Visual art: Man Ray Portraits

A double exposure of cross-dresser Barbette from 1926.
A double exposure of cross-dresser Barbette from 1926.
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A remarkable story of creative metamorphosis is reflected in Man Ray’s gallery of 20th century greats

TERENCE Pepper has his shirt sleeves rolled up. It’s a warm, damp Edinburgh day and the London-based photography curator is at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery with a team unpacking the extraordinary photographic history of an extraordinary century.

The greats of the avant-garde are arranged around the room. Here are ­Picasso, Braque and Erik Satie. There’s Aldous Huxley and Virginia Woolf. Writer and socialite Nancy Cunard has her arms clad in bangles so heavy that she could scarcely lift her arms. Ava Gardner broods under heavy studio make-up 
for the film Pandora And The Flying Dutchman.

The men are suited and booted: Jean Cocteau, Marcel Duchamp, Joan Miro. The women, well many of them, are in states of undress. This is the world through the eyes or lens of surrealist artist Man Ray, and with 100 works from 1916 to 1968, it’s an extraordinary selection. “The greatest people of the 20th century,” explains Pepper. “By one of the century’s greatest photographers.”

Born Michael Emmanuel Radnitzky in Philadelphia in 1890, Man Ray moved through many worlds. These included Brooklyn, where he grew up in a small apartment carefully rearranged to allow him a painting studio, and the artists’ colony of Ridgefield, New Jersey, where he flirted with anarchism and, in 1915, first met Marcel Duchamp, the French avant-garde artist who changed his life.

In 1921, skint and with only halting French, he would move to Paris. Despite wartime stints in New York and California, he would spend most of his life in the city, dying there in 1976.

Having taught himself photography to record his paintings, he helped artists document their work. One day in 1922, in Picasso’s studio on a job, he had a single frame left and took a picture of the artist. It was published in Vanity Fair.

His first exhibition in Paris had been a commercial disaster, but now Man Ray found the key to survival: commercial work alongside his thriving artistic life at the heart of a radical community of hard-partying artists. “He is part of the group and is their recorder,” says Pepper. “He is placed right there in the middle of the group and he has their confidence; it’s one thing to take a good photograph but you need that access.”

You will know many of these images, made famous by their reproduction. The American model and photographer Lee Miller, Man Ray’s lover and collaborator, topless in the hallucinogenic patterns cast by a lace curtain at her window. Kiki de Montparnasse, the famous Parisian artists’ model, in the palest of make-up, her perfect oval face matched with a tribal mask. “They are icons,” says Pepper. But when you see them in vintage prints, all made during the artist’s lifetime, they are often tinier than expected: grainier, less glamorous. With the patina of age, you get a sense of the texture of a lived life.

And, as a life, it was complex. In Paris, Man Ray’s relationship with Kiki was tempestuous; he was controlling at times but collaborative in his artistic instincts. “He would do her make-up, shaving and repainting her eyebrows, but it takes a really good model to work like that,” says Pepper. “It was a collaboration.”

One photograph shows Kiki at a Paris café, squinting in the sunlight with a brightly patterned scarf around her shoulders. The next moment it is wrapped around her head as the turban of an exotic odalisque in Man Ray’s Le Violon D’Ingres, the photo that turns her naked torso into the body of a violin. The sense of dressing up, of improvised play, is as clear as the experimentation and the brutality.

The famous story about Miller, who was Kiki’s successor, is that she turned up at his Paris studio only to be told that he was leaving for a holiday. She might, if she hurried, find him at a local bar. When she did find him, she announced, full of vigour, that she was his new student. “I don’t have students,” he was to tell her, “and I’m leaving Paris, I’m off to Biarritz.” She is said to have declared: “I’m your assistant and I’m coming with you.”

The love affair was competitive and short-lived. The couple collaborated in the darkroom and experimented in their erotic life. It had a dark side. There is a photograph of Miller naked, her leg stretched behind her, her hands at her neck. Later it would appear as a drawing with the title Suicide. When the couple were splitting up, they argued over an image of Miller taken by Man Ray. He amended the photograph with a razor and slash of red at her throat. “His letters show it was double standards,” says Pepper. “He couldn’t bear the thought of her with anyone else, but was happy to go with other people. She was a free spirit.”

Pepper laughs and simply shrugs when I ask him what was the reason for the unprepossessing Man Ray’s success with the great beauties of his age. In the photographs, he says, “the sex appeal of the subjects is clear. He crossed many boundaries that hadn’t been crossed before. There are, for example, pornographic works [not on display] but above all it’s the erotic imagination.”

Man Ray spent his life crossing boundaries and borders. The New Yorker at the heart of Paris. The anarchist who captured the Duchess of Windsor on camera. The ambitious painter who snapped socialites for a living. “After his Paris first exhibition when nothing sold, he became determined to do commercial work to survive,” says Pepper. “It seems strange to show a part of him he didn’t always want shown, but history has happened.” «

Twitter: @moirajeffrey

• Man Ray Portraits is at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh, Saturday until 22 September.