Man Ray’s animating lens
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