I’m leading a tour of the Man Ray Portraits exhibition on 16 May themed around all things sartorial. Of course, Man Ray is the creator of iconic portraits of two of the best known designers of the twentieth century: Coco Chanel and Elsa Schiaparelli, both of which feature in the exhibition. And Man Ray worked within the industry himself for a number of years, contributing his innovative Surrealist fashion photographs to magazines including Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and the lesser known Charm, as Curator Terence Pepper discusses in the exhibition catalogue. More fundamentally however, details of dress are revealed throughout the exhibition to be instrumental in creating the arresting style of photographic portraiture that Man Ray is celebrated for.
The wider relationship between fashion and Surrealism is well documented. Exhibitions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (1988) and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London (2007) and myriad books and essays have explored both the influence of art on the haute-couture of the period (Salvador Dalí’s collaboration with Schiaparelli is an obvious example) and also the function of clothes and fashion paraphernalia within Surrealism (for instance the dressmaker’s mannequin). Broadening the focus, I will investigate what the surreal – and often not-so-surreal – fashions worn by Man Ray’s subjects tell us about the preoccupations of the avant-garde of Europe and America in the period; how they evoke art historical categories such as Orientalism, Primitivism or Structuralism. The clothes and accessories also attest to episodes in the lives of the artists, writers, performers, dignitaries and society figures who sat for Man Ray’s camera; helping to animate our understanding of these historical figures.
One photograph from the exhibition depicts the actress Génica Athanasiou wearing a thick, patterned cloak. This item of clothing not only aids the composition of Man Ray's portrait, serving as a contrast to the plain background, but research revealed it was designed by Coco Chanel for Jean Cocteau’s 1922 production of Sophocles’ Antigone. It was Chanel’s first major costuming commission and, in addition to the cloak, she also designed Grecian dresses, much praised in reviews, for the other roles. Chanel’s recent biographer, Axel Madsen, recalls the designer’s temper during one rehearsal when the stage sets – designed by Picasso – were drawing more attention than Chanel’s costumes. Evidently she marched on stage and pulled a thread on one of the costumes, which duly unravelled, reducing the assistant who had knitted the garment to tears.
The glittering Poiret gown worn by art collector and socialite Peggy Guggenheim, the dandyism of Jean Cocteau, the cross-dressing of Duchamp and the sheer extravagance of the costumes worn by eccentric heiress Marchesa Casati make for a display rich in terms of both design history and biography; a unique collection of figures who are represented via an
equally unique collection of portraits.
Image Credit (top to bottom)
Coco Chanel, 1935 by Man Ray Museum Ludwig Cologne, Photography Collections (Collection Gruber) © Man Ray Trust / ADAGP © Copy Photograph Rheinisches Bildarchiv Köln
Henry Crowder, 1928-30 by Man Ray Collection du Centre Pompidou, Mnam/Cci, Paris, AM 1994-394 (463) © Man Ray Trust / ADAGP, Paris © Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI, Dist. RMN / image Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI
Antigone: Théâtre de l'Atelier in Le Théâtre et Comœdia Illustré. Courtesy of Bibliothèque historique de la Ville de Paris.
As part of the exhibition Man Ray Portraits