This exhibition investigates the lesser-known part of Man Ray’s work – a versatile artist connected to the Dada movement, a man who immortalized Paul Poiret and Coco Chanel, working for prestigious magazines such as Harper’s Bazaar, Vanity Fair and Vogue. This exhibition is an exploration of the relationship between “art for art” as well as commissioned productions
Scheduled in Marseille at the Cantini Museum until March 2020, the exhibition will continue in Paris (Luxembourg Museum 9/4 – 26/7 2020). “Man Ray and fashion” offers about 200 fashion photos taken by the American artist for magazines of the time.
Man Ray is best known for his daring photographic experiments in a Dadaist and surrealist key, but also for his short films and his “manipulated objects”, like the famous “Iron with nails”.
Dealing with fashion was therefore neither immediate nor spontaneous in the artist’s journey, however this aspect played an important role in the development of his style. Thanks to the exhibition, part of a series of events, “Man Ray and Fashion” sheds light on the importance that his work gained in the cultural debate of the time, outside the artistic circles of the avant-gardes.
He was born in the United States from a family of Jewish origins with the name of Emmanuel Rudnitzky. However, the world will always remember him as “Man Ray”, the name he later gave himself. A fundamental moment in his career would be the encounter with Duchamp. Having become a point of reference in America for European avant-gardes, Duchamp would introduce him to Dadaism, a movement born in Switzerland in 1916 and that soon landed in New York after spreading to Europe. It was a radical artistic phenomenon due to a rejection of the present, society and bourgeois aesthetics, revolutionizing the concept of art. New saw this fruitful combination of photography and Dadaism, created in the circles of artists who gravitated around the “Gallery 291“, where Man Ray could often be found.
However, Man ray’s big break came when he reached Marcel Duchamp in Paris in 1921, who had preceded him by a few months. Thanks to Duchamp, he would be introduced into the lively Parisian artistic circles. In the mid-1920s, he approached Surrealism, a new avant-garde that Man Ray would find extremely stimulating in order to represent the unconscious that defined this movement.
In the French capital, Man Ray, in parallel with his artistic research, began to create photo shoots for fashion magazines such as Vogue and Vanity Fair. Later, from the 1930s onwards, he worked for the American magazine, Harper’s Bazaar. The conditions for this to take place were almost perfect, given that that era represented the golden age of costume and fashion periodicals. These publications, in order to gain prestige, would use the work and contribution of famous artists, who were in some ways forced to accept this mainstream work in order to make ends meet.
In the publishing field, fashion magazines were part of an elite group, albeit aimed at a smaller audience. They played a fundamental role in the collective imagination, directing the perception of the new role that the women were assuming in the West. Magazines like Harper’s Bazaar, together with Hollywood, were the leading voices and partly the creators of the American way of life.
As a result, Man Ray also came into contact with the great Parisian couturiers, who from simple tailors were now becoming designers. These creators included Elsa Schiaparelli, quite close to the surrealist circles, and Paul Poiret, famous for the long flowing robes that had freed women from uncomfortable corsets.
Nevertheless, Ray’s work in the field of fashion was not detached from his artistic career. In fact, it was tightly interwoven. Ray brought the quality, sensitivity and originality of his artistic experiments to his fashion photography. The photo “Black and white”, taken for Vogue, speaks for itself. He ended up considering commercial and mainstream photography as an integral part of his art and an opportunity for reflection on the relationship between expressive freedom and the constraints of commissioned work. Specifically, it was a mistake during the development of a photo for Poiret’s collection that led him to the invention of rayographs – photographs created without a dark room, with images obtained by placing objects directly on the photosensitive plates. This was his most well-known and copied photographic technique.
Once again, the moment in time favoured the development of these insights, due to the fact that the magazines he worked for were strongly oriented towards innovation and open to experimentation. In November 1922, Vanity Fair published an article on rayography entitled “A new method to develop the artistic potential of photography”. This title anticipated what would happen later, with the continuous and reciprocal exchange of techniques and styles between artistic and commercial photography, to the mutual benefit of both artistic fields.
Anna Maria Calabretta