Man Ray’s Tribal Effect

Posted October 7, 2009 at 3:43pm

Sometimes it is not for an audience to understand what inspires an artist. A poet, painter or sculptor might create a dramatic work from abstract thought or from the seemingly mundane. Or, like famed photographer Man Ray, he might take it from two apparently unrelated ideas: tribal art and the avant-garde.

The Phillips Collection’s new exhibit, “Man Ray, African Art and the Modernist Lens,— showcases this innovative perspective of Man Ray and his contemporaries through avant-garde photography, African sculpture and craftsmanship, the Harlem Renaissance and high fashion.

The show highlights little-known themes, including Man Ray’s solidly American foundation and the wide-reaching influence of African art.

Man Ray, who was born in the United States as Emmanuel Radnitzky, is widely associated with the Parisian art scene. He did not move abroad until 1921, however, and spent many of his early years in New York. There is an interesting cross section, highlighted in the first room of the Phillips installation, between his work with African sculpture and that of artists of the Harlem Renaissance. Evidence of this is presented in the exhibit, from photographs Man Ray took of various statues, as well as photos from Alfred Stieglitz’s gallery, 291, a hotbed of avant-garde and African art.

Although Man Ray’s is the overarching story of the exhibit, curator Wendy Grossman said, the African theme is closely intertwined.

The influence is seen in a series of photographs taken by Carl Van Vechten, featuring the singer Billie Holiday, dancer Feral Benga and himself in a self-portrait posing with a statue of an African woman. Grossman also suggests that Loïs Mailou Jones’ famous “Les Fetiches— painting, which is widely associated with the Harlem Renaissance, was influenced not by foreign artists during her time in Paris, but by the work of American photographer Walker Evans.

The show progresses overseas, showing Man Ray’s work in Paris in particular, along with the African influence in other countries.

In addition to photographs and a few of the sculptures that inspired them — some of which are rarely seen — the exhibit includes books and programs that offer more insight into Man Ray’s professional life. Among these are a program for an exhibit of his work at the Galerie Surréaliste in Paris, as well as a volume that documents the holdings of the Danish collector Carl Kjersmeier. He and Man Ray worked together as the artist photographed the many pieces of African art that Kjersmeier had obtained.

The avant-garde interpretations from other areas include those by the artists Raoul Ubac of Belgium, Albert Renger-Patzsch of Germany and Josef Sudek of the Czech Republic. The inclusion of these pieces indicates the wide-reaching effect of African art.

According to Grossman, a hallmark of the Paris avant-garde, and particularly that of Man Ray, was a continual pushing away from conformity. This led to a surrealist use of the female body, illustrated in photos in which Man Ray has female models posing with a traditional African statue or sculpture.

In one example, he photographed Simone Kahn, the wife of the writer André Breton, staring at the camera while lying on her back and holding a statue on her stomach. Perhaps the most famous example of this technique is seen in his “Noire et Blanche,— in which his then-lover Kiki de Montparnasse poses, head down, eyes closed, with a tribal mask.

Interestingly, this famous image was first published not in any high-brow arts publication or show, but in Paris Vogue. An original copy of the issue in which the photo ran is also on display in the exhibit.

This provides a bridge to another element of the exhibit, the connections between Man Ray, African art, high fashion and pop culture.

Not surprisingly, socialite and fashion icon Nancy Cunard figures heavily into this portion of the exhibit. Cunard is credited with bringing African art and music into the mainstream through her style and the publication of jazz musician Henry Crowder’s compositions.

Man Ray photographed various models, including Caribbean dancer Adrienne Fidelin, another of his lovers, in tribal headpieces for his Mode au Congo series. His models for this collection included Fidelin and Consuelo de St. Exupéry, wife of Antoine de Saint Exupéry, author of “Le Petit Prince.—

The connection between high art and high fashion is further highlighted by photographs taken by Cecil Beaton, whose work appeared in British Vogue and Vanity Fair.

Although the exhibit might inspire some skepticism at the outset, as it seems a bit of a stretch to span continents, genres and disciplines to find a theme in an artist’s work, the story becomes clear and compelling throughout the show.

The Phillips Collection staff is making an effort to not only get people to the show, but talking about it as well. An interactive chat feature will be included when the exhibit opens to the public Saturday, in which visitors can tweet or text message responses to questions posed about the work being shown.

The expansive collection is illuminating not only in regards to the life and work of an esteemed artist, but into the use and interpretation of African art, as well.

The exhibit will run through Jan. 10.