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Man Ray’s Montparnasse, Herbert R. Lottman, Harry N. Abrams Inc.

First published in the Riffulator, April, 2002.

From the end of World War I until the Nazi invasion of France in September of 1939, Paris was the world center for modern art. The Bohemian quarter known as Montparnasse–comprising the taverns, cafés, artist studios, and galleries centered on the intersection of the Rue de Montparnasse and the boulevard Raspail–drew artists, writers, and poets from around the world who were searching for a place hospitable to creativity. The low rents and favorable currency exchange rate didn’t hurt either. Visitors to the district were a veritable who’s who of the avant- garde: Pablo Picasso, Andre Breton, Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, James Joyce, and many others. Some came for a quick look around, while others stayed for decades.

To write a history of this kaleidoscopic district, Herbert R. Lottman decided to focus on one particular artist, the photographer and painter Man Ray, who left his native New York for Paris in 1921 and stayed until the outbreak of war. His amiable nature and skill at portrait photography led him to meet and befriend many of the most important figures in Montparnasse at the peak of that district’s influence. He was also a prominent member of the Dada and Surrealist groups, while his work as a fashion photographer shaped that genre for decades to come. By recounting Ray’s remarkable career, Lottman concurrently provides a brief, informal history of one of the twentieth century’s most creative communities.

Born Emmanuel Radnitsky, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants, Ray grew up in Brooklyn and early on displayed a talent for the arts. The 1913 New York Armory Show–in which America had its first look at the European avant garde–turned Ray towards experimentation. He was soon participating with the French Dadaists, contributing works of art to their exhibits in Paris and distributing their publications in New York. By 1921, when his friend Marcel Duchamp returned to France after visiting America, Ray followed, rightly convinced that the sort of work he was doing would be more appreciated in Europe than at home.

At first, Ray earned a living in Montparnasse with his camera. The painter Francis Picabia needed to have a photographic record of his paintings done and called upon Ray’s services. Other painters soon followed suit; Ray also began taking photographic portraits of the artists as well. Lottman’s book is illustrated with Ray’s formal portraits of Max Ernst, Salvador Dali, Luis Buñuel, Jean Cocteau, Peggy Guggenheim, Pablo Picasso, Tristan Tzara, René Magritte, and many others. In time, Ray served as official photographer to Dadaist costume balls, café openings, and even worked as wedding photographer for James Joyce’s daughter.

Ray’s most successful photographic work, however, took him far from the avant garde circles of Montparnasse. Picabia’s wife, a sometime fashion model, introduced Ray to the clothing designer Paul Poiret, who needed someone to photograph his latest designs. Give me “something different,” Poiret asked. But the budget was low, and Ray had to photograph the models at the company offices, not in a studio. By posing his models next to the paintings and sculptures in Poiret’s extensive collection of modern art, and using long exposures to counter the dim lighting in the Poiret offices, Ray created fashion photographs like none ever seen before. For better or worse, derivative imitations of Ray’s work comprise the pretentious, “arty” fashion photography still familiar to this day.

While Ray's photographic work is well represented in Lottman's history, his other art is curiously overlooked or downplayed. Only the famous Dada assemblage "Object of Destruction," in which a photograph of an eye is affixed to a metronome, is included. "The Gift," consisting of a flatiron covered with tacks, is mentioned but is not depicted. And not one of Ray's paintings is included either.

Lottman presents his story with a light, sometimes gossipy, touch, obviously enjoying the behind-the-scenes anecdotes and scandalous goings-on he recounts. His narrative sometimes takes on the air of a parade as one or another famous figure is introduced, nods briefly, and just as quickly departs. To be fair, Ray’s relationships with members of Montparnasse’s artistic elite were often fleeting. T. S. Eliot stopped by to have a portrait done. Neither man cared for the other and that was that. Ray was stiffed by a stingy Gertrude Stein and cut her off as well. But although Lottman's account is true to the nature of Ray's relationships with the famous artists he knew in Montparnasse, it somehow lacks a tangible something, a seriousness, an underpinning, a raison d'etre. We are introduced to artistic people in many fields, but why they are artists, why they create works in the manner they do, what makes their works worthy of our attention--these questions are skipped over and we are left with coffeehouse chatter. Charming, delightful, captivating coffeehouse chatter, but little more.

--Thomas Wiloch


Alchemist of the Avant Garde

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