PARIS — At first glance, Man Ray and Fashion is a visual feast of glossy bodies and couture. Comprised of the artist’s eye-catching advertisements, the exhibition can feel more like window-shopping than art-going. Indeed, it is all very shiny and seductive, if one is only interested in skimming the surface. Lurking below, at the core of Man Ray’s art, advertising, and fashion is something deeply violent.

Installation view of Man Ray and Fashion featuring “Obstruction” (center left), Musée du Luxembourg, Paris, 2020–21

The exhibition curators have concocted a sort of self-serving tautology: Man Ray’s vision influenced fashion and fashion influenced Man Ray’s vision. Purported evidence of this symbiotic relationship runs the gamut from biographical details to shared industry paraphernalia. However, in Man Ray’s hands, such “tools” are rendered not only futile but dangerous, as can be seen in the proto-Surrealist object, “The Gift” (1921) — a flatiron designed to destroy; or “Obstruction” (1920) — a Dadaist chandelier casting shadow rather than illumination. Such rebellious acts are surrounded by seemingly innocuous portraits of fashionable personalities, in which the artist subverts hallmarks of traditional photography to hint at alternative readings beyond the slick finish. There is often an element of duality at play, as when a woman in profile wears a brooch depicting the same scene, yielding an endlessly ensnaring mise en abyme

A 1930 magazine cover shot by Man Ray (image courtesy Flickr/kitchener.lord)

The Anatomies series (1930) more pointedly challenges convention by reversing understandings of representational depth: whereas Classical sculptures sought to reveal flesh beneath drapery, Man Ray refocuses attention upon the fabric, thereby eliding the difference between photographic and textile surfaces. The most recognizable example of such inversion is “Noire et Blanche,” published in Vogue in 1926. In this image, a human head faces off with a wooden mask from the Ivory Coast; but while the latter takes on a luminous vibrancy, the animate is wanly flattened. Beyond the misogynistic portrayal of the model’s head appearing severed and served on a platter is a distinct degradation of the Black female form, positioned not only as Other or “primitive” but in direct contrast to beauty. The title, “Black and White” revels in all of these interpretations, from photographic to racial and even ethical opposites.

Man Ray, “Noire et Blanche” (1926) (image courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Man Ray achieved his signature aura thanks to two technological advancements: industrial lighting and cosmetics, which, when used in conjunction, enabled striking manipulation of the female form. More overt gendered aggressions can be seen in “La Voile” (1931), in which a cheeky fishnet overlay becomes a suffocating sheath. Elsewhere, calculated distortions, harsh lighting, and possessive bird’s-eye views objectify female sitters as weak and submissive, from which a related (yet unaddressed) struggle emerges: what were the possibilities of agency in Man Ray’s artist-muse and photographer-model relationships? Unfortunately, the curators foreclose such discussion by silencing these women to mere receptive subjects: the photographer Lee Miller is described simply as Man Ray’s “lover and assistant” while canonical Modernist Meret Oppenheim does not even receive a mention. 

The porosity between avant-garde art and fashion is best demonstrated by “Les Larmes” (1932), an iconic Surrealist image which originally served as an advertisement for waterproof mascara. Reconsidering the “iconoclastic” movement’s commercial reliance reveals how real and symbolic cruelty are integral to both art and advertising. That the exhibition opened to coincide with Paris Fashion Week (yes, fashion week took place amid the pandemic) and is underwritten by Vallée Village (the largest French designer outlet mall) speaks to the enduring, shared values of fashion and certain sectors of the art world, their insatiable appetites for consumption, and disregard for human costs. While the curatorial strategy of omission might have seemed safer than admission, such silence bespeaks its own complicity.

Editor’s note: Man Ray and Fashion was originally expected to reopen at the Musée du Luxembourg (19 rue de Vaugirard, 75006 Paris, France). Amid Covid-19 restrictions, the exhibition has closed permanently.

The exhibition was curated by Xavier Rey (Director of the museums of Marseille), Alain Sayag (Honorary Curator at the National Museum of Modern Art), and Catherine Örmen (Curator, Fashion Historian).

Johanna Sluiter is a PhD Candidate in Art History at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University. She is currently based in Paris.