African Art Inspires Modernist Photographer, Man Ray

Albuquerque, NM – UNM Art Museum hosts the exhibit Man Ray, African Art and the Modernist Lens from February 6 – May 30, 2010.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from this show beyond seeing work by Man Ray and some African sculpture.man ray photo Thus I was delighted to see that the show explores how African sculpture influenced and inspired a variety of photographers and artists during World War I and the years leading up to World War II.  It was particularly interesting to me, since in my own work I drawn inspiration from the ancient world, often incorporating ancient images and symbols into my work.

The point is made in the show’s notes that the advances in printing technologies in the early 20th century facilitated the reproduction of photographs of African objects.  This resulted in the widespread dissemination of these images around the world, crossing social, class and national boundaries.  So photography itself played a huge role in allowing photographers access to images which sparked their imaginations and sense of experimentation.

After World War I, many artists rejected the staid Western approach to art.  The African art images available to them became fuel for this rejection as they integrated other cultural approaches.  With new approaches to photography and non-Western objects as subject matter, photographers produced exciting, innovative work.  Man Ray, one of the founders of Surrealism, was at the forefront of this movement.

Together with other modernist photographers like James L. Allen, Cecil Beaton, Walker Evans, Charles Sheeler,  and Alfred Stieglitz, the exhibit shows the images Ray took of Carl Kjersmeier’s collection of African art side by side with the original figures.

But Man Ray’s photos blur the distinction between ethnographic documentation and modern art.  “He wasn’t interested in the object per se, but rather the modernist interpretation — the interplay between light and shadow,” said Wendy Grossman, curator of the exhibit.  This interplay of light and shadow is beautifully executed in his photograph of an Asante Female Figure.  The actual figure, though small,  exudes a deep dark power.  Man Ray’s photo tends to monumentalize and conceptualize the figure.  The power is transferred from the object to the artistic interpretation.

Man Ray photographed two other small pieces, an exquisite ivory pendant and a black whistle, placed together as if they were chess pieces in a chess game, a popular game among the Surrealists.  This photo creates an interplay between the two objects and invites the viewer to look at reality in a new way.

Upon first entering the show the viewer can see images from the Harlem Renaissance.  These images offer insight into our differing ideas on identity, race and gender.  Contrast James Allen’s photo of a man in intense, almost spiritual connection with a Kuba drinking vessel, to Clara Sipprell’s photo of artist Max Weber contemplating a Yaka figure while held at arm’s length.

The exhibit ends with a stunning display of  photographs of African art and Fashion.  One of Ray’s most famous pieces, Noire et Blanche, first appeared in Paris Vogue in 1926.   Here Ray works with a striking contrast of black and white between the alabaster painted face of Niki de Montparnasse and a black African mask.  The photograph raises questions about our fascination with the exotic and differing concepts of beauty.

The fashion photographs with white models wearing African jewelry and hats, though beautiful and innovative, raise questions about white culture’s appropriation of African culture.  Both Man Ray and Cecil Beaton photographed socialite Nancy Cunard wearing African bracelets covering both arms.  Or consider the photograph of a model wearing a hat stylishly but not as it would be worn in African tradition.  The art work becomes a mirror through which we, as a culture, can see ourselves, if only we will.

This show, before coming to Albuquerque, was at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C.  It can be seen at the UNM Museum through May 30, 2010.

Visit PBS’s Art Beat blog for more information on Man Ray, this exhibit and the exhibit Alias Man Ray: The Art of Reinvention.

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