As a student perfunctorily leafing through art history, I would always find myself pausing over the name Man Ray – pausing and pronouncing it to myself, as if to give a more defined form to the image that always accompanied it. This image would be of something large, flat and metallic hurtling through endless white to a symphony of sharp sounds. Even when read alongside other names like Marcel Duchamp, which had human faces attached to them, Man Ray remained a strangely faceless name, seeming only to belong to some kinetic and slightly dangerous emissary from the future. And I would like to write that during the course of my years at art school, as I learned more and more about the Dadaists, about art in early 20th century New York, Paris in the 1920’s, the Surrealists, about the nascent practice of photography as art, the mystification around Man Ray grew less and less (or that a face finally began to form), it was not so. It was not until I came across Self-Portrait, an autobiography by the artist, that the foreign, strident machine began to slow down and be humanised.
First published in 1963, Self-Portrait is a fast-paced and lucid account of the eventful life of Emmanuel Radnitzky (the artist’s actual, terrestrial name). With a 2012 reprinting, Penguin Classics made it available to the contemporary artist, art student, historian and reader, doing each of them a favour as the 400-page volume is Art Avant-garde 101 taking place not in the classroom but on the school stage. Chronologically written, the book begins with the artist’s earliest memories of life in fin de siècle New York, moving on to an artists’ commune in Ridgefield, New Jersey, where he spent about four years experimenting freely with his painting, before returning to New York and from there, taking off to Paris. The seven chapters detail the roughly decade-long blocks of the artist’s life, spent alternately in these cities. He navigates fluently between New York and Paris, between American and French modernism, potentising the spirit of the age with references both passing and elaborate to his contemporaries – artists, poets, visionaries who shaped modern thinking.
Encounters with many of these are narrated with honest remarks about how they influenced a certain aspect of the artist’s life and work. Some first meetings are dramatic and vaguely prophetic, others not so. But sentimental reminiscing is almost consciously avoided, which only helps reinforce what seems to be the primary gist of the story – a painter’s initiation into the mechanical epoch. For example, the recollection of a meeting with Alfred Stieglitz, American photographer and gallery owner, segues into observations on photography – “I could not help thinking that since photography had liberated the modern painter from the drudgery of faithful representation, this field would become an art in its own right…”
A description of his first evening with the French Dadaists begins with introductions to figures many of us hold in awe. Referring to Andre Breton, for example, Man Ray writes – ‘Andre Breton, who was to found the Surrealist movement several years later, already seemed to dominate the group, carrying his imposing head like a chip on the shoulder.’ It ends with a brief and fondly recalled incident involving these luminaries stumbling upon an amusement park at Montmartre after dinner and drinks, and letting their hair down in the most unexpected way – ‘My friends rushed from one attraction to another like children, enjoying themselves to the utmost…I looked on, bewildered by the playfulness and the abandon of all dignity by these people who otherwise took themselves so seriously: people who were having a revolutionary influence on the art and thinking of the new generation.”
Interspersing the text are black-and-white images of some of his most iconic works – Violon d’Ingres, Cadeau – as well as rare photographs and images of lesser-known pieces by him, such as a painting of his first wife, Adon Lacroix or ‘Donna’. In the telling of their creation, Man Ray combines anecdotal and technical insights in such a way that they read neither like purely emotion-coloured sketches nor treatises on the art of painting pictures. They have enough narrative interest for the reader who wishes to approach the book solely as literature, and enough artistic musings for the nerdier reader who would want to shut the book a more learned artist.
Describing an impromptu painting of Donna, for example, he writes – “Later, when I came into our room with an oil lamp she was fast asleep. Her head on the pillow made an interesting composition; I decided to paint her…The next morning my first thought on awaking was to look at the painting. It was a surprise: the face was a beautiful lemon-yellow. In the light of the oil lamp, I had mistaken the tube of yellow for white.” The scene is just one of many instances in which the artist found himself thinking ‘What a picture!’ Time and again, he takes mental notes to paint or photograph a candid arrangement, a spontaneous happening – a sensibility that every artist needs to cultivate. It is fitting that almost as if in homage to this alacrity of Man Ray, Woody Allen inserted a cameo of the artist in Midnight in Paris (2011), with the line – “A man in love with a woman from a different era. I see a photograph!”
Though forever enamoured of painting, Man Ray fervently explored other artistic expressions such as sculpture, photography and filmmaking. In fact, it is his graceful, choreographed photographs of muses such as Kiki de Montparnasse and Lee Miller – a distinct touch of the automaton to them – that are most popular from his oeuvre. Self-Portrait, besides annotating other events of his life, offers the most interesting background to what he refers to as “the diversity of (his) curiosity, and of (his) inventiveness.” It attributes this inventiveness to the artist’s taking on miscellaneous jobs during his early, formative years in New York and emerging from each with a different skill set. Restiveness is often dismissed as a mark of immaturity. Self-Portrait brings attention to ways it can be crucial to the making of an artist. ♦
Dua Abbas Rizvi is a visual artist and writer based in Lahore, Pakistan