On ViewDi Donna Galleries
with Timothy Baum
Man Ray’s Paris Portraits: 1921–1939
April 26 – June 2, 2023
As Emmanuel Di Donna says in his introduction to this splendid display of vintage portrait photographs by the indisputably great Man Ray, these works do indeed capture “the essence of Parisian life between 1921 and 1939.” How not already to love the verb “capture”? For the heady perfume of these astonishing portraits immediately imprisons the viewer, while the faces seem to speak of so much literature and more, and recall so many other visages of various memorizable pasts of these years. We the present readers of these countenances cannot perhaps undo our separate and collective “remembrances of things past”—having been riveted over the years by that unforgettable deathbed photo of Marcel Proust of 1922, recalling multiple memories of the near and far past.
Let me say, straight off and in no uncertain terms, that the very personal approach of Timothy Baum enhances his immediately recognizable and undeniably intimate remarks about Man Ray’s works every single time. In another case, about another writer and expert, I might be tempted to praise “every elaboration,” referring to these captions. But these are not elaborations, or even interpretations—as we occasionally say of translations—for they feel wedded to his own treasuring of each image, being in no sense extraneous. Rather, they speak from and within an experience they are willing, perhaps even eager, to share with us. Nor do we feel any desire to impose these never lengthy remarks upon the rare and cherished images, but quite simply to state their relevance to us all, like a more or less collective reception in the present, notwithstanding their chronological pastness.
A few specific remarks: how can anyone not be enticed into the wheel of the Méret Oppenheim image, entitled Erotique Voilée (1933), not so veiled or hidden after all, with her navel appropriately exposed and the hub of the wheel making itself felt, while the printer’s ink adorning her left arm speaks loudly of the artistic medium she practiced?
Of course, I have my favorites, Erik Satie a major bizarrely brilliant presence among them. How I remember his Vexations (ca. 1893), lasting overnight at the Guggenheim, and performed by a steady stream of pianists with a certain solemnity. And I’ve always had a (usually unspoken) admiration for Augustus John, womanizer though he was.
See the hysterically funny double portrait of Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap, both asleep but with heads pointed in opposite directions. I find myself always taken by double images, like that of Louis Aragon and André Breton, doubly more captivating than the serious-faced Aragon alone. Somehow, this portrait retains Breton’s magnetic attraction of a face: responding to Timothy Baum’s personal voice, I admit that it was Breton’s face that swept me into surrealism, “goodness me,” as we used to exclaim! Just take a look at his two single portraits in this volume. Still on the topic of double portraits, how not to revel in the joy of Paul Éluard with Nusch? I bet that neither of them ever looked so happy in a shot, like a shot of whiskey.
Revelations abound: Janine Kahn, sister to Simone Breton, with her interesting doll-like face cradled in her hands as she is slowly surveying you. How did Man Ray manage to pose such sideways figures as the Princesse Marthe Bibesco, her gown remarkably, dramatically half-draped, as she contemplates her own fingers enclosing an object. We don’t really care about it, since the permission for a certain haughtiness is somehow given, as it is for the Duchesse de Gramont, again looking sideways with her strong-jawed face above her sumptuous furpiece.
Hooray for the cars in memory and presence: André Derain is displayed, smallish in his Bugatti, sharing his enthusiasm for exotic motorcars with Man Ray and Picabia. This passion reminds me how Robert Motherwell was inspired with that very same motorcar.
Impossible not to admire Timothy Baum’s own enthusiasms and their personality, like Mary Butts’s work being “blessedly being reprinted and enjoyed once again” and “The great noble Georges Braque.” “Ah yes,” begins a caption for Jacques Rigaut, and this intimate expression is echoed in several places. Particularly endearing are such remarks as his plea for information about two female chess players to the readers of this catalogue: “If you know, please pass that information on to me.”
Given my own attachment to one poet/artist, gladly expressed in my recent Mina Loy: Apology of Genius, I was delighted by the lovely, solarized photograph of her daughter Joella, to whom she gave birth with the British photographer Stephen Haweis. She has the inescapable and enduring beauty of her mother. Thank goodness, Timothy Baum explains solarization as he manifests it, in the superb profile of André Breton which bears Man Ray’s dedication to Baum himself: “Burnishing the negative (usually of the glass plate variety) with a flash or bead of intense light, he could highlight the images by outlining or distorting at will.”
What a perceiver is Timothy Baum, whose choice of Man Ray’s Paris images bespeaks this gift perfectly. We cannot not notice Jean Cocteau with Cane (early 1920s), in which the cane takes visible precedence over the solemn figure of the writer/playwright/painter/actor/director. He contemplates the cane as it snakes its way toward the handkerchief in his pocket. It’s all very wonderfully odd. Just look at the “elegant and proper” mystery lady Alice (1929) and her “unknown story,” where he notices the sitter’s “apparent discomfort”: indeed! Exactly what others might not notice, he does. We must mightily applaud him and the Di Donna gallery right now.