Man Ray by Roland Penrose

1975 Thames and Hudson, London

I hadn't planned to read this book but after flicking through I just found myself going back to it on a regular basis and now I've finished it. I like the fact that the author is just as interesting as the person he's writing about. Roland Penrose was a promoter and collector of modern art and a close associate of the Surrealists in the United Kingdom. He was an artist, historian and poet among other things such as teaching the art of camouflage during the war. He moved to France in 1922 and not long after married the poet Valentine Boue whose face I used as inspiration for my painting Dream Garden. See below

Dream Garden by moi

Whilst there he got to know Picasso and Ernst and it was around this time that he may have met Man Ray. Back in Britain he organised the International Surrealist Exhibition 1936, which led to the establishment of an English Surrealist movement. He also co-founded the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA), a place I have visited many times. Here he is below with Man Ray at his back, Penrose seemingly wanting to land him a punch.

When Roland's marriage with Valentine broke up he began a relationship with photographer and model Lee Miller and later married her in 1947. They lived, amongst other places, in Hampstead, which was very popular with artists and poets back then. I can't resist adding an image of her, so here you go...

Lee Miller by Man Ray

As a photographer Lee had apprenticed herself to Man Ray in 1929 but became much more than that to him. She was his model, co-collaborator, lover and muse. She often shared his assignments, and apparently some photography attributed to Man Ray is actually hers. 

Roland's account of the early years show that Man Ray wasn't particularly successful for some time. I think that he was destined to be great though, partly because of that name, his surname describing a beam of light, so for me he becomes a 'Man in the spotlight', if you know what I mean. Christened Emmanuel Radnitsky to Russian Jewish parents in Philadelphia in 1890 he became Man Ray in his early twenties. Possibly this change was an early creative choice helping to fix his name in people's minds.

 "It's not what you know but who you know" came to my mind when reading about the people Man made contact with in his early career as some very influential figures were in his life. He put in the ground work though by studying architecture, engineering and lettering. However, he abandoned these to study painting whilst working in advertising and publishing. Penrose describes Man supporting himself as a commercial artist whilst studying art at night classes in New York where he visited the gallery of Alfred Stieglitz, an intellectual, aesthete, photographer, promoter, publisher, patron and collector. Stieglitz believed photography should be recognised as an art alongside avant-garde painting and sculpture which was reflected in the contents of his gallery. This idea became very important in the development of Man's photography.

After seeing the Armory Show (the first large Modern Art Show in America in 1913) Man embraced Cubism but then he met Marcel Duchamp around 1915, whose groundbreaking painting Nude Decending a Staircase had been on show. This friendship became a lifelong one and probably had the most profound influence in his work. They had very different backgrounds and a language barrier but they shared an independence of spirit and celebrated the subversive. In fact, Man Ray’s taste for using objects and experimenting with language came directly from Duchamp with whom he collaborated many times. Duchamp encouraged Man to move to Paris in 1921 where he promptly became part of the Dada and later Surrealist movements.

Dancer (Danger) 1920

In the piece above we see the influence of the machine age and in the piece below we see his use of the ready-made object which Duchamp pioneered ...

Compass 1920

Here's an example of his translucent coloured paper collage which seems to embody both these elements.

Revolving Doors (Series) 1916-17

And here are some rayographs which also convey similar ideas.

Although he was born and spent his early years in Philadelphia and New York, Man spent most of his life in Paris apart from when he had to flee back to his homeland during the war years, settling in Hollywood for about ten years then heading back to Paris in 1951.  Penrose recounts a fascinating life which wasn't always easy, especially during his early development and when having to rebuild his life in America. This is easy for us to forget with him being such a huge and successful figure in the History of Art.

 Man Ray with his wife Juliet and his 'smoking device' in their studio in the rue FĂ©rou, 1960s

1890 - 1976

Persistent Repetition of Phrases - The Caretaker

...And now for a bit of low-level noise. I haven't posted much under the label of Music as this is primarily a blog about art but here's something I listen to quite often when I settle in to do something creative. It could be termed 'ambient' but that doesn't really describe it too well. This music is very atmospheric and hypnotic due to the many repetitions of phrases. These phrases are often samples of scratchy old early 20th century ballroom music. This is the work of The Caretaker, James Kirby, who has been making music for many years and has recorded under various monikers. The name, which goes well with the music when you hear it, was taken from the haunted ballroom scene in Stanley Kubrick's film, The Shining.

