(Published on ARTSCLASH)
The problem with the National Portrait Gallery is that it has to focus exclusively on portraits. This might feel like a stupid thing to say, like saying “the problem with this forest is there’s just so many bloody trees”, but spending the afternoon at the gallery’s Man Ray exhibition really highlights why it can be an issue. Obviously, any NPG exhibition has to be based on the portrait. If the artist you’re showing has created portraits in great quality and quantity, this can make for a great show like last year’s almost agonisingly amazing Lucian Freud Portraits.
However, when you have either quality or quantity missing, it’s not going to be great. With Man Ray, quality is not an issue – after all, aren’t al most of his famous works portraits – the girl with the opal tears, the girl with the violin on her back (Violon d’Ingres, featured in this show), Black & White (the image I began with), portraits?
However, this exhibition seems to suggest that quantity has been a definite problem, meaning the gallery has had to widen their definition of what a portrait is. This means there is a lot of casual photographs of his famous friends and some of his commercial work. Which is great if you want to know that Picasso had a face and liked to occasionally to see other people, but not so wonderful if you’ve come to see interesting art. Not only that, but it diminishes Man Ray as an artist, turning him from art genius to a sort of second-rate surrealist snapshotter.
This is a great shame, as the art portraits proper here are fantastic, showing Man Ray as a master of light and shade, and inventor of solarisation, without which the late ’60s would look like…well, the early ’60s. His portraits of lover Lee Miller are things of genuine beauty, but of course the greater his work gets the more mediocre the other pictures seem, and the more lazy his commercial work seems.
So all in all, a rather disappointing exhibiting, definitely not the sort of thing that’s going to give you a man crush on the ‘Ray (as no one’s called him ever). Unless you don’t know what Picasso looks like. Then by all means give it a visit.