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The new exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery includes some of Man Ray’s personal portraits of his lovers and friends including Coco Chanel, Catherine Deneuve, Wallis Simpson, Salvador Dali and Le Corbusier, some never before seen in the UK. We spoke to curator Terence Pepper about the process of re-contextualising an artist who is mainly known for his avant garde and experimental photography.
Fabien Kruszelnicki: What drew you to work on a Man Ray exhibition?
Terence Pepper: We wanted to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Man Ray’s Portraits book, and his Self Portrait autobiography – and to focus on the photographs. For most of his life Man Ray was in denial about even being a photographer and only wanted to be known for his painting and sculpture and conceptual art. When the start of a long series of retrospective exhibitions were held Man Ray generally refused to allow any of his photographs to be shown. Most of the exhibitions in the past that have been held that included his photographs usually stop at the time he left Paris for America at the outbreak of World War Two.
What new discoveries are there in this exhibition?
One of the points of this exhibition is to show some of the less well-known and only recently emergent photographs taken from the 1940s onwards, particularly in years when Man Ray was focusing primarily in promoting his paintings.
We have managed to identify his portraits of Tilly Losch and Paulette Goddard for the first time as showing them in costume for his film maker friends, the former for being in costume for Duel in the Sun and the latter for Jean Renoir’s Diary of a Chambermaid. We also include the portraits commissioned by Albert Letwin of Ava Gardner for the film Pandora and the Flying Dutchman that also includes one of the many chess sets that he designed.
What is your favourite piece?
The exhibition includes a beautiful 1968 photograph of Catherine Deneuve, then celebrated for her appearance in Bunuel’s film Belle de Jour. This complex image shows Deneuve surrounded by Man Ray’s works, including spiral earrings and a Surrealist sculpture based on his 1919 work Lampshade, here reimagined as Pendants Pending – one of his long series Objects of My Affection.
Why did you decide to include so many cultural figures rather than focusing on his more private images?
There are private images even if some of them are public figures – intimate studies of his muses Lee Miller and Kiki de Montparnasse. Man Ray’s Rayographs (Camera Less photographs) for example primarily consist of still life objects such as keys, feathers and although he did experiments with making Rayograms of Kiki drinking and kissing these were very much exceptions and not a form of portraiture within the scope of our exhibition.
How does this exhibition differ to exhibitions you’ve created in the past?
What differentiates Man Ray’s work from that of so many of his contemporaries is the subjects he was able to work with and have access to extraordinary artists and writers such as Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Salvador Dali, Picasso, Miro, Vlaminck, Foujita and muses such as Kiki of Montparnasse, Lee Miller, Jacqueline Goddard, Meret Openheim, Dora Maar, Ady Fidelin and Juliet Browner. To subsidize his art he took less inspired images of rich socialites and the difference in quality is patently obvious.
What was your most satisfying about the curatorial process?
The fact that Man Ray was inspired by interesting and extraordinary subjects at the start and end of his career and adapted to changing times. With innovations such as solarisation and experimentation with early colour process but as with other artists he was able to produce consistently interesting portraits of the changing faces of the leading people of the time and each era. I hope that although visitors may be familiar with some of the acknowledged masterpieces in the show they will also enjoy seeing many other items with which they are less familiar with and be surprised at the breadth and variety and innovation of Man Ray’s vision and work.