Out of Africa: Man Ray adjusts the lens

Man Ray, Noire et blanche, 1926 ©2010 Man Ray Trust/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris.
Man Ray, "Noire et blanche," 1926 ©2010 Man Ray Trust/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris.

"Wow" is not a word you see on this page. So pay attention. Almost a year ago, University of Virginia Art Museum director Bruce Boucher announced the museum would be hosting a Man Ray show this fall. Since then, I've been counting the days. But I had no idea what a rich and enriching experience awaited me. Wow.

More than an exhibition about Man Ray's work, "Man Ray, African Art, and the Modernist Lens" examines a zeitgeist moment in 20th century art and culture in the U.S. and Europe, when African art shifted from being regarded as anthropological evidence to being celebrated as fine art worthy of appreciation and imitation. The show includes over 50 photographs by Man Ray, as well as images by his contemporaries (e.g. Walker Evans and Andr© Kert©sz), displayed alongside the actual African pieces photographed. In addition, the exhibit presents African-inspired artwork from the period, along with books, magazine articles, and catalogues.

Man Ray became intrigued by African art at a 1914 exhibit at Alfred Stieglitz's New York City gallery. He began photographing the masks and figures–- but in a new way that called attention to their aesthetic value devoid of cultural context. Following World War I, the artist moved to Paris and fell in with the Surrealists, who began incorporating African art into their own pieces.

A particularly wonderful section of the exhibit compares Paris-based Man Ray's and U.S.-based Walker Evans's photographs of the same carved figure, the "Bangwa Queen," from Cameroon. Evans shoots the figure in a straightforward documentary style, but Man Ray plays with camera angles and lighting, creating dramatic shadows and infusing the object with life.

The show also looks at how Harlem Renaissance artists embraced African art (see, in particular, the wonderful small painting by Lo¯s Mailou Jones), and how African art led to a fashion trend dubbed "La Mode au Congo." In fact, Man Ray's famous "Noire et blanche" was originally published in Vogue magazine in 1926.

"Man Ray, African Art, and the Modernist Lens," is simultaneously a biography, a history lesson, an exhibit of African art, a show of modernist photography, and an inquiry into cultural appropriation and projection. The accompanying commentary is extensive and informative, although some of the academic interpretation is a bit "flavor of the day." (The idea that the white face "confronts" the black mask in "Noire et blanche" is silly.) All in all: Wow!

"Man Ray, African Art, and the Modernist Lens" is on view through October 10 at the University of Virginia Art Museum. The Museum is hosting numerous special events and a Man Ray Film Festival to coincide with the show. Check the Hook's online art calendar or the UVA Art Museum website (www.virginia.edu/artmuseum) for the schedule.. 155 Rugby Road. 924-3592.