Man Ray Packs Sting

It is billed as “the first major museum retrospective of this innovative and influential artist’s photographic portraits”. Man Ray: Portraits is an exhibition that doesn’t disappoint. The National Portrait Gallery is currently displaying many singularly beautiful images that have never before been shown in Britain.

Rare works are exhibited alongside familiar favourites, such as Le Violon d’Ingres (1924),and Noire et Blanche (1926). The 150 works are presented chronologically: from his formative years in New York 1916–20; through his experience of the avant-garde of Paris 1921–28, 1929–37; into Hollywood 1940–50 and Paris 1951–76. This exhibition constructs an all-but-definitive list of the artistic and cultural behemoths of the period. Contextually as well as compositionally, the works are engrossing and entertaining. 

Man Ray’s description of Hemingway, alongside the 1923 portrait, “a tall young man… with his hair low on his forehead, a clear complexion and a small moustache” hardly does justice to the the intensity of the author’s frank and uncompromising gaze. Man Ray’s penetrating scrutiny is evident in each of the works of the exhibition. The intensity in the eyes of each figure (where visible) is thrillingly expressive. 

At times, though, I felt the lack of inclusion of art in other media limited my appreciation of certain works, such as stills of avant-garde films, La Retour á la Raison (1923) and Emak Bakia (1926). 

Undeniably, there is much to be fascinated by in this well executed exhibition: the meticulous and subtle composition of each portrait, the survey of Ray’s use of innovative photographic techniques, and the surrealist humour that dances through these playful works. One photograph showed fellow Dadaist, Marcel Duchamp, uncannily disguised in drag. 

This retrospective not only provides a narrative of the artist’s photographic career, but shows the development and legitimisation of photography as an art form. The closing portrait in the exhibition – of French actress Catherine Deneuve, 1968 – is a final, potent, compelling testament to the unique power and potential of the photograph. And for this, perhaps above all else, I do not hesitate to recommend a visit to the exhibition before it closes on 27th May.