Man Ray. Unconcerned, but not indifferent



‘Unconcerned, but not indifferent’ (so reads his epitaph)… irreverent, poetic and inventive, Man Ray was the most “multi-media” artist of the international avant-garde. Living on both sides of the Atlantic, he revolutionised art in France and made a strong impression in American.

Shortening his name to MAN RAY, the American artist Emmanuel Radinsky (1890-1976) defined himself as a “man of light” in homage to photography (etym. drawing with light). Man Ray was therefore a photographer by his own definition, despite declaring somewhat mischievously that photography was not an art. He was also a painter, film-maker, maker of objects, author of poems and puns and a major contributor to the Dada movement in New York and to Surrealism in Paris.

New York

With his heart set on becoming a painter, Man Ray stumbled upon the New York gallery of photographer Alfred STIEGLITZ where he discovered the Modern works of Pablo PICASSO, Paul CÉZANNE and Constantin BRANCUSI. The year was 1911 and it was his first artistic revelation. Two years later, he visited the Armory Show in New York where he discovered the works of two Dada pioneers, Marcel DUCHAMP and Francis PICABIA who he met shortly after in person. Meeting Marcel Duchamp had a profound influence on the direction his art subsequently took.
While Dada signed its official birth in Zurich in 1916 (in protest against WWI), Man Ray used his camera in New York to make one of his most famous photo-portraits: Marcel Duchamp disguised as a woman, Rrose Sélavy. At the same time, he completed a painting entitled Promenade (100 x 80 cm), a pivotal work reflecting the aesthetic ‘revolution’ triggered by his visit to the Armory Show three years earlier (with strong Cubist and Futurist influences). This historically important work, which was subsequently exhibited in London, New York, Los Angeles and the Jeu de Paume in Paris, set Man Ray’s auction record on 6 November 2013 when it fetched $5.877 million (including fees) at Sotheby’s New York.
The Ray-Duchamp duo initially formed the American branch of the Dada movement, but as their experiences did not live up to expectations, Man Ray concluded that “Dada cannot live in New York…”. He therefore headed for France where he was able to operate a veritable liquidation of the cleavage between photography and painting. France of the 1920s seems to have provided an ideal climate for his pursuit of personal freedom, convinced as he was that freedom can only be achieved through experimentation.

France and the first ‘rayographs’

Upon his arrival in Paris in 1921 he was welcomed by Marcel Duchamp who immediately (the same evening) introduced him to the Surrealists Louis ARAGON, André BRETON, Paul ELUARD and Gala, Theodore Oscar FRAENKEL, Jacques Rigaut and Philippe Soupault.
Once introduced, he was rapidly adopted by his new artistic family and began to be noticed in France with two photographs at the Dada Fair in 1921 and then other photographs at the first Surrealist exhibition in 1925. To earn a living, he did fashion photography, contributing to several magazines (including Vogue, Vanity Fair, Harper’s Bazaar, Vu, Paris Variétés) and offered his services to artists wishing to photograph their work. He used such occasions to take portraits of his friends, including Marcel Duchamp, Tristan Tzara, Francis Picabia, Jean Cocteau, Antonin Artaud, André Breton, Lee Miller, Salvador Dalí and Gala. During these Parisian “années folles” (roaring twenties), Man Ray started making his famous ‘rayographs’ , a photographic technique without a camera with objects placed directly on photo-sensitive paper and exposed to light. The final image showed the negative of the object’s shadow. This unusual technique characterizes Man Ray’s work more than any other and it constitutes his most sought-after body of work on the secondary market. In April 2013, a rayogramme measuring 23.5 x 17.8 cm fetched $1 million (four times its low estimate) at Christie’s in New York ($1.2 million including fees). This was the first Man Ray photograph to reach the million-dollar threshold, proof that the market is more willing to value works on canvas than photographic prints. In fact, the photograph in question was a superb image with historical importance and in perfect condition. It was printed in 1922, the same year the artist invented his famous technique.
But Man Ray’s photographs are not all unaffordable… far from it. His best known cliché, Le Violon d’Ingres, is regularly available at auction for a few hundred euros … the market is awash with this image that was the subject of multiple reprints. Some date back to the 90s and bear the copyright inscription “Man Ray Trust”; others showing no particular mention should be avoided. On the other hand, certain Violon d’Ingres, signed by the artist, can easily fetch $50,000. Indeed the picture is considered an icon of the 1920s avant-garde, but was originally a silver-salts print enhanced with ink and pasted onto paper. Inspired by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’ La Grande Baigneuse, Man Ray asked Kiki de Montparnasse, his mistress at the time, to pose with her back naked. On the print, he superimposed two stencilled violin f-holes. Nowadays, the best Violon d’Ingres are in major museums. The Centre Pompidou, for example, has a vintage print that belonged to André Breton.

His “objects of affection”

Man Ray was also a great assembler of objects, a poetic inventor. The first “object of affection” – as he liked to call such finds – was his Lampshade (1919), a suspended cardboard spiral like an opened out wide-bottom lampshade: both “mobile” (before Alexander Calder coined the phrase) and altered “ready-made”, still usable as a lampshade, but an anarchic demonstration of the dictum “everything is possible from nothing”. A variant of the 1957 Lampshade sold for just €9,400 in 2008 (Sotheby’s Paris, July 3). In fact, that was a particularly good buy, as no other copy has been seen at auction since then.
Two years after the Lampshade, Man Ray created another object that subsequently became famous: The Gift (1921), an iron with a row of upholstering tacks glued to its base. This ironic (no pun intended) and “dangerous” gift was subsequently produced in several different editions leading to strong price fluctuations. Units from the edition of 10 sell for between $10,000 and $25,000 on average (even if they lack one or two nails), while units from the edition of 5,000 trade for between $600 and $3,000 on average, depending on the condition of the piece and the prestige of the auction house. Not many of his ready-mades fetch over $100,000. However among those that do we find Vénus restaurée (1936), Pêchage (1969), Reliure (1953), Knights of the Square Table (1946/61), Astrolabe, it’s a small Word (1964), Ce Que Manque à Nous Tous (1935/72) and Objet à détruire (1923, renamed Objet indestructible in 1957), another famous object made with a metronome whose pendulum is decorated with a photograph of a woman’s eye.

Man Ray is one of the rare artists whose fame has not fuelled extravagant prices. Less than a year ago (15 November 2014) Sotheby’s offered 270 works direct from his estate. Some drawings fetched around $3,000 and some “objects of affection” went for less than $5,000. Even oil paintings sold for less than $10,000 … The treasure was sold in France (Paris) where most of his works reside. But Man Ray is also part of the history of American modernism and, as such, is particularly sough-after in the United States. Man Ray is still unknown in Asia, except in Japan where some auction operators include his works in their catalogues.