Man Ray, “Les Années Bazaar”

The title of the current Man Ray exhibition, “Les Années Bazaar, Photographies de Mode 1932-1942,” is somewhat misleading. More than a résumé of fashion, “Les Années Bazaar” is comprehensive, retrospective, dynamic and, above all, moving. It testifies to Man Ray’s ability to integrate the often disparate components of a busy life into a coherent oeuvre charged with emotional appeal.

Running to the end of January 1993, “Les Années Bazaar” brings together three strands of Man Ray’s work – portraits, surrealist scenarios and fashion shots. Moreover, it brings together two countries – France and America – each of which made a strong impression on Man Ray’s life.

Born in Philadelphia in 1890, Man Ray studied graphic and fine art in New York in his early ’20s. His first painting exhibit was held in 1915, the same year he picked up a camera to photograph his paintings. It was also the year he met Marcel Duchamp. The confluence of these events – public exposure, contact with Dadaism and a new artistic tool – played a decisive role in the decade to follow, when Man Ray participated in avant garde events in New York, moved to Europe and decided to earn his living with his photographic eye. In 1925 Man Ray’s work was included in the first exhibition of Surrealism in Paris, and in 1932 he joined the staff at the American fashion magazine Bazaar.

Under the influence of its new artistic director, Alexey Brodovitch, Bazaar underwent a thorough revamping. Man Ray fitted perfectly into Brodovitch’s innovative vision, and his stunning photographs quickly became a standard feature of the magazine. During an eight-year period, Man Ray photographed models in extraordinary dresses by the great designers of the time – Poiret, Lanvin, Schiaparelli, Alix, Lucien Lelong, Vionnet, Patou, Annek and Mainbocher, among others.

The effect of Man Ray’s fashion photos on the fin-de-siècle sensibility is curious: from our vantage point, they are as “surrealist” as the exemplary surrealist photos the artist produced during the same era, suggesting that in this context the notion of “surrealism” has more value as a historic than an aesthetic term. Haute-couture fashion from the ’30s – voluptuous, extravagant, theatrical – appears no less staged or posed than mainline “surrealist” photos.

Compare, for example, the celebrated photo of the provocative singer/model Kiki de Montparnasse’s almond head paired with an almond-shaped wooden African mask. Certainly this photo, entitled “Noir et Blanche,” is often reproduced in surrealist catalogues and exhibited in surrealist shows – but it isn’t any less (or more) “surrealist” than “Sandale en lamé or de chez Padova, retenue par trois agraphes-bijou” with its male hand, silk handkerchief and marvelous box-toed shoe.

The force of both photos hinges upon startling juxtapositions in which the subjects are de-contextualized within the visual continuum – Kiki’s detached head in one, the detached hand in the other. Similarily, through a deft use of framing, the inanimate components are liberated from their habitual context and portrayed anew. The head is on a par with the mask, the hand with the shoe.

Seen side-by-side, the categoric boundary between commercial photography and avant-garde art seems a little contrived. Times have indeed wildly changed. Thanks to our mind-blowing storehouse of sensational and extraordinary images, visual syntax has been numbed to the extent that even the most radical pictures have largely lost the ability to shock or surprise; at the same time, recent historical images have rapidly become strange as history speeds up and the rate of change accelerates.

More important, I think, than worn-out aesthetic categories is the disposition of the photographer himself, his ability to include something that might simply be called “affection.”

In Man Ray’s work, there is an enormous intimacy with and respect for the subject. There are no gimmicks, no tricks or gratuitous effects, no exploitation. A palpable affection reigns, which ventures into a more or less discreet but frank eroticism – desire, lust, beauty, taboo. Even the more intentionally absurd juxtapositions of image retain a direct and natural nobility that is as disarming as it is appealing. Man Ray was clearly a man who loved his work as much as the lively arty world in which he moved.

This affection is perhaps most apparent in the portraits of friends, artists and personalities, a series that propelled him to fame in 1921. Included among the luminaries in the show are Tristan Tzara, Philippe Soupault, Paul Eluard, Picasso, Gertrude Stein, Peggy Guggenheim, Coco Chanel, Nusch, Alberto Giacometti, Mina Loy, etc. There is even a dramatic self-portrait of Man Ray as a winsome fashion model. He looks very much the part – suave, debonair, intense. The self-portrait spoof is but another testimony to the fact that Man Ray did not take the limits of fashion photography seriously, but sought to continually blend it with other aspects of a full artistic life. The result is an engaging photographic record of broad artistic merit and candid allure.

“Les Années Bazaar,” at Musée des Arts de la mode et du textile, 109, rue de Rivoli.


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