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Friday, December 23, 2011

Painting with Light

Self-Portrait Aerograph, Man Ray
Everyone likes to grow as an individual. And as artists, it's practically demanded of us. But I wonder how often any of us have stumbled into a new medium which turned us totally around and pointed us in a new direction with our art. That's what happened in 1915 when painter, Emmanual Radnitsky, purchased a camera to photograph his work. He was twenty-five years old, about the same age as modern photography at the time. And, though he never quite gave up traditional painting, more and more he became known by the title the poet, Jean Cocteau, called him, "The artist who paints with light." At a time when anyone serious about photography had to develop his or her own work, Radnitsky discovered he could create exciting "paintings" by simply manipulating with various objects the light striking a sheet of photographic paper (which required very long exposures at the time). He called them "rayographs" which was not only technically accurate but also a clever pun utilizing his newly adopted name--Man Ray.

Rope Dancer Accompanies Herself with Her
Shadows, 1917, Man Ray
Today, the "rayograph" is more often called an aerograph. It's a neat little trick commonly done in high school photography classes (before darkrooms became obsolete), but in 1917, it was both cutting edge painting and photography, erasing forever the line between the two. Man Ray's most famous painting is a nearly abstract, The Rope Dancer Accompanies Herself with Her Shadows which he also recreated using aerography. As a painter/photographer, he had the best of both worlds, creating equally exciting work with or without a camera. He was already successful as a painter with his first one-man show in 1915 where he sold six paintings for some $2,000 to a single collector. He was also a fixture at the weekly soirees of the Arensbergs in New York where he met all the important American painters of his time including Charles Demuth, Georges Bellows, Joseph Stella and the French expatriate, Marcel Duchamp (then living in New York to escape the war). Duchamp introduced him to the current art rage, Dada, and after the war, persuaded him to move back to Paris with him where he became an important leader in the Surrealist movement.

Aerograph Nudes, 1919, Man Ray
Ray spent the next twenty years of his life there, not so much painting as creating. He loved shocking the artistic sensibilities of Parisian cafe society with his outrageous forays into surrealist sculpture. Today, his flat iron with nails welded to its bottom is a classic illustration of surrealist sculpture--a familiar object whose purpose is deliberately negated by the artist. Forced to return to New York by the Second World War, Man Ray found himself more in vogue as a photographer than a painter. In fact he found his work IN Vogue (the magazine), as a fashion photographer while in his spare time, he was also experimenting with yet another photographic medium--motion pictures. His first movie, The Return to Reason which he made in Paris in 1922, while not a commercial success, certainly broadened the medium, allowing him to explore movement, coupled with painted light and sculpture. Being interested in movie making caused him to gravitate toward the West-coast for a time in the late 40s before returning to his beloved Paris where lived until his death in 1976. He was 86.

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