It’s alive!

Man Ray’s an­i­mat­ing lens

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Just prior to 1910, a hand­ful of artists— Henri Matisse, An­dré Derain, and Pablo Pi­casso among them— be­gan to in­cor­po­rate el­e­ments of African and Oceanic art into their work, ini­ti­at­ing what would be­come a firestorm of ac­tiv­ity in the vis­ual arts that not only ap­pro­pri­ated non-West­ern art forms but also al­tered the pub­lic’s per­cep­tion of the world. In­deed, the stripped-down sim­pli­fi­ca­tion of shape and form in non-West­ern fig­u­ra­tion was in­te­gral to the de­vel­op­ment of Cu­bism and sub­se­quent styles of early 20th-cen­tury mod­ernist art. As a re­sult, pub­lic fas­ci­na­tion with African and Oceanic art was height­ened, par­tic­u­larly in France and Ger­many, as well as in pro­gres­sive art cir­cles in New York City.

The ex­hi­bi­tion Man Ray, African Art, and the Mod­ernist Lens — open­ing at The Uni­ver­sity of New Mex­ico Art Mu­seum on Fri­day, Feb. 5— ex­am­ines the role photography played in in­tro­duc­ing African art to the view­ing pub­lic. It sheds light on a se­lect group of pho­tog­ra­phers who took as their sub­jects tribal ob­jects from African cul­tures and ex­plores how their in­di­vid­ual aes­thet­ics in­flu­enced the pub­lic’s un­der­stand­ing of such non-West­ern cre­ations. “It is fairly uni­ver­sally agreed that artists work­ing in all medi­ums played an in­stru­men­tal role in chang­ing theWest’s per­cep­tions of African art and cre­at­ing an en­vi­ron­ment in which th­ese ob­jects be­gan to ac­quire the at­ten­tion they mer­ited,” said in­de­pen­dent cu­ra­tor and photo his­to­ri­anWendy A. Gross­man, or­ga­nizer of the ex­hi­bi­tion and au­thor of the ac­com­pa­ny­ing cat­a­log, via e-mail. “While this chap­ter of mod­ernism has been well re­hearsed in the prac­tice of painters and sculp­tors, the pho­to­graphic com­po­nent has been largely over­looked un­til now. As this ex­hi­bi­tion and re­lated schol­ar­ship il­lus­trates, how­ever, the pho­to­graphic in­flu­ence was im­mea­sur­able in a pe­riod in which such im­ages pro­lif­er­ated through mass re­pro­duc­tion and served as con­duits for the cir­cu­la­tion of ideas about the ob­jects.”

Along with Amer­i­can ex­pa­tri­ate artist and pho­tog­ra­pher Man Ray, who lived in Paris be­tween the wars and serves as the most prom­i­nent sub­ject in Gross­man’s study, more than 100 pho­to­graphs byWalker Evans, Charles Sheeler, Ce­cil Beaton, Mar­jorie Grif­fiths, Roland Pen­rose, Josef Sudek, and Carl Van Vechten, among oth­ers, are pre­sented in the exhibit— jux­ta­posed with 22 ex­am­ples of African art, some of which were the mod­els for the pho­to­graphs.

“Man Ray is the thread that holds to­gether this chap­ter of mod­ernism, given the pi­o­neer­ing and sig­nif­i­cant role he played in

trans­lat­ing African and Oceanic art into a mod­ernist aes­thetic,” said Gross­man. “He ap­proached African art much as he did the many found ob­jects that came across his path: with a pro­cliv­ity to an­i­mate inan­i­mate ob­jects with his ir­re­press­ible sense of play. His dis­re­gard for ‘doc­u­men­tary truth’ is re­flected in the man­ner in which he used light, shadow, and cam­era an­gle to thwart the viewer’s sense of per­spec­tive and scale. ... In so do­ing, he un­wit­tingly came closer to the rit­u­al­is­tic man­ner in which many of th­ese ob­jects orig­i­nally func­tioned.”

This may be seen in a circa-1934 se­ries of com­mis­sioned pho­to­graphs Man Ray made for col­lec­tor Charles Rat­ton, a Parisian art dealer, of the Bamileke fig­ure Njuin­dem (Bangwa Queen) from Cameroon and in his pho­tos of Do­gon ob­jects pub­lished in Cahiers d’art in 1936. In the for­mer, Man Ray’s var­ied view­points of the danc­ing fig­ure con­vey his at­tempts to ex­per­i­ment with dif­fer­ent lighting tech­niques to re­in­force the ob­ject’s sense of move­ment and to give it life be­yond its cer­e­mo­nial func­tion. Ad­di­tion­ally, Man Ray’s pho­to­graphic style re­veals his en­gage­ment with Sur­re­al­ism at the time. “Dra­mat­i­cally lit and shot from an oblique cam­era an­gle, the fig­ure comes alive, an­i­mated through the flick­er­ing of re­flected light across its body and around the base be­neath its feet. Man­i­fest in the dra­matic play of light and shadow is a Sur­re­al­ist aes­thetic that dom­i­nated his work dur­ing this pe­riod. The pho­to­graph also em­bod­ies the New Vi­sion, a term de­scrib­ing in­ter­war Euro­pean avant-garde ideas about rev­o­lu­tion­iz­ing vis­ual lan­guage through un­con­ven­tional pho­to­graphic prac­tices,” Gross­man writes in the cat­a­log.

