Words by Michelle Cha
MAN Ray was a revolutionary artist and his impact on the surrealist and Dada movements are well known. His real name was Emmanuel Radnitzky and he was born 27 August 1890 in Pennsylvania but resided in France for most of his artistic career. Most famous for his photographic work, Man Ray was also a painter, collagist, and film maker. The genius of Man Ray rested on his fervent skill to invent and constantly look for different ways of expression.
Boy once he took on the name Man Ray, did he commit to it; he refused to respond to his birth name during his career. However, the name Man Ray was not conceptualised out of artistic reinvention. Radnitzky was shortened to Ray by his family during their time in Brooklyn due to the intense racial and ethnic discrimination during the time. His humble family background which included his father running a small tailoring shop with his mother designing the clothes, influenced his work greatly. Motifs such as pins, mannequins, flat irons, thread, and other items related to tailoring featured in most of his artworks. For me there are three seminal works of Man Ray that best represent his skill and personality.
The first is the short film Emak Bakia (Basque for “leave me alone”) released in 1926. The ambiguousness of the film is reflective of the surrealist movement and use of “rayographs” a photographic technique which involves placing objects on photosensitized paper and exposing it to light. This gives a x ray effect to the photographs and in essence no camera is needed to produce an image. The film leaves the viewer often confused and perplexed at what meaning Man Ray is trying to express. Perhaps he didn’t intend for any kind of meaning but more the element of interpretation is what drove him. Below is the film and you can judge for yourself; I am sure you will be left confused as I did the first time I watched it.
As I mentioned earlier “rayographs” were kind of Man Ray’s little baby. He even termed the technique after himself; he wanted the whole world to know his contribution and impact on art and society. Rayograph (1922) really signified his vision and inventive genius. Man Ray took everyday items and turned them to mystical and unique representations. Dada poets of the time really got to liking Man Ray for his eccentric view on life and the surrealist artists applauded his dreamlike vision of reality. To me Rayograph is one of his most underrated pieces of work and is seminal in understanding Man Ray as the person.
Finally, Le Violon d’Ingres (1924) is one of his most famous surrealist photographs. This was during the time he was venturing more into fashion and portrait photography, while still experimenting with context. Man Ray stands out from the surrealist painters and artists of his time with his use of different mediums in the one artwork. His muse was famous model Kiki de Montparnasse (Alice Prin); this pairing was important in shaping his photographic work. The f-holes were painted on the photograph and then rephotographed; he put his touch on classic modern nudes. The title is controversial as it’s a French idiom for “hobby”. Take it as you like it but I took it as the model being used and taken as a “hobby” and not in a good way; I guess that’s my inner feminist speaking out. However, it is known that Man Ray worked frequently with Kiki for a decade and this portrait could possibly represent their relationship from his perspective. Man Ray cleverly hides any inkling of arms which is a bit unsettling but humourous due to the playful nature of the photograph. I love this image as it is mix between objectification and appreciation, it’s just up to the viewer.
Man Ray loved to mess with people’s minds; he got a good kick out of seeing people’s reactions and the more intense the better. He challenged perceptions of art and always reinvented or looked for new ways of expression. And there I will end with some wise words from the man himself.
“I have been accused of being a joker. But the most successful art to me involves humor”.