Jan Svenungsson

"Man Ray 2013", in: Man Ray, Mjellby Konstmuseum, Halmstad, Sweden



I cannot write about Man Ray without also writing about myself.

I decided to become an artist after the winter of 1976-77, during which I had read his autobiography Self-Portrait1. Man Ray died a month before the book found its way into my hands, but during the years that followed I got to know some of the people that had been his friends and I also became friends with his widow, Juliet. The studio on rue Ferou became my hub in Paris. The fact that I am now an artist, and that my work looks like it does, is in many ways a consequence of these events.

The first time I wrote about Man Ray was in 1980: an extended essay at high school that consisted of just under twenty pages in which I attempted to summarise Man Ray’s view of “the value of art” and “the artist’s task”, basing my writing on his autobiography as well as on other texts he had written. Not that long ago I happened across that text again. On the last page I quoted Man Ray:

“Whenever I make a decision or wish to follow a principle then I must change it the next day – I must do the contrary of what I said yesterday. In this way I maintain my freedom.”2[2]

This led me to make the following reflection in my text:

“It’s far from the easiest thing in the world to follow a person’s train of thought and to avoid contradictions, when the person in question has that fundamental outlook. I’ve made an attempt, and I think that it’s quite stimulating to start thinking about these problems, and to discover that the contradictions are perhaps inevitable.”3[3]

In 1990 I was asked to write about Man Ray for the first time when Fotografisk Tidskrift [4]contacted me. I began with a description of how he went about producing “the definitive photographic image of himself” in 1947 and continued with an analysis of how he later used text for, in principle, the same purpose. During the ten years that had passed since I wrote the extended essay in high school I had trained to become an artist and had begun exhibiting my work. I had also learnt French and spent a lot of time in Paris. I had seen Juliet (who passed away in 1991) struggle with the task of safeguarding her late husband’s artistic legacy and dealing with the mixture of sharks and enthusiasts who were drawn to the studio and the estate. It’s not easy, surviving a significant artist.

 

During those years I had also come to realise that the autobiography is of course a construction; albeit one with a purpose. I had come to regard it as one of the most important works in Man Ray’s oeuvre. This insight might seem all too obvious, but it is easily overlooked when one is carried away by the power of a story. It was also of importance that Neil Baldwin published a well-researched biography on Man Ray in 1988, meaning that now, for the first time, there was a source that dealt with the sort of information that the artist himself had gone to great effort to suppress.

In this new text I chose to include myself in the story. There was, of course, a reason for this. I too was an artist now. I concluded the text in the following way:

“During the finalisation of the manuscript to Self-Portrait, the publisher complained repeatedly about the lack of exact chronology and background information. Man Ray took issue with the publisher’s complaints:

“Inspiration, not information, is the general purpose of this book.””4

In 1998, at Edsvik Konst & Kultur in Sollentuna, I put on an exhibition entitled “My Man Rays”. I cannot remember the reason, but I had been asked if I might consider creating a sort of tribute to Man Ray; a “homage”. My approach was very matter of factual[5], as evidenced by the title of the exhibition. One important component was the catalogue, in which I placed the twelve objects on exhibit in the order in which I had acquired them and paired them with short fragments of text. Next to the very first picture, a colour etching from the “Cactus” series, there was but a single line:

“One of the best things about Man Ray is his inconsistency.”5[6]

In 2004 Moderna Museet decided to put together an exhibition, and I was invited to write a more extensive text for its catalogue. It was given the title “The Making of Man Ray” and consisted of an in-depth look into how Man Ray tried, in various ways throughout his lifetime, to create overall meaning for an artistic oeuvre that, when considered in isolation, is characterised by a striking lack of uniformity both in terms of technique and in terms of quality. Text and narrative are two tools that he used for this purpose. In a discussion about his autobiography I stated:

“What was both his weakness and his strength – being a jack-of-all-trades – is portrayed neither as strength nor weakness but simply as a necessity, the only possible option for an artist driven by ideas, where the principal idea is to be as free as possible.”6[7]

A little later I continued:

“By publishing his narrative version of himself, Man Ray succeeds in making a statement about “Man Ray” that no one can ignore from then on. Ultimately it is about registering his trademark.”7

Nine years later8 I have once again been asked to write about Man Ray. A sense of vertigo overcomes me as I reflect on the fact that I have busied myself with this subject9 for more than a third of a century.