Some of the pieces are reflections on memory loss; these he nails quite brilliantly in the way that the samples are retrospective and distant sounding but on a repetitious loop, just like a persistent but vague memory.
Track titles such as Lacunar Amnesia, Rosy Retrospection, Past Life Regression, False Memory Syndrome and Unmasking Alzhiemer's give you some idea of the atmosphere he is trying to evoke.

I find that I go back to listen time and again when I want to sit and paint. His music seems to instil a quietness in me as if there is a subtle sedative effect but without getting sleepy, also it's not distracting like some music can be. Through repetitive listening I've grown to be very attached to this album.


I've been working on this oil painting for a while, it's only small but seems to be taking me ages to finish it. I think this may be because I went on a journey with it by dividing up the canvas quite meticulously. The trouble is I can just keep on dividing and hence carry on ad infinitum without ever really feeling a finish point coming. I'm probably going to deal with this by adding another dimension in the form of some balsa wood, to create a relief...that should sort it out.

Here's another piece I'm working on. I quite like working on black paper and I received a bigger A3 pad for Christmas. I suddenly got a desire to do a self portrait in my new pad, but not a straight one, something with a bit of a design element to it to make it less like a traditional, representational portrait. So far just the drawing has emerged but now I'm having a think about what I'm going to do with the rest of it. Maybe some black and white lines. I'm definitely not going for a likeness though, that would just be too boring.

Finally it's done. I'm happy with the result. As I said above I would not be trying for a likeness in this portrait but rather what can be done with the shapes my face presented to me. By trying to avoid filling the space with light and shade to represent my face exactly, I have tried to use light and shade in an abstract way and with a strong leaning towards design. See below.

Clone: Self portrait 2015
Gouache on A3 black paper

Holiday Reading Electromagnetic - Modern Art in Northern Europe 1918 - 1931

One of my New Year's resolutions should be to not read so many books at the same time. This habit makes it harder to finish anything.  Over the Christmas I did complete a few art-related books though, such as these by Austin Kleon...


...these are handy and quick to read and are full of positive tips on how to make and promote your work. They are good if you find yourself floundering and need a boost or a sense of direction. Other family members of mine also enjoyed reading these over Christmas.

Also I enjoyed a short story by Honore de Balzac called The Unknown Masterpiece, recommended by a friend. I told this friend that I would get Robin to procure me this for Christmas but it turned out we had a copy anyway. It's an odd story but very enjoyable and insightful into the psyche of artists. Especially regarding the ego and competitiveness.

My favourite Christmas present this year from Robin was this wonderful book, Electromagnetic - Modern Art in Northern Europe 1918 - 1931. The front cover shows a work called Maleri by Thorvald Hellesen, painted in 1920. I haven't had a chance yet to get stuck into this book but I thought I'd share a few images with you. This publication represents the work of Scandinavian and Baltic artists who contributed to many transnational exhibitions from the beginning of the twentieth century but did not receive much recognition in their native countries and were not much included in the history of modernism as we know it.

There are many superb geometric abstract pieces represented such as this one...

Neoplastic Composition 1930
Franciska Clausen

...but unusually for me I was struck by these brilliant figurative pieces...

Foujita 1932
Charlotte Wankel

Young Man's Head 1922
Aleksander Krims

Cubist Self Portrait 1923
Vytautas Kairiukstis

...and here's the book Robin got me for my recent Birthday, Dada: Zurich, Berlin, Hannover, Cologne, New York, Paris.  It's a whopper and a bit of a struggle to read in bed (I need to have it suspended from the ceiling it's so heavy, in fact it weighs 3 Kilos) which is where I do most of my reading, hence the dark circles under my eyes... are a few images I've selected that stood out for me.

Head with Sign, Hand, Wheel, and Auto Horn 1922
or Z206
Angelika Hoerle

Industrial Farmers 1920
Georg Scholz

Kurt with his Merz sculpture (The holy Affliction) c. 1920
Kurt Schwitters

The Animal Tamer 1923
Francis Picabia

Happy New Year to all you art lovers out there!