Tag Archives: Man Ray

From Ben-Day to Man Ray

1 Mar

As soon as the escalator emerged at level 2 of Tate Modern, I knew I had made a mistake. Why oh why would I have thought a Friday morning in half term was a good time to visit an exhibition of one of the most popular and recognisable artists in the world who was one of the central figures of American Pop Art? A momentary oversight I think. But, I was there and, as I’d been looking forward to seeing the Lichtenstein exhibition for quite some time, in I went.

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Queues to get into Tate’s latest exhibition. Own photograph.

Tate say that this is the first major Lichtenstein retrospective in over 25 years – I’m not sure why everyone is forgetting the Hayward’s 2004 retrospective which was then billed as the first major retrospective in 35 years. It’s obviously a catchy marketing line. Tate’s show brings together one hell of a lot of works, just over 125 to be precise, including some of Lichtenstein’s most well-known paintings and some less-known sculptures in steel and brass alongside early works, monochrome images of everyday objects, unseen drawings, collages and works on paper.

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Roy Lichtenstein, Wham!, 1963. Image via www.theweek.co.uk.

Everyone knows Lichtenstein for his work based on comic strips with Ben-Day dots but this exhibition seeks to show that there is so much more to him than this. Inspired by the commercial imagery of advertising, Lichtenstein transformed this aesthetic, painting everything by hand in a strangely depersonalised way.

Lichtenstein’s most well-known pieces are displayed in room four which, ironically, is easy to miss as it juts off to one side and does not provide a link to the end of the exhibition as you would expect. These comic book scenes are certainly not as simple as they initially appear; they capture the zeitgeist of their era, funny but with a poignant and often desolate overtone. They are often a reflection of Lichtenstein’s own life – in his Masterpiece a blonde tells the artist ‘…this painting is a masterpiece! My, soon you’ll have all of New York clamouring for your work.’ Of course, it wasn’t just New York clamouring for a slice of Lichtenstein. His work has now been the subject of over 240 solo exhibitions and there can be no doubt that he defines the enduring legacy of Pop. It seems the blonde was on the money.

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Roy Lichtenstein, Masterpiece, 1962. Image via www.londonist.com.

The first few rooms are engaging and momentous and then we sit on a downward slide (sadly, the more exciting slide of Carsten Höller are long gone). This exhibition isn’t doing Lichtenstein any favours. It certainly isn’t fair to say he was a one-trick pony but he knew what he was good at and some of his experiments should really not be hanging on Tate’s walls. The lack of soul in his pieces (a self-conscious decision of his style that dictated success) means his landscape works and, indeed, his self-portrait give very little away and so don’t require very long to view. Maybe the less-known works are diminished by the strength of his more recognisable pieces. Maybe they just aren’t as good. Room seven looks at works where he plays with pieces by other artists – his rip off works – and here I saw how he had ruined works by Picasso, Matisse, Mondrian and many others. I began to groan.

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Roy Lichtenstein, Non-Objective I, 1964. Image via www.independent.co.uk

Yet, it’s hard not to like his art and the simplicity of the subjects often makes us smile. The works aren’t as simply executed as they appear and required careful calculation and meticulous planning, bringing together his thoughtful techniques with the exact reproduction of found images. He may have repeated the system but he worked continuously to ensure he was exploring new subjects and themes. He was an avid producer.

The show offers a fabulous overview and exploration of Lichtenstein’s career and progression, something we are rarely allowed to see by galleries showing the popular pieces that pull in the punters. My worry at the beginning had been the huge numbers of visitors but actually it was lovely to see so many people engaging with the works. If the crowds weren’t enough of an indication that this show will do well, the shop says it all. It won’t be long before we start to spot tourists wearing Tate’s dotty t-shirts and carrying Lichtenstein canvas bags.

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The Lichtenstein shop. Own photograph.

I, of course, couldn’t resist the catalogue – another beautiful Tate publication – and had to lug it around for the rest of the day. No wonder I have a sore back, it’s carrying all these irresistible books in stilettos.

i5VhtnWvSoHQRoy Lichtenstein, Step-on Can with Leg, 1961. Image via www.bloomberg.com.

A couple of days later I found myself at the National Portrait Gallery for their Man Ray exhibition. We think of Man Ray and we think of dazzling photographs of fashionable people. This exhibition doesn’t disappoint, following him around Paris, New York, Hollywood and London, watching his style transform but never diminish.

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Man Ray, Catherine Deneuve, 1968. Image via www.ultravie.co.uk.

His portraits often reference great painters and known works of art. While he made his living as a commercial photographer for fashion magazines such as Vogue, Vanity Fair and Harper’s Bazaar, he was first and foremost an artist, a Surrealist and a Dadist who pushed boundaries to create exciting and exemplary portraits. He was a visual innovator who often stripped scenes or poses right back, the bare bones providing all the beauty he required – narrative wasn’t necessary. Not of all of his works do this however and some just capture a prescribed pose.

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Man Ray, Le Violon d’Ingres, 1924. Image via www.londonist.com.

There can be no doubt that Man Ray’s photographs are beautiful; his photographs of Lee Miller, his lover and muse, are stunning. But she’s certainly not the only lover we see here – before her was Kiki and after her Ady Fidelin, then Juliet Browner who he married and remained with until his death. These women guide us through his life. It’s not just women though – Man Ray’s photographs show us his friends and colleagues; there’s Picasso, Braque, Duchamp, Stravinsky, le Corbusier, Hemmingway, Peggy Guggenheim, James Joyce and many more.

