted themselves to the two exercises, to then, be able to choose. Eluard’s collection of poems then come to illustrate Man Ray’s drawings. The goal was for the reader to have a true experience of surrealist thinking.
In 1940 Man Ray escaped the German occupation of Paris by moving to Los Angeles. Returning to Paris in 1946, he continued to paint and experiment until his death. His autobiography, Self-Portrait, was published in 1963 (reprinted 1999).
Man Ray adored painting the female body. Women were always very present in his work as well as in his existence. His artistic life and love life is nearly impossible to untangle, both being sources of creation. A real exchange existed with his models. Some were muses, like Kiki de Montparnasse, Nush Eluard, Juliet Browner… Others were felllow artists like Lee Miller and Dora Maar. Each relationship brought him a new source of inspiration and a different point of view.
Female portraits is that part of Man Ray’s diverse legacy that leaves me most fascinated as a viewer. These works are quite explicit yet there is a great mystery to them. The body becomes a pure art object and an instrument for creative experiment. No playing with the instincts or with what is considered fashionable or most attractive at the moment.
Please enjoy my selection of the finest female portraits by Man Ray.
WOMAN WITH LONG HAIR, REFLECTIONS and THE LOVERS make part of the curated collection of https://www.controforma.it/ and are currently available for purchase.
“PERSONALLY, I HAVE ALWAYS PREFERRED INSPIRATION TO INFORMATION.”
– Man Ray
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