The same fig­ure was pho­tographed by Evans when it was part of an ex­hi­bi­tion at the Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art in New York in 1935. The an­a­lytic ap­proach by Evans is very dif­fer­ent in tone from that of the more ex­pres­sive vi­sion of Man Ray. As Gross­man points out, Evans’ doc­u­men­tary style takes prece­dence over aes­thetic con­cerns. Evans’ “un­re­lent­ing vis­ual ex­am­i­na­tion of form— ap­par­ent whether his sub­ject was land­scape, ten­ant fam­i­lies, or African ob­jects — re­flects his de­sire to ground his prac­tice in the medium’s in­her­ent de­scrip­tive qual­i­ties and stay true to the doc­u­men­tary tra­di­tion in Amer­i­can photography.”

Rather than use mul­ti­ple light sources to re­veal a com­plete de­scrip­tion of an ob­ject’s form, shape, and tex­ture, as in Evans’ tech­nique, Man Ray’s use of one or two rak­ing lights im­bues his sub­jects with vis­ual drama. A Do­gon Sa­man mask from Mali pho­tographed by Man Ray in 1936, for ex­am­ple, comes alive in a the­atri­cal way by use of two light sources, one from the right and one from be­neath, the lat­ter of which cre­ates the il­lu­sion of the mask hav­ing oth­er­worldly, star­ing eyes.

The exhibit fea­tures Man Ray’s iconic pho­to­graph Noire et blanche (1926), cre­ated for Vogue in Paris. In a highly com­posed pic­ture, it jux­ta­poses the head of his mis­tress, Alice Prin— aka Kiki of Mont­par­nasse— along­side that of a cer­e­mo­nial Baule mask, which

she holds on a table­top. De­light­fully, both Ray’s pos­i­tive and neg­a­tive in­ter­pre­ta­tions of the im­age are in the show. “The in­clu­sion in the ex­hi­bi­tion of mul­ti­ple ver­sions of this fa­mous work of­fers vis­i­tors the rare op­por­tu­nity to dis­cover first­hand the unique na­ture of each print,” Gross­man said. Con­se­quently, one is in­vited to con­sider the many com­po­nents rep­re­sented in Noire et blanche: fem­i­nism, fine art, fash­ion, race and eth­nic­ity, the pair­ing ofWestern and nonWestern cul­tures, and pho­to­graphic ex­pres­sion.

Man Ray, African Art, and the Mod­ernist Lens is the re­sult of Gross­man’s study of photography and its con­tri­bu­tion to 20th­cen­tury mod­ernism. “I grew up with photography,” she said. “My mother was an am­a­teur pho­tog­ra­pher, and we had a dark­room in our house. In my work as a graphic artist (in a for­mer life), I found my­self in­creas­ingly drawn to the medium, tak­ing cour­ses in var­i­ous as­pects of photography.… At the same time, the role of photography in the de­vel­op­ment of mod­ernism be­came a cen­tral in­ter­est, as did the in­ter­sec­tion of mod­ernism with the em­brace of non-West­ern art by the avant-garde.” The exhibit and cat­a­log stem from Gross­man’s doc­toral dis­ser­ta­tion from the Uni­ver­sity of Mary­land.

Con­ceived by Gross­man in con­junc­tion with In­ter­na­tional Arts & Artists— a non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tion based in­Wash­ing­ton, D.C.— the ex­hi­bi­tion will travel to four venues, in­clud­ing The Uni­ver­sity of Bri­tish Columbia in Van­cou­ver. The UNM Art Mu­seum is the only in­sti­tu­tion in the west­ern United States to host the show.

Man Ray: Self-Por­trait, circa 1934, gelatin sil­ver print, © 2009 Man Ray Trust/Artists Rights So­ci­ety (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris.

Noire et blanche, 1926, gelatin sil­ver print, © 2010 Man Ray Trust/Artists Rights So­ci­ety (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris

Noire et blanche (neg­a­tive ver­sion), 1926, gelatin sil­ver print, © 2010 Man Ray Trust/Artists Rights So­ci­ety (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris

Un­ti­tled (Do­gon Sa­man mask), 1936, gelatin sil­ver print, © 2010 Man Ray Trust/Artists Rights So­ci­ety (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris (pho­to­graph by Man Ray)

Un­ti­tled (New Guinea mask, Sepik River), 1926 ©2010 Man Ray Trust/Artists Rights So­ci­ety (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris

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