I’ll admit, I’m not a big fan of early 20th century art, but from Cubism to the Dada movement to Surrealism, no one can deny the art of the time had a major influence in the art world going forward and into the 21st century. Throughout those years, the definition of what constitutes as art became immensely loose as artists in the late 19th and early 20th century were drifting away from the classical art to the absurd, often being subversive in their pieces. Before World War I, from the Neo-Impressionist works of Georges Seurat and Paul Signac to the Post-Impressionism of Vincent Van Gogh to the Fauvism works of Henri Matisse, leading up to the works of Pablo Picasso, the craftsmanship of the classical art was slowly starting to decline in favor of more free-flowing types of art styles and movements.
Taking place after the first World War began, the Dada movement originated as a reactionary response to, not only the war itself, but to traditional values in art and modern capitalist society as well. The Dada movement as defined according to manraytrust.com, is “[a] European artistic movement (1916-1923) that flouted conventional aesthetic and cultural values by producing works marked by nonsense, travesty, and incongruity”. With that definition of Dadaism in mind, the movement steered away from the complexities, beauty and logical to the carefree and put forth that anything, - just anything - can be considered ‘art’. Alongside Marcel Duchamp (who infamously signed and dated a urinal, which he titled, Fountain (1917) to emphasize the anything-can-be-art/anti-art mentality), Pablo Picasso and Man Ray were also prominent figures in the movement. After WWI and the start of the 1920’s, the Dada movement was phased out by Surrealism, which evolved from Dadaism and continued to display similar traits and mindsets. While practices of Surrealism also consisted the anti-art mentality of Dadaism, it distinguished itself from the previous movement by putting more emphasis on dreams and the unconscious mind. Amongst the major figures in the Surrealist movement were Andre Breton, Salvador Dali, Max Ernst and Rene Magritte. Breton was a Surrealist writer and poet and was known as the founder of the movement. Dali was a painter, illustrator and sculptor. Ernst was also known for his paintings and sculptures and Magritte was also a painter. While the main figures of the Surrealist movement were, no doubt influential, the works of Man Ray set fourth new, innovative ways to depict such absurdities and illusions to the art movement, not only through photography, but via the art of photogram (camera-less photography).
Although the art of photogram had existed decades prior to Man Ray’s time, Man Ray used the medium to his advantage to display his signature dream-like illusions. Referred to as rayographs, Man Ray’s subjects consisted of everyday items and would utilize his composition in rather peculiar and imaginative ways. Take for example, a pair of scissors, a nail filer and a strip of film and those ordinary objects would be arranged to depict a surreal, image that looked like it was derived from a dream.
Other photographic techniques Man Ray was known for was the thick black lining of the people he photographed. At first glance, it appeared that he used ink on the images, when in reality, he created this technique via solarization. In a translated interview from the documentary, The Adventure of Photography from Kultur Video, Man Ray stated it was “a method of re exposing a print to light during the development stage to produce unearthly pictures of people with mysterious halos” and that it was “a matter of luck” at first. Eventually it became a repeated process and after several experiments, he refined the technique that it became old hat.
While the Surrealist movement may have been primarily a literary one, and paintings and sculptures were also other predominant forms of media used to depict this bizarre art style, the influence of Man Ray’s photography is important to note when delving into the history of the movement. As other artists of the period were known for their roles in influencing Surrealism through such art forms, Man Ray was a main driving force for photography in which he brought something truly unique to the table. With his outlandish approaches to camera less photography and his quirky techniques he developed using the camera, there’s no denying Man Ray was also of a creative and innovative mind in his medium. Whether the viewer deems it art or ‘anti-art’, the craftsmanship behind Man Ray’s works merits its place in art history.
Ever (re)discovered new facts about any art form or part of pop culture that you thought you knew before and realized there might be more to the story than what meets the eye? The Blog section debunks common expectations and assumptions in the art world.