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

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