Published in Edinburgh Festivals Magazine
IT WAS a heart-in-the-mouth moment. As far as curator Terrence Pepper was concerned, there was one image that had to be the centrepiece of his exhibition of Man Ray photographic portraits. It's the picture of Lee Miller in profile. Her face is relaxed as she gazes somewhere to our right. The light catches her hair, which is cut boyishly short and tucked behind her ear. Her neck is long and elegant, her dress plain. Thanks to a technique known as solarisation, which reverses the tones, there is a dark outline to her features as if someone has drawn around her face.
Along with Alice Prin (aka Kiki de Montparnasse), Miller was one of Man Ray's great muses and Pepper couldn't imagine his exhibition without this picture. But there was a problem. He spoke to Tony Penrose, Miller's son, only to be told: 'I'd be pleased to help you but unfortunately there's another show I've lent this to and you can't have it." It was a major blow.
Fortunately for Pepper, the rival tour fell apart and his prize image was available once more. It's now the one you see on the poster for Man Ray Portraits, remarkably, the first solo exhibition of the pioneering American artist's work. It takes its place at the heart of the collection, along with Pepper's other favourite: Noire et Blanche featuring the porcelain-white face of Kiki lying as if asleep on a table adjacent to a black African face mask.
The show, already acclaimed at the National Portrait Gallery in London, takes us through Man Ray's career in America and Paris between 1916 and 1968. Featuring over 100 works, it shows the artist as a key player in the dada and surrealist movements, even as he was working as a commercial photographer for mainstream magazines such as French Vogue which published Noire et Blanche in 1926.
"You want to show things that have never been seen before as well as finding the core of Man Ray's work," says Pepper. "You're trying to appeal to the person who's never seen Man Ray at all and the people who know Man Ray, so we had to keep the standard high."
By including portraits the artist made throughout his career, Pepper reveals those less well-known corners of the canon. "In the past, people have stopped looking at Man Ray after the outbreak of the second world war," he says. "But he carried on and surreptitiously did work in the Hollywood of the 40s and that work hasn't really been shown before. It's quite a revelation that he was not working officially as a photographer but taking the odd picture."
As is so often the case with exhibitions at the Portrait Gallery, the work is fascinating from an artistic point of view and in terms of the sitters. Man Ray had intimate access to many of the key figures of his day. As well as Kiki and Miller, who became a noted photographer in her own right, he was in a position to shoot figures such as Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, Ernest Hemingway and James Joyce. "It's a cultural history of the 20th century," says Pepper. "As part of the surrealist and dada movement, he had this insider view. He got the trust of people and they would bring something to his sittings."
Famous or not, it is the modernity of the images that hits home today. "It's one thing about great photographs that they do look contemporary," he says. "There's a woman who looks just like Gwyneth Paltrow. We don't know who she is, but the face is just Kate Moss, Gwyneth Paltrow, it's completely now."
WHERE & WHEN
Man Ray Portraits
Scottish National Portrait Gallery, until 22 September, 10am–5pm
From £5, Tel: 0131 624 6200
© Mark Fisher 2013
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