- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 14, 2001

By Herbert R. Lottman
Harry N. Abrams, $29.95, 261 pages, illus.

Some generations have the luck to live through seminal chapters in the life of literature, music and the visual arts, and others don't. Recent decades have not been seminal years and such periods, dating back to the artistic achievements of Periclean Athens in the runup to the Peloponnesian War, often have coincided with political turmoil. So it was with Paris between the two world wars, a time of what Herbert Lottman calls "ferment" in the arts.
One Paris neighborhood without boundaries, Montparnasse, always has been associated with those years, as it earlier was with the Impressionist painters. It was where, in the 1920s and '30s, residents and visitors alike, many of them American, frolicked in a combination of modernism and cosmopolitanism that the Islamic extremists with whom we now find ourselves in deadly contention would have loved to hate. Montparnasse then was a key station on the road that has brought us to where we are today.
The heterogeneous mix of artistic outlooks existing within the space of a few square miles the Left Bank from north of the Luxembourg Garden down to the cheap rent district and the river seemed to Mr. Lottman difficult to integrate in any whole until he remembered how Man Ray, the American painter and surpassing photographer, successfully navigated the different social classes and often warring artistic factions that included the artists of the Ecole de Paris, Dadaists and later Surrealists. This was, too, the Paris of Adrienne Monnier, Sylvia Beach, Alice B. Toklas and Gertrude Stein. Ezra Pound, James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway and Alexander Calder were there. And Berenice Abbott came along to rescue for posterity the wonderful photographic prints of the elderly Eugene Atget.
Anybody who has ever looked at art photos or a fashion plate knows Man Ray's work whether they realize it or not, for he was that influential. Twenty-five years after his death, he is not known so much for his painting, collages, airbrush paintings which he called aerographs and other constructions as he might have wished. His photography, which started out as taking pictures of his paintings because he was not satisfied with other professionals' photos of them, came to dominate his working life, make him a famous man and, not incidentally, bring him first a modest living and later a handsome one. Everyone who was anyone in literature and the arts came to his Paris studio to have their portrait done, and the lavish illustrations in Mr. Lottman's book include an affecting portrait of James Joyce snapped in profile just as he turned his hurting eyes away from the photographer's lamps.
Being American allowed Man Ray to stay out of the worst of the quarrels between groups, which could degenerate into fisticuffs and bloody noses Andre Breton, the Surrealist "pope," once broke an adversary's arm, slamming down on it with his walking stick. The American was not generally expected to take sides, though he did on occasion sign a manifesto or associate himself with a partisan position. None of this kept him from maintaining close relations with all manner of people, from the American heiress and art collector Peggy Guggenheim to the initially waif-like model, Kiki (born Alice Prin in Bergundy), with whom he lived for some years.
The future Man Ray was born Emmanuel Radnitsky on Aug. 27, 1890, the first of four children of Russian Jewish immigrants. When he was seven, the family moved from Philadelphia to Brooklyn where his father worked as a tailor. The boy showed early signs of enthusiasm for the visual arts and, importantly, a resolve to choose his own career. As a young man in New York, he found his way to Alfred Stieglitz's studio, the famous 291, and began to make his way among artists and get his work increasingly taken seriously.
The 1913 Armory Show, in which Stieglitz introduced Americans to the modern art being produced across the Atlantic, was an important event for the aspiring artist. Marcel Duchamp's "Nude Descending a Staircase" was on display, and a friendship was struck up between the Frenchman and the American. Duchamp sat out much of World War I in New York, after which Man Ray, not meeting the critical or commercial success there that he hoped for, followed his friend back to France, sailing from New York on Bastille Day, 1921.
Duchamp took the visitor the trip was intended to be just a visit, though Man Ray would live in Paris for the next two decades until the Nazi occupation forced him back to New York to an obscure little cafe on a side street, chosen to avoid the crowds at the Cafe Dome and La Rotonde, where he met Andre Breton, Louis Aragon, Paul Eluard and his then-wife Helena Diakonova (known as Gala, she later would decamp to Salvador Dali's arms) and Philippe Soupault. Soon after that, Francis Picabia, almost more interested in his fast cars than art, invited Man Ray on a trip to the Mediterranean coast, and his Parisian life was off and running supported by curiosity, a liking for people and execrable French delivered with endearing gusto.
In course of time, the likes of Pablo Picasso and Alberto Giacometti, Jean Cocteau and the filmmaker Luis Bunuel entered the American's life. In 1924 when Surrealism took off as a movement with Breton and his followers breaking away from Tristan Tzara and the Dadaists, Man Ray was able to continue his relations with both camps. Partially attributable in that instance were the mental contortions required. Mr. Lottman sums up with, "Breton never quite trusted Eluard's commitment to the basic Surrealist premise that art arose from the unconscious … [and] some of the idols, including Many Ray and Marcel Duchamp, never quite renounced their earlier commitment to Dada." In the 1930s, such a difficult decade for the French, the Surrealists had their affair with communism, nudged along by the devious Ilya Ehrenburg, which caused another split in the ranks. Man Ray was little effected, since politics tended to bore him.
Another way of looking at Man Ray's career is through the women in his life, who to say the least of it never were dull. His wife was Adon Lacroix, a French-speaking Belgian three years his senior. She was "beautiful with her golden hair and gray eyes," and from Adon this was in America still he first heard the poetry of Baudelaire, Mallarme, Rimbaud and Apollinaire. She also read to him from "Les Chants de Maldoror" by Lautreamont, the Dadaists' bible.
But Adon was unfaithful and trying in other regards. Once while shopping together, she stole a coat and when her husband complained, "made it clear that she found him timid." He left her. In Paris, his affair with the irrepressible Kiki was a great amour colored by her violence and his coolness. She was the one to leave that time, going off with another man. A cherished model for a time was Jacqueline Barsotti, the daughter of an Italian sculptor; she distinguished herself among the women in Man Ray's life by refusing to sleep with him.
His next lover was Lee Miller, the American model and photographer in the making. She moved in with him overnight and became his assistant. But eventually she also left him, to marry another. After she had gone, he painted a giant-sized picture of her lips, hung it above his bed and continued working on it for the next two years. Last during the Paris years before the war (Man Ray returned there in 1951 after spending 11 years in Hollywood) was Adrienne Fidelin (Ady), a dancer from a French company of dancers with ties to Guadaloupe. She, sadly, refused to accompany him back to the United States in 1940, feeling that her parents needed her in France.
The story of Montparnasse between the wars is a familiar one but, those being such heady times in the arts and literature, of unfailing interest. Mr. Lottman, who has lived in Paris since the late 1950s and whose biographies of French subjects (Albert Camus, Colette and others) are well known to American readers, brings a fresh angle to the tale by taking Man Ray as his point of view. This autumn the artist's work will be the subject of exhibitions in Paris and New York and, in addition to other merits, this handsome and engagingly written book will serve as a companion to those shows.

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