New York

Man Ray

Man Ray’s particular brand of surrealism lends itself so naturally to the presentation of fashion that it is virtually impossible to separate the work exhibited in “Man Ray/Bazaar Years: A Fashion Retrospective,” from his larger artistic achievement. In the black and white photographs from the ’20s to the early ’40s included in this exhibition, the boundaries between his avant-garde surrealism and the fashion photographs is almost imperceptible.

Looking back at Man Ray’s prolific career, it seems less than surprising that the son of a tailor, who experimented with the materials of his father’s trade (irons, mannequins, fabrics), should turn to fashion photography. What is more, Man Ray was clearly comfortable with this medium, as it provided the perfect vehicle for unifying his photographic innovations and the transformation of his objets d’art into still lifes.

With the model as subject, Man Ray enlarged the scale of his still lifes to theatrical proportions. By placing the archetypal form of the woman in all sorts of theatrical circumstances, he was able to propose a subtle commentary on the underlying precepts of the fashion photograph as a vehicle geared to sell a product. The models, of course, are as much products as the items they wear, and, accordingly, he treats his subjects as mannequins, silhouettes, or dismembered body parts. Like consumer objects, they are displayed to provoke desire. In one advertisement for Chanel, three models in long evening gowns strike mannequinlike poses. Their arms extend outward, fingers separated as if stiff from rigor mortis, and their faces are completely expressionless, each apparently unaware of the other’s presence. Instead of simulating a gala ball, Man Ray gives us a scenario approximating a window display with live models mimicking mannequins.

The emphasis on the woman’s body as an armature upon which consumables hang is most evident in a series of photographs of legless fashion models from the ’40s. Here the body of a live model, again imitating the pose of a mannequin, is cropped at the waist. By severing her body, Man Ray not only draws attention to the clothing but to feminine body parts as consumer objects. Man Ray’s signature fashion ploys—the artful treatment of a lone foot, hand, or waistline—dissociates them from their life source and frees them to exist as esthetic abstractions.

By highlighting the commodification of the human body, Man Ray instigated a subtle form of subversion from inside the institution of fashion. The critical edge of this message, however, was increasingly absorbed into the fashion esthetic. One fashion article from 1935, which Man Ray illustrated, speaks about “the line we strive for [as] a smooth curve over the hips,” and a device such as Man Ray’s solarization technique naturally enhanced this professed esthetic of contour.

In fashion Man Ray discovered an arena in which high and popular art values could seamlessly cooperate. The demand for his fashion photographs soon became so great, however, that it threatened his separate career as an artist; his retreat from commercial work in 1942 attests to the overwhelming popular interest in his avant-garde esthetic. While Man Ray’s work in fashion popularized his surrealist agenda, the fashion industry’s embrace of his artful manipulations absorbed his radical innovations and ultimately made them palatable to the mainstream. As Dr. M. F. Agha, an art director at Vogue, observed in 1936, “What is a snobbish art scandal today, is an accepted style tomorrow, and a merchandised style the next day.”

Kirby Gookin