When Man Ray was as old as I am now, 51, he had already created the majority of his most important work. Being Jewish he had been forced to leave behind twenty years’ worth of work as he fled the German occupation of Paris. Worried about his future, he lived in modest circumstances in Hollywood together with Juliet Browner, whom he would marry in 1946. He had not yet started writing his autobiography.

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During the years that have followed since Man Ray passed away in November 1976, the conditions for the production of art have undergone changes that would surely have left him flabbergasted and fascinated. For example:

People’s relationship with photography has been turned on its head. In Man Ray’s lifetime, photographs were intuitively perceived as more or less precise and exclusive reflections of reality. It therefore seemed obvious to the vast majority of people that the work of a photographer could not be compared with – nor valued as highly as – the work of a painter. Many people questioned whether a photographer could actually be considered to be an artist at all. To Man Ray these ideas represented a sounding board that inspired him to invent a number of ways in which to manipulate the photographic image. His instinct was subversive. However, the same ideas were also a source of personal frustration as some of his most significant works did not receive the recognition he felt they deserved, purely on account of the technology that had been used to create them. These days, everyone knows that the photographs we see have almost certainly been manipulated. The tools for doing so are readily available. As a consequence of this knowledge, photographically produced works of art are now afforded the same status as paintings within the art world.

The Internet has meant that names and stories with an extraordinary impact can spread across the entire planet in a matter of days, or even hours. The possibility of sharing images and information globally and at no cost has significantly benefited strong narratives. Man Ray had reduced his name to a trademark while still a young man, and later on in life he would devote considerable effort to connecting names to stories and stories to names. He had no idea of the impact his experiment would have in the global media laboratory now commonly referred to as the World Wide Web.

Contemporary art has converged with popular culture and the entertainment industry, manifested through mega exhibitions, fantastic turnover at auction houses and the industrial production methods often used by successful artists. Andy Warhol is the artist whose work generates the greatest monetary turnover of all, the same Warhol who in 1974 arranged an entire exhibition featuring portraits of Man Ray. One might ask why?

The mind games that Marcel Duchamp occupied himself with during the second decade of the twentieth century (we’re talking a hundred years ago!), examining whether something can be art solely because the artist says it is, have now come full circle and been transformed from absurdities into dogma. Nowadays all art, regardless of material and form, is more or less dependent on the artist’s claims about it; claims that are formulated in words. Inspired by his friend Duchamp, Man Ray was a pioneer when it came to transforming his works using words. I’m not convinced that he would have applauded the developments of the last few years. When that which was once subversive becomes doctrine, the subversion must take on a new form.

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It is a well-known cliché about artists that they “are only appreciated after their death”. Thankfully, this statement does not apply to the vast majority of artists[8]! But it does hold true for Man Ray to the extent that his name is now much more highly regarded than it was when he passed away. Why? Is it a consequence of his assiduous work? What other factors are involved?

Chance, coincidence, fate. What makes a person an artist? What makes an artist a significant artist? What keeps people interested in a significant artist even though the artist himself is no longer alive and working for his cause? Anyone who has studied art, artists and the art world knows that there is not any single, easily identifiable and general definition of “talent” that automatically results in a person who wants to become an artist actually becoming one. Not to mention the path to becoming a “significant artist”, or what’s more: becoming an artist who is considered significant even after he or she is gone. This “significance” is based on nothing other than an agreement among the viewers that the artist is significant. What drives them to agree? How important are the artist’s friends to his or her success?

