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Delishly dishy, gossipy & scandalous, Man Ray exhibit at VMFA is a ray of light
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Delishly dishy, gossipy & scandalous, Man Ray exhibit at VMFA is a ray of light

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When the American photographer Man Ray arrived in Paris in 1921, he met Gertrude Stein, the writer, poet and playwright, who held lively Saturday night literary salons that drew luminaries like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway.

She introduced him to her social circle and soon he started taking portraits of the best and the brightest in Paris: Hemingway, James Joyce, Jean Cocteau.

Man Ray became Stein’s official photographer in the 1920s, until they had a falling out over a bill he sent her for a photograph that she refused to pay. They never spoke again.

That’s exactly what Man Ray: The Paris Years, the new exhibit at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, is all about. A delishly dishy, gossipy, scandalous, and fascinating window into Paris from the 1920s to the 1940s.

“This show is not just about Man Ray but about his subjects,” Michael Taylor, the museum’s chief curator and curator of the show, said. His subjects “had an identity they were trying to express and Man Ray helped them do that,” Taylor said.

For instance, Hemingway is photographed with a bandage wrapped around his head and wearing a felt hat.

“People wonder, what’s that bandage for? Is it a war wound or from fighting the bulls in Pamplona?” Taylor asked mischievously. “No, it’s from when Ernest went to Man Ray’s for a party and got drunk. He went to the bathroom and he thought he was pulling the chain for the toilet, but it was for a casement window. He pulled the chain so hard, the window came crashing down on his head.”

Often portrayed as the very portrait of machismo, Hemingway’s photo by Man Ray shows another side of the fearless war reporter and hard-drinking writer.

“This is a very accessible story. You don’t have to be an art aficionado to enjoy this exhibition because the stories are so compelling,” Taylor said.

Born Emmanuel Radnitzky, the artist grew up in New York where his friends called him “Manny.” He abbreviated his name to Man Ray, arguably one of the greatest artist names of all time. Although he worked in many art forms – including film, objects and painting – he mostly focused on photography during his time in Paris from 1921 to 1940.

In Paris, Man Ray met Cocteau, the prolific poet, novelist, actor, costume designer, filmmaker and musician, and took his photograph which he deemed “a great success.” The two became fast friends and Cocteau introduced Man Ray to poets, painters, actors, ballet dancers, composers and musicians—people like Max Jacob, Serge Lifar, and Igor Stravinsky, expanding Man Ray’s social circle and clientele.

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Man Ray took Marcel Proust’s photo on his deathbed, which Man Ray said was the most challenging and disagreeable assignment he ever had. Cocteau, who had been a character in Proust’s “Remembrance of Things Past,” recommended Man Ray to Proust’s family to take the portrait.

Man Ray removed the flowers that were on the bed and instead honed in on Proust’s severe and emaciated features. “I think it’s really poignant to see death the way they did,” Taylor said. “I just think he really delivered [with this photograph].” Prints of the photo can be found in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles.

Man Ray also took the famous author photograph of Joyce for “Ulysses.” The Irish author was in between two eye operations and thick glasses dominated his face. Joyce had 10 operations to save his degenerating eyesight and often wore a black patch over his left eye. In Man Ray’s studio, the bright lights hurt his eyes. Man Ray captured Joyce looking down, resting his eyes “and gets this great, melancholic portrait,” Taylor said.

Besides the well-known faces, Man Ray: The Paris Year introduces viewers to many not-as-well known but equally fascinating figures.

Take Barbette, the elegant trapeze artist and high-wire entertainer, born Vander Clyde Broadway, who transformed herself into Barbette. She would perform as a woman and at the end of the show: remove her wig. American audiences didn’t like it, Taylor said. But when she moved to Paris, she became a sensation. Man Ray’s photograph of her reveals the duality of her fluid identity: focusing on the beauty of her feminine face, but also the strength of her masculine arms and shoulders.

Man Ray also became fascinated by the modern woman: adventurous, independent women who smoked cigarettes, drove fast cars and fashioned their own identities. His photograph of Lee Miller, a fashion model and cover girl for Vogue, captures her radiance and beauty and shows off Man Ray’s solarization technique, which gives Miller a halo-like outline.

Miller knew that her shelf life as a model was limited and became interested in photography. She introduced herself to Man Ray at a Paris nightclub by saying, “I’m Lee Miller and I’m your new assistant.” She started work in his studio and the two also became lovers. After they broke up, she became a successful photographer. She became one of the few female combat photographers embedded with Allied troops in World War II. Known for being first on the scene, she famously had her picture taken in Adolf Hitler’s bathtub on the same day as his suicide.

Many of the photos in the exhibit come from the private collection of Sir Elton John, yes that Elton John. The singer owns one of the most comprehensive modernist photography collections in the world. You can tell which photographs come from his collection at a glance. Simply look for the photos in the elaborate, gilt and baroque frames: those are Elton John’s.

At the center of the show, viewers can watch Man Ray’s 1926 film, “Emak-Bakia” in a theater the VMFA created for the show. Man Ray called the short film a “cinépoème” with its flashing, dreamlike images. “He wanted to visually stimulate your senses with unexpected images,” Taylor said.

The show follows Man Ray’s time in Paris, photographing the avant-garde and the surrealists, up until 1940 when the Germans invaded France and Man Ray, who was Jewish, was forced to flee and return to the United States.

But others, like the model and artist Sonia Mossé, photographed by Man Ray and featured in the exhibit, weren’t so lucky. She was a surrealist artist and a performer in a lesbian cabaret, Le Capricorne. In 1943, she was denounced as a Jew by the Gestapo and taken to the Sobibór extermination camp where she was murdered in a gas chamber.

“Man Ray had an American passport and money. He was able to leave, but many of the people photographed in this exhibit didn’t,” Taylor said.

ccurran@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6151

Twitter: @collcurran

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