NEW YORK — In 1940, Man Ray stepped off a boat in Hoboken, New Jersey, safe at last from the Nazi invasion and occupation of France. Aside from his sister Elsie Siegler and her daughter Naomi, there was no one to greet him — no flashbulbs popping, no reporters shouting questions about his escape or what he planned to do next.
It was a quiet welcome befitting the Jewish artist who spent a lifetime distancing himself from his past, his parents and his religion. Until his dying day, Ray, who was a significant contributor to the Dada, Surrealist and avant-garde movements, insisted on keeping the man he was apart from the art he created.
“Man Ray was not a self-reflective sort and viewed his life as something to craft and mold as if it were a work of art. To be an artist, he had to ‘go away.’ He was naturally inclined toward not divulging his past,” said author and journalist Arthur Lubow in a telephone interview with The Times of Israel.
Released last week, Lubow’s newest book, “Man Ray: The Artist and His Shadows,” is part of the Yale University Press “Jewish Lives” series. Lubow will discuss the book in a livestream event hosted by the Center for Jewish History on September 23.
The biography uses Ray’s Jewish roots as one lens through which to view the artist and his work. Yet, as prolific as Ray was, his elusiveness posed a challenge for Lubow.
“He constructed his entire persona, believing the biography of an artist should be separate from the art. That made it difficult to write,” said Lubow, who was on assignment for The New York Times in Memphis, Tennessee.
Lubow decided to structure his book around those who knew Ray best, including photographer and gallerist Alfred Stieglitz, French poet Paul Éluard, Ray’s lovers Kiki de Montparnasse and Meret Oppenheim, as well as his first wife, Adon Lacroix, and his third wife, Juliet Browner.
“He didn’t leave a lot of letters and diaries, and so I filled him out by researching the many people he knew well who had vital personalities and were less opaque,” Lubow said.
A challenging childhood
The eldest of four children, Emmanuel Radnitzky was born in South Philadelphia in 1890 to Jewish immigrants. His mother came from Minsk, his father from Kiev. When Emmanuel was seven, the family moved to the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, where both of his parents worked as tailors.
In 1912, the family changed their last name to Ray due to increasing antisemitism in the United States. By the 1920s, Jews would be denied housing, access to resort areas, membership in clubs and organizations. They would be barred from restaurants and hotels, and faced quotas on enrollment and teaching positions in colleges and universities.
Ultimately, Ray, who answered to the sobriquet “Manny,” changed his first name to Man. In time he simply became known as Man Ray.
“All the kids changed their names to something equally as clever. His sister Dora changed hers to Do Ray. They all thought it was helpful for their careers to have less conspicuous names,” Lubow said, adding that the choice of moniker reflected Ray’s “jokey” personality.
While Ray’s parents expected him to attend university after graduating Brooklyn’s Boy’s High School, he dreamed of being an artist. And so, much to their disappointment, he turned down an architecture scholarship. His parents’ frustration was short-lived, though, and they soon helped Ray turn his bedroom into a makeshift studio.
Even so, the sting of their initial disapproval lasted.
“Once when he was visiting New York, which was something he didn’t like to do, his niece had the gumption to ask him about his past,” Lubow said. “He told her, ‘I loved my parents, but they didn’t understand me.’”
While living in New York City, Ray frequently visited Stieglitz’s 291 gallery and took classes at the National Academy of Design and the Art Students League of New York.
Then, in 1915, he met the artist Marcel Duchamp. The two forged a tight bond. Together they discovered the New York Dada movement and collaborated on several pieces. Their rapport came as something of a surprise to Lubow.
“I didn’t know much about their friendship at the start of my research. I found it quite endearing and surprising. They were not at all competitors. They were mutually supportive in a way that you don’t often see between male artists,” he said.
If Ray’s friendships were a source of positivity, his relationships with women were less so.
In 1921, at the age of 30, Ray traded New York City for Paris. There he met and developed friendships with Salvador Dali, Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce and Gertrude Stein. He also met and fell in love with his assistant Lee Miller, a photographer in her own right. Theirs was a tumultuous affair that ultimately inspired one of Ray’s “readymade” objects — commercially manufactured items which he designated as works of art.
To make the piece titled “Object to be Destroyed,” Ray cut out an image of a woman’s eye and affixed it to a metronome. The eye was actually cut from a photograph of Miller, who had just terminated their three-year-long relationship.
“That was something,” Lubow said. “His friendships were more attractive qualities. I was horrified by the violence he showed toward women in some of his art.”
And yet, many of the women in Ray’s life, including Miller, loved him long after their romantic entanglements ended. Such was the case with the nightclub singer, actress, painter and model Kiki de Montparnasse, born Alice Prin.
In the iconic 1924 portrait “Le Violon d’Ingres,” Montparnasse has a violin’s characteristic f-holes superimposed on her back. To achieve the effect, Ray first painted the f-holes onto a photographic print, then re-photographed the print to make it appear as if Montparnasse’s body was an instrument waiting to be played.
All bottled up
Ray didn’t advertise his Jewish background, but he did find inspiration from the world in which his parents toiled. He once destroyed his mother’s sewing machine to create “Lampshade,” which is considered the first mobile artwork, Lubow said.
Time and again elements of the garment industry appear in his work. His photographs, paintings and rayographs frequently featured mannequins, flat irons, needles and pins, fabric squares and thread.
Yet, these elements shouldn’t be seen as clues to Ray’s Jewish identity, even though many Jewish immigrants worked in the garment industry as tailors and furriers, Lubow said.
“He was very familiar with fabrics and mannequins which were part of his parents’ work, but it wasn’t like he was painting a synagogue. It wasn’t as if he was revealing himself as Jewish. Even though he didn’t exactly have a strong emotional connection to his childhood, he did have a visual connection,” Lubow said.
Unlike his friend and contemporary Picasso, Ray went to great lengths to keep the personal and the political at bay, Lubow said.
“In Picasso’s paintings, even his still lifes, you can often see his relationship to the subject. You don’t get that sense in Man Ray’s work, save for his painting ‘Le Beau Temps,’ which was a kind of prophetic mourning for the end of a free France,” Lubow said. “He would see and worry about world events that were catastrophic, but you don’t really get a sense of his personal relationship to them.”
Although Ray worked with a variety media, he considered himself as a painter first and foremost.
“In the US, his legacy is as a photographer, which would have irked him. When he died, photography was still considered a second-class art form, so his deprecation of his photos was a response to the prevailing value system,” Lubow said.
In 1948, Ray met Browner, a first-generation American of Romanian-Jewish descent. Smitten, they married in a double wedding with their close friends, artists Max Ernst and Dorothea Tanning.
The couple returned to France in 1951, where they remained together until Ray died from a lung infection in Paris in 1976. Buried in the Cimetière du Montparnasse, the epitaph on his stone reads: “Unconcerned, but not indifferent.”
In the end, perhaps Ray wasn’t so much indifferent about his past as he was unconcerned about it.
“He didn’t feel at home in his religion. He never liked to talk about his ancestry. He would deflect questions about it,” Lubow said. “He once considered the question in an unpublished journal, asking why would he talk about his identity if he had taken steps to hide it. But in fairness, he’s hardly unique as a Jew in that regard.”
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