My life has been fundamentally influenced by the chance meeting I had with Man Ray through his book. But his life was influenced just as radically, if not more so and with far greater consequences for art history, by the events that led to the French artist Marcel Duchamp coming to New York in 1915. One autumn day that year, Duchamp decided to accompany some friends to a country house in Ridgefield, New Jersey, where Man Ray was living with his first wife Adon Lacroix. She was a Belgian-born poet who acted as interpreter for the two men as they did not share a common language. The two became friends for life. Just a few hours before Duchamp passed away in his home on the outskirts of Paris in 1968 he had had dinner with his wife and two guests: Man Ray and Juliet.

There were major differences between young Messrs Duchamp and Man Ray. One was an urbane and nonchalant intellectual, raised in a stable family setting in the French countryside with older brothers and a sister who all became artists. The other was the only son of Jewish emigrants from Minsk and Kiev who had arrived in the USA just a couple of years before he was born. The fact that Emanuel Radnitsky, at the age of twenty one, four years before he met Duchamp and long before he had accomplished anything of importance within his field, had chosen to create a strikingly unique name for himself is significant. “Man Ray” signals: I am new, I am responsible, I have no history other than the one I myself will create. In his own way Man Ray embodies the American dream.

Marcel Duchamp – the radical who throughout his entire life would challenge all that had up until then been perceived as the artist’s role and opportunities – had a safety net, at least mentally. He had a gift for allying himself with patrons and he married into money, not just once. At the same time he was generous when it came to giving his friends advice and assistance. Man Ray, on the other hand, was left to his own devices, to his own ingenuity and his own survival skills. He was street smart and would make his money himself. He was not, and could not be, nonchalant. There are few stories about how Man Ray helped colleagues without serving his own interests; that was not his role. His generosity was of a different kind. He was skilled at collaboration and at friendship (just like Duchamp) and he was insatiably curious. Duchamp, who was three years older, came to be a sort of initiating older brother to Man Ray. I believe that Man initially looked up to Marcel and it is obvious that he learned a lot from him while at the same time remaining true to his own nature. He never initiated any mysterious mega projects, on glass or behind a peephole, and he wrote his understandable texts to their conclusion. His humour was concrete and quick, not evasive and hardly subtle. It is obvious that the two friends complemented one another.

One insight that Man Ray gained from Duchamp was that art is not so much about the hand’s ability as about the possibilities and agility of the mind, and of course the mind’s ability to involve the hand in the process of creating art. Duchamp coined the phrase “art in the service of the mind”, an idea which Man Ray accepted as a matter of course.

Duchamp was decidedly slow and ascetic and seems to have found a sort of pleasure in living life on the backburner, playing chess and working on one secret project for decades. The relatively few works that actually saw the light of day share, at least when viewed with contemporary eyes, a sort of untouchable aura: they are impermeable works by Duchamp, all of them surely extremely significant. Man Ray endeavours to achieve professional success as a photographer, dreams of being able to paint full-time – and at the same time tests all the ideas and projects that come into his path. He is incapable of doing one thing only on a full-time basis; there are too many opportunities that attract his attention. The results, from an artistic viewpoint, are decidedly inconsistent – and that is what creates a strong appeal. Man Ray’s work is a form of open workshop that invites (the viewer’s) self-experimentation. His inconsistency is a form of generosity. Man Ray is much more explicit than Duchamp, his jokes are more obvious and his irony American, despite the fact that he came to take pride in his ability to generate French puns.

Duchamp attracted interpreters, one more ingenious than the other, while Man Ray’s admirers become[9] narrators. In his autobiography he writes:

“I could never understand painters who deprecated their own work, or were dissatisfied with it. I doubted their sincerity. To me, any painting is a faithful record of an experience at the time it is made and should not be criticized.”10

Of course no artist can completely avoid the risk of being criticised, and neither could Man Ray – something he was naturally aware of. This quote would have been ridiculous had he not accomplished a number of works that have[10] become emblematic of 20th century art. One consequence of this permissive stance is ultimately that you and I, as viewers of the art, gain a greater degree of freedom to look around and make our own decisions: we can choose between the highs and lows of Man Ray’s oeuvre, and in that way he becomes our mirror. Viewed in this light, Man Ray’s egocentric stance seems surprisingly democratic.

