Man Ray's Montparnasse

Man Ray's Montparnasse

by Herbert R. Lottman, Man Ray, Man Ray

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For the first thirty years of the twentieth century, the streets surrounding the intersection of the boulevard du Montparnasse and the boulevard Raspail marked the center of avant-garde Europe. Man Ray's Montparnasse introduces the reader to this small section of Paris on the Left Bank during a time of artistic ferment and experimentation, of private affairs that


For the first thirty years of the twentieth century, the streets surrounding the intersection of the boulevard du Montparnasse and the boulevard Raspail marked the center of avant-garde Europe. Man Ray's Montparnasse introduces the reader to this small section of Paris on the Left Bank during a time of artistic ferment and experimentation, of private affairs that became public ones, and of political and social change.

Man Ray, the renowned photographer, was there to document it all. His world was filled with artists, writers, and poets, and his camera was his key, allowing him access to cafes, salons, artists' studios, and writers' homes. Within a year of his arrival, he was invited to be Gertrude Stein's official portraitist and to record the image of Marcel Proust on his deathbed. He photographed Pablo Picasso and Peggy Guggenheim, made films alongside the Dadaists, and played chess with Marcel Duchamp. Illustrated with Man Ray's own photographs, this book chronicles a legendary time and place.

Author Herbert Lottman leads the reader through the winding streets of Montparnasse, past the usual tourist attractions and into a vanished world. Quick-paced and intensely readable, his text traces the threads connecting the diverse artistic movements and complicated, often turbulent, personal relationships that bound these groups together and, at times, tore them apart. By interweaving the lives and works of the artists with Man Ray's stunning photographs, Lottman has created a vivid history of life at the center of one of the twentieth century's seminal artistic moments.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
With Neil Baldwin's definitive 1991 biography, an autobiography and any number of scholarly monographs available, one might question the need for another book on the great modernist photographer. What sets Lottman's compact and breezy study apart from a thick pack is its view of Ray's Parisian career as a neighborhood phenomenon, one in which the geography of chance which cafes were popular, which buildings had cheap studio space, who moved down the street from who has as much to do with the direction of both Ray's career and 20th-century art as any manifestos or larger historical forces. A biographer of Camus, Colette and Flaubert, Lottman, PW's European correspondent, holds a very clear image of historical Montparnasse in his head, and he renders the confusing overlap of individuals, groups and artistic movements with a lucidity that is journalistic in the very best sense. All of the expected characters are here, from the enigmatic Robert Desnos to the obnoxious Andre Breton. Lottman is endearingly old school in his treatment of the often extraordinary women who moved through this milieu, from the legendary Kiki of Montparnasse to Lee Miller, rhapsodizing about their charm and beauty in a politically incorrect, rather innocent way. At the center, though, is Man Ray, who moved through every aspect of interwar Parisian culture with ease, grace and professional success. While Hemingway and Henry Miller lived on fried potatoes and the kindness of strangers, Ray tooled around in a sports car paid for by his lucrative portraits. Like Warhol after him, Ray (n Emanuel Rudnitsky, 1890- 1976)combined artistic integrity, a fascination with celebrity and an ability to stay neutrally abovepolitical and social storms to create a uniquely focused and enduring body of work. Even those deeply familiar with the artist and his era will enjoy Lottman's spirited account. (Oct.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
PW international correspondent Lottman, who has written many books on French culture, provides a colorful snapshot of Man Ray between the two world wars, emphasizing the 1920s, with the developing Montparnasse section of Paris as the backdrop. Here are the cutting-edge dadaists and surrealists flanking Man Ray and his unerring camera eye, along with poets and artists, collectors, lovers, and other assorted characters. Artists and writers such as Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Ernest Hemingway, Paul Eluard, Andr Breton, Gertrude Stein, and Malcolm Cowley mixed without inhibitions on the boulevards and in the caf s, which were hotbeds of aesthetic and political turmoil. All that is needed to complete the picture is a map showing all the mentioned places and their proximity to the Montparnasse railroad station. Recently, Fernand Olivier's diary, translated from the French, explores the same scene, albeit as an eyewitness in the first-person singular, as did Gertrude Stein's Alice B. Toklas. Lottman's vivid exploration of 20th-century art events will serve the art historian and student of Paris very well in documenting an essential epoch and place. Include it on your acquisitions list for most art book collections. Ellen Bates, New York Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.

Product Details

Abrams, Harry N., Inc.
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.50(w) x 9.25(h) x 1.25(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

The Visitor

THE ENCOUNTER WAS SINGULAR, more significant in the end than any of the individuals concerned could have imagined. This plucky little American with the odd name (in itself sounding like a symbol) had not come as just another tourist intent on soaking up atmosphere, although he did hope to obtain some hints as to what had made this city the center of his universe. Yet he was older than any of the assembled group, and Marcel Duchamp, the Frenchman who had brought him to the meeting, was senior both to Man Ray and to the half-dozen young men and one woman waiting for them.

    The setting was a banal café hidden in a shopping arcade in bourgeois-business Paris, a café chosen precisely because it was remote from Bohemia or, as one member of the contrarian little group, Louis Aragon, explained it, "out of hatred for Montparnasse and Montmartre." Aragon and his comrade in arms André Breton had stumbled upon the passage de l'Opéra in 1919 and knew at once that this obscure corridor connecting bustling boulevard des Italiens to narrow rue Chauchat belonged to them. It became the Paris headquarters of Dada. "The decor is wood-brown," recalled Aragon, "and wood wasn't spared in furnishing it." With rustic wine barrels serving as tables, it was hardly the modish café the American had expected.

