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Man Ray Portraits

Photographic shows have recently added to the NPG’s unique selling point no end; they do have much content and expertise at their disposal. Who doesn’t want to go to gaze at lavish, stunning images of people, isn’t intrigued by curious, beautiful or powerful human beings? Man Ray Portraits has been a long time coming, and isn’t an exception to the rule.

The shots in this atmospheric exhibition are ordered chronologically and chart the artist’s movements between his native America and beloved Paris. For those of you who are sketchy on details of Man Ray’s life, he was a player in both the Dada and Surrealist movements, a painter and photographer, well-known as one of the group of artists, writers and thinkers who gathered in France’s Capital in the 1920’s.

A collection of creatives were drawn to the romanticism and dynamic potential of Paris, where they gathered with collectors and gallerists like Getrude Stein and Peggy Guggenheim. Man Ray was a contemporary of painters like Picasso and Miro, you’ll see these and other famous faces lining the walls of this show. All of them are evocative of an exciting time and place in the world. True characters spring forth from these dusky photographs, snapshots of people in the midst of living vivid thrilling lives.

After a captivating introduction the face of the show, model and photographer Lee Miller, enters in the second act, her striking beauty drawing you in close to the surface of the image. Muse and lover of Man Ray she met the artist in 1929, and when she left him three years later he staged a self-portrait with a noose around his neck. Her strong haunting looks make this seem almost reasonable. Miller went on to have a successful career in her own right, whilst Man Ray moved on to other loves.

As with most exhibitions of this medium, it is the female gender that makes a mark, that you can’t help staring at a little longer. Man Ray women are handsome individuals with unique looks and go-getting lives. What they are not is the cookie cutter, perma-tanned, permanently young stereotype of beauty we are infused with now. Stand outs are the elegant, almost regal, Ava Gardner in 1950, and the flawless Catherine Deneuve in 1968. Against a backdrop of unsmiling artists and writers in dark suits, they shine.

The people who populate this show may make you feel like your life is lacking in comparison, inauthentic and pedestrian. But much more than an exciting snapshot of this great, passionate time in art these works go beyond to a sphere of experimentation and zingy innovation in form, technique and staging. Although he considered himself a painter there is more to Man Ray’s photographic work than average, and I truly believe you’d miss out by missing this showing.

Man Ray, Solarized Portrait of Lee Miller (c.1929)

Man Ray, Solarized Portrait of Lee Miller (c.1929)

Curated by Terence Pepper, with support from Helen Trompeteler. On display until 27th May 2013.

http://www.npg.org.uk//whatson/man-ray-portraits/exhibition.php

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