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Man Ray, Pablo Picasso, 1933. Image via http://arthistory.about.com.

Man Ray was a photographer who had the gift of being able to capture the life and soul of his subjects. He manages to immortalise these people in the way they wanted to be seen whilst retaining their natural beauty and truth.

Man Ray’s images are so familiar to us that it seems hard to believe that this is the first show of his work at a British gallery. The NPG have included over 150 prints dating from 1916 to 1968, tracing his career. It is well-arranged curatorially in sections that focus on different periods of Man Ray’s life, finishing off back in Paris.

Many of these images are small-scale and it’s hard to appreciate them fully when seen, black and white, en masse. I’ve probably spent longer pouring over the catalogue (yes I bought another one) than I did in the exhibition. Their energy gets somewhat lost in the gallery but the creativity of Man Ray still shines through.

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Lichtenstein: A Retrospective is at Tate Modern until 27th May 2013, http://www.tate.org.uk. Man Ray Portraits is at the National Portrait Gallery until 27th May 2013, http://www.npg.org.uk.

Sète Pieces – Musée Paul Valéry

16 Sep

At night, the lights of Sète shine across the étang from Marseillan.  During the day, Sète is a busy commercial port but it is also known for its art (and seafood).  You could easily spend the day exploring its four museums and numerous smaller galleries.  Sadly, I had time for only one.  The Musée Paul Valéry is named after the town’s famous poet.

Musée Paul Valéry, Sète. Own photograph.

Musée Paul Valéry has recently undergone a major refurbishment – it is nicely designed and a pleasure to walk through.  Their permanent collection focuses on local artists with a strong maritime theme but, unfortunately, it’s not up to much.  Some of the works are really rather bad and it won’t take you more than ten minutes to walk through this part of the museum.

Musée Paul Valéry, Sète. Own photograph.

Upstairs is a different story and the current exhibition, Juan Gris: rimes de la forme et de la couleur, is an unexpected delight.

Born 1887, Gris’s family had determined he would become an engineer but, contrary to their wishes, he chose a more artistic route.  Arriving in Paris in 1906, he met Picasso and numerous other influential artists of the time and witnessed the emergence of Cubism.  There is no doubt that Gris was instantly smitten although, for some years, in order to make a living, the majority of his time was given over to contributing drawings to periodicals.

Man Ray, Juan Gris in 1922. Image via http://museepaulvalery-sete.fr/

Gris watched and learnt from his artist friends.  Borrowing techniques from the analytical style of early Cubism, he broke away from the Cubist palette and distinguished himself from Picasso and Braque by introducing his own vision, working in the style of Synthetic Cubism.

Juan Gris, La vue sur la baie, 1921. Own photograph.

I was already a fan of Gris’s painting and there is no doubt that he is a successful master of composition.  His scientific mind is evident from his studies and some of his works are very minimalistic and austere.

The exhibition is extensive and follows Gris’s entire career – brief though it was.  Quotes on the wall from Gris and his contemporaries are a nice touch.  A series of unusual drawings from 1910-11 is an interesting inclusion that I hadn’t seen before.

During World War One, he developed his own syntax and his shapes are formed by an enigmatic interaction between line and colour.  Gris invites the spectator to consider the forms he has presented.  As objects balance and perch one on top of another, they vie for our attention in a subtle and understated way.  His works are not about making big bangs but taking a back seat in a powerful way.

Juan Gris, Arlequin assis à la guitare, 1919. Own photograph. 

Although still lives dominate Gris’s oeuvre, there are still characters all of whom have an identifiable aspect.  Despite these recognisable features, the ‘portraits’ have an absence of reality – they are more human prototypes than actual people.  The figures belong to a dramatised fiction, accompanied by an occasionally unsettling timeless silence.

After the war, Gris developed ‘visual rhymes’ where there was more room for metaphors of shape.  The works from 1920-25 are striking for their extreme simplicity and thick heavy outlines.  He repeatedly studies the same subject, managing to vary the method or portrayal each time with an almost poetic intuition.

Juan Gris, Personnage assis, 1920. Own photograph.

This is a large but easily palatable exhibition, spaciously hung and enjoyable to visit.  The reflections in the glass are often a problematic distraction, but this is an on-going concern of mine.

Gris was prolific – although he painted for less than 20 years, he left around 600 paintings.  This is a great introduction to the artist if you are not already familiar with him.

Directly across the road from the gallery is the Cimetière Marin – the Sailor’s Cemetery.  Perched on a cliff and facing the sea, this is one of Sète’s most famous places and has one of the most stunning views.  It also houses the grave of Paul Valéry himself.  With an impressive air of Classicism surrounding the layered tombs, it is definitely worth a visit.

Cimetière Marin, Sète. Own photograph.

Sète itself is tranquil, yet bustling and unpretentious.  If you manage to avoid the more touristy areas, it’s a charming town to visit.  I headed off on a boat to tour the canals and then once more unto the beach.  Surprise, surprise I headed back to La Ola for the rest of the afternoon to soak up some rays!

Sète. Own photograph.

Juan Gris: rimes de la forme et de la couleur is at Musée Paul Valéry until 31st October 2011, http://museepaulvalery-sete.fr/.

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