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Self-Portrait (Penguin Modern Classics) Paperback – 2012
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From Publishers Weekly
Born in Philadelphia, raised in Brooklyn, wiry, kinetic Man Ray (1890-1976) set Paris, New York and Hollywood spinning as he shifted between mediums (painting, photography, film, surreal objects) and fused them. This jaunty, chatty autobiographyfirst published in 1963 and now decked out with 240 illustrationsoffers arresting glimpses of Dada and Surrealism in their heydays. Man Ray always keeps a sense of humor about himself and the avant-garde happenings swirling around him. His photographs of Dali, Picasso, Gertrude Stein, Hemingway and Joyce are vintage. Of even greater interest is the endless profusion of Man Ray images: dream compositions, typographical poems, airbrush nudes, moving sculpture, Cubist landscapes, a cymbals-and-drum machine, mannequins, experimental photographs. Pictures and text attest to this artist's rare gift for rendering ideas in multiple formats.
Copyright 1988 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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It's always been one of my theories that the best place to find out about a person is by reading his own words in that person's autobiography. That theory holds doubly true with the autobiography of Man Ray. I'd read a lot about Man Ray in other biographies and books about Dadaism, Surrealism and the history of photography. But it wasn't until I read this book that I felt like I had any kind of understanding of the man, his work and his thoughts. The very concept of Dadaism had always seemed mysterious to me until Man Ray discussed it in a couple of places in his Self Portrait. He wrote "Dada has accomplished its purpose of mocking the artistic and political futility of the day, offsetting it with irrationality and the destruction of all accepted values. It was as if the Dadaists were proposing to take over the affairs of this world, implying that they could not have made a worse mess than had the accredited leaders."
"What Dada had accomplished was purely negative; its poems and paintings were illogical, irreverent and irrelevant." "Dada did not die; it was simply transformed" into a new movement "Surrealism, a word taken from the writings of the dead poet Apollinaire... that was composed of all the original members of the Dada group..."
There were some glaring omissions in this book. While his mistress Kiki was given lots of space and described in a chapter entitled "The True Story of Kiki of Montparnasse," Lee Miller was barely mentioned in the book. Other than a sentence where he mentioned she was one of his darkroom assistants and including her name as the model in a couple of the photographs reproduced in the book, their torrid several year affair wasn't mentioned. It was almost as if Man Ray hadn't forgiven his tall, blond mistress, favorite model, fellow photographer and beautiful American Muse for abandoning him. It was as if writing about their relationship was too painful to share with the public.
Man Ray spent a lot of time describing in detail some of his experimental films. Since those films fully achieved the Dada goal of being totally illogical, irreverent and irrelevant as well as boring, even his descriptions of his film work seemed "much ado about nothing."
There were lots of surprises and insights in this autobiography of an ex-patriot American. One of my favorite sections involved the surrender of France to the Nazi. Paris then became an "open city." Man Ray and one of his mistresses had tried to escape but didn't succeed and had to return to Paris. Unlike the generally accepted view of the Nazi as absolute barbarians, Man Ray describes their taking over of Paris and occupied France as a genuine attempt to befriend the newly conquered citizens of French. They seemed mostly busy organizing and reorganizing all levels of French government: something that was probably much needed and long overdue?
Finally, before the Nazi became absolute enemies of the average French citizen, Man Ray along with most of his artist friends were able to leave the country for the USA.
He escaped at the same time as his friend Salvador Dali and his wife. Man Ray had it easier because he was an American citizen and the United States was still a neutral nation at the time. When he returned to France after WW II ended he was amazed to discover his home in the country and most of his artwork had survived the war. Picasso and some of his other fellow artists had also survived the occupation safely. While all of Paris had been mined with explosives so that the Germans could destroy the entire city with the push of a button, the German commander of Paris had decided to ignore Hitler's last minute orders to burn the city as the German army retreated from the advancing allies and Paris was spared total destruction. For an American who had been seduced by France, Man Ray was always grateful that Paris was spared by an enlightened German General. Ray eventually moved back to his adopted country and died there. He is buried in his beloved Paris.
The book is well worth reading. Man Ray was a truly independent thinker as well as a genuine eccentric and contrarian. He always claimed that Photography was not a full-fledged art form but he alternated between his own photography explorations and his true love, painting. As the reader will quickly learn, Man Ray could also write. He was happy when he "had everything again, a woman, a studio, a car."
Firmly part of the wacky Surrealist movement, his autobiography nonetheless plays no games and is a fairly straightforward, engrossing read. Nice insights into 20th century art world... Paris as well as New York.
Best aspect of the book are his many accounts of other artists & writers... Duchamp, Matisse, Ezra Pound, Henry Miller. Worst aspect is having to read about the creepy socialite crowd who were his patrons.