With Man Ray: The Paris Years, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts gives us an up-close look at the center of the art world a century ago — post-pandemic, between world wars — through the eyes of brilliant photography pioneer Man Ray.
People emerge from the cultural sleep of a pandemic, their faces deepened, the world uneasily different. The visions brought on by our collective fever dream find both form and urgency of expression. This is Virginia in 2021. It was also Paris in 1921, in the aftermath of the Spanish Influenza.
The VMFA’s Man Ray: The Paris Years exhibit begins with a step through a curtain and the hundred-year veil between that roaring decade and today. The show boasts 106 photographs curated by the museum’s Chief Curator, Dr. Michael Taylor. Originally slated for an indeterminate future date, the exhibit was placed on a more defined schedule during the three months in which the VMFA was closed due to Covid-19.
“I was actually able to write this catalog and do it while I was at home, and we were trying to do the budget and deal with everything going on. It was actually a joy,” says Taylor. “I’d done the research, I’d been into the Getty, I’d read all of Man Ray’s diaries and letters. I’d actually not negotiated a lot of the loans, because at that time we thought it was a smaller show. But I knew through my network of friends and colleagues that they would step up, and they would agree. The Getty, for example, lent eight photographs. They never lend eight photographs. But everyone understood this was a show to support.”
Impressive as it may be for a museum to assemble a show of this scope in such a short time frame, the narrative in which the pieces are employed is an astonishing work of art in itself. “The story of Man Ray and Paris has been told, but it’s usually been told through the lens – pardon the pun, it’s a photography show – of Man Ray’s innovations; the Rayograph, Solarization, his friendships, and his network. But what about the subjects?” says Taylor. “We took inspiration from the photograph on the cover of this show. It’s the first work you see in the exhibition. This is actually Man Ray taking your portrait. In other words, […] even though it’s called a self-portrait, a camera is photographing him, but he is looking at you with his camera. So we started to think about not just telling Man Ray’s story, which is fascinating, but the story of the sitters, the subjects, the models.”
Behind the curtain is a Paris of lore. Not the boulevards and cafes, but the personalities that defined a generation of artistic expression, and shaped the future of art and literature itself. Gelatin silver prints of Gertrude Stein’s hard literary eyes. Edna St. Vincent Millay’s sorrow and optimism. Hemingway’s stubborn boyhood in a ridiculous felt hat. William Carlos Williams staring ambitiously at death. Jean Cocteau seated under the weight of his own visions in a three piece suit.
A standout portrait of Proust on his deathbed breaks the extravagant momentum. Presented in shadowbox, the photograph is ethereal, made more of deep, soft-edged shadow and light than likeness. There is a sense of falling into this image and not being able to leave – as if it is a portrait of death itself.
As the show winds through the two decades between the end of the pandemic and the start of World War II, each portrait is presented with a biographical paragraph in both English and Spanish — a first for the VMFA, and part of a larger effort to bring inclusivity and accessibility to the museum experience. These exhaustively researched labels succinctly thread the personal narratives of the subjects through that of Man Ray and the artistic movements of 1920s and 30s Paris. Much of the credit for the chronologies that inform these plaques – and therefore the continuity of the show – belongs to Madeleine Dugan, an undergraduate student at VCU who worked beside Taylor throughout the curatorial process.
While the primary focus of the exhibit is on portraiture and the radical expressiveness of his subjects – from the vanguards of femme moderne culture to aerialists in drag – there are some detours into avant-garde Rayography and cinema. This diversity of expression is resonant with Man Ray’s professional dedication to dismantling boundaries – those of gender, race, and national identity, as well as artistic traditionalism and aesthetic philosophy.
There is absurdity in this exhibit, to be sure. Not absurdity for the sake of absurdity, but to reach for the solid core of truth and meaning at the center of confusion. A sudden lurch toward the ungraspable inertia of existing as individuals in a world of automobiles and neckties; sunsets and trapezes; painters, poets, and photographers like Man Ray; spurred by the vague notion that behind it all, there’s some mysterious order at work. Or at least a larger joke between the cosmos.
Man Ray’s photography doesn’t simply capture the image of a person, or the ghost that inhabits them. It captures the whole of creative expression – the surreal and sorrowful, the conflict and music, the desperation and freedom that comprise the human narrative. It is through this aperture that we find the abiding sense that, in all the weight, the struggle, the limitations of our physical form, is an ongoing moment of release. It confronts us with the fact we are all winging this strange dance, contributing our solitary note to an overture that is entirely improvised, sharing in the simple hope that we may, for an instant, hear the enormity of the score.
Man Ray: The Paris Years is currently on display at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, and will remain on display through February 21, 2022. Admission is $16 for adults (cheaper for students and senior citizens, free for VMFA members). Tickets can be purchased at the VMFA’s website.
Top Photo: Ruby Richards with Diamonds, ca. 1938, Man Ray (American, 1890– 1976), gelatin silver print. Collection of Michael and Jacky Ferro, Miami © Man Ray 2015 Trust/Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY/ADAGP, Paris 2021