Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Unconcerned but not indifferent: Man Ray

Entrance poster

This has been a well-publicised exhibit, a large retrospective covering the whole of Man Ray's life and work at the Hague Fotomuseum. An ambitious undertaking but can it be completed successfully? Let me begin by quoting from the press material
Unconcerned, but not indifferent is the first exhibition to reveal Man Ray’s complete creative process: from observations, ideas and sketches right through to the final works of art. By establishing the linkage between art and inspiration, it gives a new insight into the work of Man Ray.
Lofty ambitions for any exhibition. This idea of creative connections, and how the artist is influenced by his relationships is always of interest to me - bringing that to an exhibition is what moves a museum past being a mere gallery. The work on display is divided chronologically across the 4 periods in Man Ray's life; his early life in New York, moving to Paris before the war, escape to LA and a final return to Paris in 1951 until his death in 1976. In effect, though, the first period has little coverage and serves as a mere foreword to the rest of the work. There is a wide range of material on display - much photography, obviously. But also drawing, painting, sculpture and some of the famous "Rayographs" and materials used. The photographs are not great prints, although originals. Man Ray doesn't seem to have been what would be considered a "master print maker" but that is in keeping with his general philosophy (from the exhibit):
The mass production of his work always appealed to Man Ray, who had always had a tenuous relationship to the aur of art objects. the act of making a unique object, he claimed, was validated by its reporduction, by means of which the inspiration, or idea, was disseminated.
The photographic prints are actually quite small, although framed in such a way to draw the viewer in. Often several are framed as a group together, which adds context. So far, so good.

A wide range of exhibits: sketches, paintings, sculpture and, of course, photographs

The drawback of this range and variety of coverage is that it is necessarily fairly shallow. No particular area gets into any depth. The explanatory texts are brief and few, so I got very little sense of the connections between the man, his relationships and his work. I was left with many more questions than answers: When did his first marriage end? How did that relate to his relationship with Kiki de Montmartre? There was evidence of changes in stles and work - was that driven by changes in relationship or conscious development as an artist? What exactly was his relationship to contemporaries in Paris? As presented, Man Ray seemed little more than a portraitist to the stars, which is far short of the truth. How did Man Ray's work progress through ideas, photographs, painting & sculpture - which lead and which followed? Did this change over time (as seemed to be the case)? I would have liked to see rather more in the way of explanatory panels and text throughout. So what is my overall assessment? I think a less ambitious scope would have allowed greater depth of coverage and more exploration of the ideas. In many ways the exhibition falls short of the lofty ambitions. However, it is definitely a worthwhile exhibition and worthy of the modest entry fee but a little effort would have made it so much better. Visitors would be greatly rewarded by a little Man Ray research in advance.

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