Man Ray and Fashion

Rag Trade to Riches

December 2, 2020By Heidi EllisonExhibitions
Printed black crepe dress from.Elsa Schiaparelli’s 1936 collection © Galliera / Parisienne de Photographie © Man Ray 2015 Trust / Adagp, Paris 2020
Printed black crepe dress from.Elsa Schiaparelli’s 1936 collection © Galliera / Parisienne de Photographie © Man Ray 2015 Trust / Adagp, Paris 2020

Man Ray was Surrealism’s jokester and jack-of-all-arts. The impish-looking American was a painter (not a very successful one, though he saw it as his primary talent), photographer (known for his pioneering photograms, or “rayograms,” and many iconic images, such as “Noire et Blanche”), filmmaker (I remember one particularly erotic film featuring two women making love) and sculptor. His kinky sense of humor came through best in the latter: some of his sculptures seem less like works of art than three-dimensional Dadaesque jokes, like “Cadeau” (1921), a flatiron bristling with nails that he said was perfect for tearing a dress to ribbons, the better to show off a woman’s body. Now an exhibition at the Musée du Luxembourg, “Man Ray et la Mode” (“Man Ray and Fashion”) shows the artist wearing yet another hat: fashion photographer.

He was born Emmanuel Radnitsky in Philadelphia in 1890, but changed his name to Man Ray in 1912. A meeting with Marcel Duchamp in New York in 1915 drew him into the world of Dada, but the young artist didn’t make it in the Big Apple and moved in 1920 to Paris. There he met designer Paul Poiret, who encouraged him to take up fashion photography – which was replacing illustration in such magazines as Vogue and Vanity Fair – as a way of making a living. It was a good tip, and Ray – who had no experience in the field – managed to make something of a career of it, becoming a contributor to a number of American magazines, including Harper’s Bazaar.

"Black silk taffeta by Alix" in Harper’s Bazaar, February 1937. © Galliera / Parisienne de Photographie © Man Ray 2015 Trust / Adagp, Paris 2020
“Black silk taffeta by Alix” in Harper’s Bazaar, February 1937. © Galliera / Parisienne de Photographie © Man Ray 2015 Trust / Adagp, Paris 2020

The show starts out with some of his art photos, among them “Réflexions” (c. 1930) – in which the silhouette of a female body can be discerned amid an allover pattern of what look like bubbles – then moves on to fashion images, where Chanel gets pride of place right off the bat with a slideshow of more or less classic photos by Man Ray of Chanel frocks, accompanied by some of the actual dresses on mannequins.

"Untitled" (1925). © Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI, dist. RMN-Grand Palais / image Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI © Man Ray 2015 Trust / Adagp, Paris 2020
“Untitled” (1925). © Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI, dist. RMN-Grand Palais / image Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI © Man Ray 2015 Trust / Adagp, Paris 2020

Ray applied many of the new techniques he was using in his artistic photographs to his fashion shots, among them solarization, colorization, idiosyncratic cropping, movement and superimposed images. His commercial and artistic work often came together, notably in the famous extreme closeup of a woman’s eye adorned with glass tears (“Larmes de Verre,” 1932), originally meant as an ad for waterproof mascara.

"Lee Miller with Painted Face" (c. 1930). © private collection, courtesy Fondazione Marconi © Man Ray 2015 Trust / Adagp, Paris 2020
“Lee Miller with Painted Face” (c. 1930). © private collection, courtesy Fondazione Marconi © Man Ray 2015 Trust / Adagp, Paris 2020

High-society events and celebrities of all stripes appear in the exhibition, including socialites like Nancy Cunard, Anna de Noailles and Peggy Guggenheim; designers Coco Chanel and Elsa Schiaparelli (both as subjects of his photos and as clients for his fashion photos); and model Kiki de Montparnasse, who was also his lover, as was photographer Lee Miller, with whom he had both a turbulent relationship and fruitful collaboration (she actually discovered the solarizing technique he became famous for).

The exhibition is liberally sprinkled with copies of the fashion magazines Man Ray’s photos were published in and with mannequins dressed in some of the clothing he photographed.

During his lifetime, Man Ray seems to have been ashamed of his father’s profession as a tailor, but that heritage may well have informed not only his artworks – many of which involved tools of the trade like sewing machines and pins and needles – but also his affinity with fashion, so thoroughly illustrated by this exhibition.

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