Man Ray portraits bring real glamour to the National Portrait Gallery

I had lunch in the splendid National Portrait Gallery restaurant on Saturday with its panoramic views across London and where you almost meet Lord Nelson eye to eye on top of his Trafalgar Square column and where you don’t need a watch because you can tell the time by Big Ben.

After lunch I walked down The Mall seeing St James’ Park in its spring colours  before arriving at a Buckingham Palace that was fighting not to be upstaged by a particularly magnificent tulip display.

Those were all incidental pleasures though because the day centred around the impressive exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery dedicated to the photographic portraits of the great American modernist painter and photographer Man Ray (1890-1976). I hardly dared to take any photographs all day.

Man Ray saw himself as a Modernist artist at first working with the avant-garde Dada movement in New York and then Paris and later as a Surrealist. We, however, mostly know him as a photographer and this giant London exhibition of his portraits (until 27th May) is billed as the first major retrospective of his work ever to be seen in the UK. If you haven’t been already and if you love the art of photography, well, I don’t need to tell you that you need to get yourself over to the NPG before the show finishes at the end of May.

Self-portrait with camera 1930

Le violon d’Ingres 1924
Marcel Duchamp, New York 1916

Enjoyably challenging as his art was, many of his most beautiful photographic portraits are classically posed and sensationalist-free like this wonderful Brando-like portrait of one of his best friends, the Modernist artist Marcel Duchamp. The impressive list of sitters is really a list of his friends and acquaintances and some of the best are of his male friends, the artistic elite living in Paris during the 1920s and 1930s including Picasso, Cocteau and Stravinsky. There are some glamourous society portraits of fashionable women friends such as Peggy Guggenheim and Coco Chanel but, most striking of all are the photographs of his several mistresses and models such as the beguiling Lee Miller, my favourite, a photographer herself, who also worked as his assistant and co-invented his famous bleached style known as solarisation, the exotic Kiki de Monparnasse, seen above in his surrealist photograph, Le violon d’Ingres, 1924 and, lower down, in the startlingly haunting Noire et blanche, 1926, Jacqueline Goddard, one of his favourites in the 1930s and finally Juliet Browner later his wife who is the face of his 1940s. photographs. If the later images are less memorable than the ones taken in his Parisian heyday, at least, he lived long enough to capture a young Catherine Deneuve in the best of his late photographs. After seeing some of these pictures, you have to feel very confident to look at yourself in the mirror.

Jean Cocteau 1925

Georges Braque 1922

Pablo Picasso 1923

Rene Crevel, Tristan Tzara and Jacques Baron 1922

Peggy Guggenheim in a dress by Paul Poiret 1924

Coco Chanel 1935

Wallis Simpson 1935

Noire et blanche 1926

Solarised Portrait of Lee Miller c. 1929

Lee  Miller 1930
Lee Miller (Fashion Portrait) 1929

Jacqueline 1930

Juliet 1947
Catherine Deneuve 1968

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