Another aspect of Man Ray’s work, along with the rejection of criticism, is his disinterest in making any sort of distinction between original and copy. If a good idea has found expression in a work, he sees no reason why that work should not be produced again, even in large numbers, and perhaps even in further editions and in similar variations. After all, the idea itself is good and merits dissemination; it is not affected by the diverse forms of materialisation. On the contrary, the way Man Ray sees it, a good idea must of course be spread further. Thus the iron with nails, “Le Cadeau” (The Gift)11, exists in an array of variations and editions, the last of which totalled five thousand copies (1974). There is a long line of metronomes featuring photos of eyes fixed to the pendulum: objects, photos, drawings, and graphics. The titles vary: “Object To Be Destroyed”; “Object of Destruction”; “Lost Object”; “Indestructible Object”; “Last Object”; ”Perpetual Motif”, but the idea remains more or less the same.

Both of these objects and others besides are at the same time representative of an entirely new possibility within art: creations [11](the combination of the nails and the iron creates an entirely new expression) that we can all easily copy – without losing material precision! The idea is so strong that the artist is no longer needed! On the other hand, the renowned camera-less photographs, or rayographs as they are known, are themselves unique in principle. In this process, various objects are placed directly on photographic paper, which is then exposed to light. The photographic paper thus captures the objects’ unique shadow; there are no intermediate steps. This did not stop Man Ray from repro photographing successful rayographs in order to be able to reproduce them! Towards the end of his life he allowed for paintings and drawings, photographs, even three-dimensional assemblage to be reproduced in the form of lithographs and etchings. His own contribution is limited to the signature – and of course to the decision to allow the act to take place. Man Ray concludes a short text in the book featuring his collected graphics in the following way:

“To create is divine, to reproduce is human.”12

Even though I have a tremendous amount of sympathy for this approach, it is easy to identify the problems it entails. Where exactly are the boundaries for something being a work by Man Ray? I myself own[12] a rayograph produced (in other words repro photographed) in a limited edition in 1971. The original was produced between 1923 and 192513, but my print is signed, and thus approved and checked by the artist. Naturally it is one of his works. I also own a print[13] of another rayograph, from 1923. In this case the edition was not produced until 1980, four years after the artist’s death, so for obvious reasons my print is not signed. A stamp on the back states that the picture is “authorised” by Juliet Man Ray for Folkwang Museum in Essen, where an exhibition took place that year. What is the actual status of this picture? Is it a work by Man Ray, or is it a reproduction of a work by Man Ray? When we accept Duchamp’s idea that the artist can produce art simply by saying it is: do we then also have to accept that this ability is passed on within the family? Where is the actual “art value” in an idea artist’s work? Does it even matter? Does the value of Man Ray’s art actually lie somewhere else entirely? Why is it that Man Ray attracts more attention now than he did when he passed away?

Does the value of Man Ray’s art actually lie in the story behind it? Or perhaps in the story about him?

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Man Ray never wrote a will. Juliet’s attempts to turn the studio, where they had both lived and worked after their return to Paris in 1952 until his death 24 years later, into a museum proved fruitless. There were no children. When Juliet passed away in 1991, the studio’s contents (she had been forced to vacated the space,, which was rented[14], a couple of years earlier) passed on to her American relatives, who subsequently sold the majority of the items at auction at Sotheby’s in London in 1995. I was there. Now they run the “Man Ray Trust” which controls the copyright for Man Ray’s work and arranges a number of exhibitions containing items that were left over from the auction in 1995. It can be very disheartening to see an exhibition consisting solely of lesser quality material. I know. The enchantment I find in the work of inconsistent artists is based on having access to both good and bad things at the same time; on having the opportunity to make one’s own choices. Choosing between bad and bad is not much fun.

