Man Ray is perhaps one of the most accessible Surrealists, because his work is so broad and so versatile that there is something to which everyone can relate. The ‘Man Ray Portraits’ exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery certainly emphasises this; Ray’s work is shown chronologically over a period of several decades, and it is possible to trace developments in his work and to see changes of style and subject, but for the most part, he is flexible, versatile and changeable from the start. Probably his most famous portrait today is the marvellous solarised Portrait of Lee Miller (left), but this exhibition shows just how many collaborations he had, and how they influenced his work.
The exhibition opens by examining his early work, from 1916 onwards. It’s remarkable to note that Ray was a self-taught photographer, whose interest in the art was initially for the purpose of recording his own paintings for posterity. We see one such painting (or rather, a photograph of it), and it is indeed deeply Surrealist. But then, as his portraits show, he was close to Surrealists including Marcel Duchamp, Mina Loy and Dali, among others, whose work clearly influenced his ideas. His photography is more than experimental Surrealism, however; most of the exhibits here have amazing, grainy depths with striking contrasts between light and shadow, which are ‘vintage’ in many ways but manifest a modern, honest clarity. Yet alongside his artistic photographic experiments were fashion shots for Vanity Fair and Vogue, and portraits of a huge range of celebrities.
In the early twentieth century there seem to have been people who knew everyone (the Mitfords, for instance, or the Kennedys). Ray was nearly one of those, I think: his portraits include Ernest Hemingway, whose stare is inescapable; James Joyce, who seems to be posing pretentiously but turns out to be shielding his eyes following an operation on them; Arthur Schoenburg, Mary Butts, Picasso, Matisse, Jean Cocteau, Peggy Guggenheim (looking rather like Tracy Emin), and Stravinsky (who appears to be scratching his ankle whilst gazing on a vision), Coco Chanel and Elsa Schiaparelli, to name but a few. These aren’t just successive portraits of familiar names, though: there is something in his portraiture which makes you look closely, as though we can really see the person in the picture. From the soft-focus Lady Diana Cooper to the sharp, crisp outlines of his image of Lee Miller, Ray treats all his subjects differently, and this is what is so fascinating about this exhibition. From his surreal Le Violon D’Ingres to his almost erotic portraits of Suzy Solidar, to his serious portraits of Virginia Woolf and Aldous Huxley, there is a huge range here, and while Surrealism is rarely central to his work, it lingers on the sidelines in almost every piece.