Man Ray

Liberating photography
29.03 – 04.08.2024
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“To be totally liberated from painting and its aesthetic implications” was the first avowed aim of Man Ray (United States, 1890-1976), who began his career as a painter. Photography was one of the major breakthroughs of modern art and led to a rethinking of notions of representation. In the 1920s and 30s, the photographic medium came to the forefront of the avant-garde movement, and Man Ray soon made a name for himself with his virtuosity. As a studio portraitist and fashion photographer, but also as an experimental artist who explored the potential of photography with the people around him, Man Ray was a multi-faceted figure. Considered one of the 20th century’s major artists, close to Dada and then Surrealism, he photographed Paris’ artistic milieu between the wars.


Curated from a private collection, the exhibition explores the artist’s extensive social contacts while presenting some of his most iconic works. In addition to providing a dazzling who’s who of the Parisian avant-garde, the works also highlight the innovations in photography made by Man Ray in Paris in the 1920s and 30s.


He took his first photographs in New York in the 1910s, but it was in Paris that his career took off. Even before opening his studio in Montparnasse in 1922, Man Ray worked for a year in his hotel room. The photographer's reputation grew, and before long, the artist's studio was flourishing. Fashion photographs alternated with portraits of the artistic figures of the day who had made Paris’ notoriety: Marcel Duchamp, whom he met in New York in 1915 and who introduced him to the Parisian artistic elite, as well as Robert Delaunay, Georges Braque, Alberto Giacometti and Pablo Picasso, among others, who posed for the photographer. His portraits also included Ballets Russes dancers and guests at the Count de Beaumont's ball.

As soon as he arrived in Paris in the summer of 1921, Man Ray immediately became part of the Parisian intelligentsia of the Roaring Twenties. He met Jean Cocteau, who was himself a fixture of the Parisian art scene, André Breton, Francis Picabia, Joan Miró, Salvador Dalí, Henri Matisse and Max Ernst. He also met Gertrude Stein, Virginia Woolf, Igor Stravinsky, Ernest Hemingway, Arnold Schoenberg and James Joyce, whom he photographed for the Anglo-American bookshop Shakespeare and Company. But Man Ray was not merely content to have celebrities pose in his studio or to explore the female nude genre by working with those he considered his muses, such as Lee Miller, Kiki de Montparnasse, Meret Oppenheim and Adrienne Fidelin.

Creative process

Man Ray also experimented in the darkroom, transforming the photographic medium into a powerful tool of artistic expression, even going so far as to do away with the camera when, in 1921-1922, he began creating photograms, which he coined "rayographs" after himself. He explained that working with light in the darkroom allowed him to free himself from painting, so convinced was he of the visual power of his experiments. Also in the 1920s, he experimented with the moving image and produced four films. The rhythm and freedom offered by the cinema complemented his photographic work, in which he saw a close relationship between film and poetry. This is why he gave his film Emak Bakia (1926) the subheading of "cinépoème". Without ever abandoning portraiture, he experimented with other techniques in the 1930s: solarization, overprinting and other distortions.

From the outset, photography has been more than a simple process of reproduction. For him, images were not taken fleetingly, but meticulously realized indoors. Unlike Henri Cartier-Bresson who opted for the spontaneous gesture and saw the street as a privileged playground, Man Ray composed and staged his photographs. The studio provided him with a space in which to explore his imagination. Some of the themes dear to the Surrealists can be found in his work: femininity, sexuality, strangeness, the boundary between dream and reality. His nude studies were part of his artistic research, which he developed in close collaboration with his companions who were part of the Parisian art scene. Kiki de Montparnasse–the woman with the f-holes of a violin on her back–whose real name was Alice Prin, was a dancer, singer, actress and painter who posed for artists such as Chaïm Soutine and Kees van Dongen. Lee Miller, a fellow New Yorker like him, had begun a modeling career in the United States but wanted to move to the other side of the camera. She met the photographer in Paris in 1929 when she was 22-years old, and became active in the Surrealist movement. More than a muse, she became his collaborator, learning photography at his side. Together, they discovered the technique of solarization. Another artist with whom Man Ray had a professional and romantic relationship was the Swiss artist Meret Oppenheim, who was close to the Surrealist scene before pursuing an independent career as an artist.

Man Ray loved the freedom his photographic creations afforded him, and portraits and fashion photography enabled him to earn a living. It was in his studio that he embarked on a series of visual experiments. His portraits, which are relatively classical in style, testify not only to his commercial success, but also to his great sociability. Artists from Montparnasse, Surrealists, fashion and nightlife celebrities, patrons of the arts, Americans in Paris–the entire artistic elite–passed through his studio, as was the case with Nadar in the 19th century. Almost 50 years after Man Ray's death, his photographs continue to fascinate us. His impact on the history of the medium is undeniable, and he served as an inspiration to photographers of the caliber of Berenice Abbott, Bill Brandt and Lee Miller. Man Ray remains one of the most famous photographers of the 20th century. He never stopped creating, without prejudice or constraint.


In 2024, Plateforme 10’s three museums–the MCBA, Photo Elysée and the mudac–join forces for an exceptional Surrealist season.

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Exhibition text


The exhibition is supported by the Loterie Romande, the Fondation Le Cèdre, the Fondation ARPE, Le Cercle of Photo Elysée and the Office fédéral de la culture (OFC).

The Surrealism Season receives support from the Loterie Romande.