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The Documenta exhibition has been held in Kassel, Germany, every five years since 1955, and is considered the world’s most important contemporary art showcase. Each new edition of this mega exhibition is debated and discussed for years. The artists who are chosen to take part earn a great deal of recognition. In the summer of 2012 it was time for “dOCUMENTA (13)”, organised by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev and her team. 860,000 visitors passed through the doors during the one hundred days of the exhibition (which is actually made up of a large group of separate but coordinated exhibitions). This time there was a small exhibition in the centre of everything called “Das Gehirn”, or in English: “The Brain”. In this room visitors could see a small number of disparate works, a selection that, according to the curator, acted as the nerve centre for the whole of this gigantic exhibition. And there, in the very middle of “The Brain”, was a cabinet with several versions of Man Ray’s metronome with a photograph of an eye. The short text he published in 1934 was also there. The paper may have yellowed, but the words have not lost their power. The text describes how anyone can make a metronome object of their own. It concludes with the following line:

“With a hammer well-aimed, try to destroy the whole at a single blow.”14

Opposite the metronome cabinet there was a series of Lee Miller photographs, taken in Hitler’s apartment in Munich on the very day that he shot himself in the bunker in Berlin: 30 April 1945.

Together again! Man Ray and Lee Miller reunited once more, in the very eye of the contemporary art storm, 36 and 35 years after their respective deaths. Man Ray and the 17 years younger Miller lived and worked together in Paris between 1929 and 1932. She started working as his assistant and model and soon became a photographer in her own right. Together they developed the technique of solarisation. When she left him he took it very hard. She appears as a model and as a theme in his art both before and after the breakup. It is Lee Miller’s lips that are floating on the horizon in Man Ray’s foremost painting: “The Lovers”. It is her eye that rocks back and forth on the majority of the metronomes. When I read Self-Portrait as a fifteen-year-old I was captivated by a portrait showing Miller’s profile. I thought she was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. The adventurous Miller left Paris and opened her own photography studio in New York (something that was unheard-of for a woman at that time) before marrying a man in Cairo and starting to do outdoor photography in Egypt. In the late 1930s she went to live with artist Roland Penrose in the English countryside. When the Second World War broke out she decided to become a photojournalist and succeeded against all odds in convincing Vogue to make her their war correspondent. After D-Day in 1944 she followed the American forces as they fought their way through Europe. She was constantly at the very front of the fighting and shot her best pictures in conditions that were as far removed from Man Ray’s studio as could be imagined. Miller was there when the first concentration camps were freed, and she[15] staged an enigmatic photograph of herself naked in Hitler’s bathtub, with field boots by the side of the tub. It was this very photo that hung opposite “Object of Destruction”, with her eye on a metronome’s pendulum, in Kassel in 2012.

After the war ended, Miller stopped photographing and stowed her pictures and negatives away in her attic. She had used her camera to confront and record the darkest aspects of reality, and apparently she’d had enough. Man Ray remained faithful to his language-based art and continued to produce pictures and art in various forms. They remained friends.

The difference between Miller’s reality-based[16] photographs and Man Ray’s objects of thought in Documenta’s central exhibition is radical, and yet – or perhaps because of that difference – they are found together. The reason for this has a lot to do with Antony Penrose’s obsessive work since the middle of the 1980s to re-establish his mother’s reputation as a photographer. He has singlehandedly ensured that Lee Miller’s photographic work, in all its diverse forms, assumes its rightful place in the art and photography history of the 20th century. At the same time, he has told Lee Miller’s story so effectively in a series of books, that the trademark and the exciting and romantic narrative [17]that is Man Ray now receives as much attention for his association with Lee Miller as for his association with Marcel Duchamp. How lucky for Man Ray that the young Lee decided to become his assistant and that she refused to give up when he initially said no! What posthumous good fortune for both of them that her son decided to make sure that her work became known again! What luck for me that Antony’s father answered my letter in June 1977!

The story of Man Ray is a tale, both trumped-up and true, of continually seeing new possibilities in life and of being able to make the most of the opportunities that chance and fate delivers into your hands. But above all else, it is a tale of how the artist, the human being, can make the most of his ideas. The story of Man Ray is also a tale of how a new art concept replaces an existing one, and of the importance of networks and friends in an increasingly information-based, globalised world. Never again will there be artists whose private lives remain unknown.

Jan Svenungsson, Berlin, March 2013.


Jan Svenungsson, Berlin, mars 2013.