    Here they could be alone with their dreams. And when none of the group was present, Aragon knew, the cashier would reply to a telephone call: "None of the Dadas is around, Monsieur." The gentle people whooperated the place intended no harm by their use of the term. For them it signified neither anarchy nor anti-art as the popular press would have it, but only "a group of regular customers, young people who are sometimes a bit noisy, perhaps, but quite agreeable."

    Their guest arrived with the best possible credentials. Man Ray's iconoclastic initiatives in New York had often anticipated rather than imitated the antics of Dada. He carried with him solid proofs of his achievement in the form of paintings, absurd objects, and photographic improvisations. Duchamp had discovered Man Ray in New York—as Man Ray had discovered Duchamp, a celebrity since the revelation of his Nude Descending a Staircase in the Armory Show in 1913, that watershed event which revealed the best contemporary art—largely a European import—to the one American metropolis that could be receptive to it.

    A reluctant painter, Duchamp had sat out part of the recent world war in New York, where he had met and been drawn to the absolute contrary, irrepressible Man Ray—himself still unknown (and unsold) in his own country. Determined to try a more hospitable climate, Man Ray sailed from New York harbor on Bastille Day 1921, arriving on July 22 at the Channel port of Le Havre, boarding a train later the same day for Paris. Duchamp greeted him at the Gate Saint-Lazare, and after dropping off the traveler's hand baggage at a hotel they made their way to the passage de l'Opéra.

    In the absence of a camera—Man Ray not quite ready to become the group's unofficial portraitist—one can only imagine the scene at the moment Duchamp introduced the new arrival, at 5 feet 3 1/2 inches considerably shorter than any American they might have met before. His high forehead was topped by a shock of hair that seemed to grow straight up, as if to give him extra inches. Besides Breton and Aragon, self-elected leaders of the proto-Surrealists, he was now to meet Paul Eluard, who with Aragon would produce the most enduring poetry to come out of their movement, and Eluard's ebullient spouse, Helena Diakonova, better known as Gala (who would remain Eluard's muse long after her defection to Salvador Dalí). Also there was the undisciplined Philippe Soupault, who had collaborated with André Breton on an ambitious experiment in automatic writing (Les Champs magnétiques), anticipating literary Surrealism.

    On one side, Marcel Duchamp, handsome and lean-fleshed, who would soon celebrate his thirty-fourth birthday, with his American guest Man Ray, not quite thirty-one. Of the passage de l'Opéra group the oldest, Eluard, was twenty-six. Good-looking young men for the most part, at least three of them were lady-killers.

    All of them were writers and poets or desired to be, which, if a splendid vocation, also made for a one-sided art movement. Duchamp, who could have been the exemplary artist of the movement, was unwilling to lend himself to a collective. In this he resembled that other painter Francis Picabia, who at forty-two would have been their senior member if he were not so obstinately an individualist (he would not have minded being part of a school if he could be its leader). It happened that as a painter Man Ray did have a counterpart in Germany. But Max Ernst, although a willing convert to Dada and a prodigy of creativity, was simply not available. Breton and his companions had invited him to bring his work to Paris, and an exhibition had taken place just a few weeks before Man Ray's arrival. But as a national of a recent enemy state, and a radical besides, Ernst had not been able to obtain a visa to attend his own show. Man Ray was available—his paintings and his person.

    Hence the welcoming atmosphere that evening. From the rustic café the group made its way to an Indian restaurant nearby. The visitor noticed that his new friends, as they sat before their curry dishes, seemed to be regretting more familiar French cuisine, and to compensate for their discomposure consumed inordinate quantities of wine, rendering them lightheaded and loose-tongued. Then a merry trek to Montmartre—not to the art colony atop the hill but only as far as the gaudy amusement park stretching along the ring of boulevards; Breton and his friends "rushed from one attraction to another like children."

    Then clownish Philippe Soupault—a son of the upper middleclass who consequently had no need to behave—hoisted himself to the top of a lamppost, from where he harangued passersby with what sounded to Man Ray like "Dadaistic" poems. Soon Soupault began to run ahead of the others, disappearing into an open gateway to knock violently at a concierge's door. He came out slowly, shaking his head, then rushed forward to repeat the act at another street door. Seeing Man Ray's puzzlement, someone explained that Soupault had been asking whether Soupault lived there, and of course had been getting negative replies. "I looked on, bewildered by these people who otherwise took themselves so seriously," the new boy was to remember. He had indeed entered a different world, and resolved that night to master its language.

    With hindsight we know that the group's favorable reception of Man Ray was not preordained. Indeed, there had to be a lot to like in Man Ray for him to be adopted by this particular crowd of self-contained young men. André Breton, born in February 1896, who was to become the gendarme of the Surrealists, was actually the son of a gendarme (but a gendarme who went on to become a bookseller, going on to a remunerative career in real estate). Young André attended good schools, showing an early penchant for the arcane in art, choosing medical studies to buy time for his poetry. On leave from wartime service in a military hospital, he would rush off to the rue de l'Odéon, site of a bookstore and informal literary salon run by an intense young woman named Adrienne Monnier. She opened her shop on the literary Left Bank only a year earlier, at the pert age of twenty-two, having abandoned her job at a stuffy magazine on the Right Bank—because she knew that this side of the river was where she belonged.

    In 1917, Breton's assignment to the Val-de-Grâce military hospital on the frontiers of Montparnasse reinforced his tie to another intern he had met on rue de l'Odéon, and who also preferred literature to medicine. Breton's junior by a year and eight months, Louis Aragon was to have a still easier entry to life as the son (albeit born out of wedlock) of a high-ranking official, an outspoken member of the Chamber of Deputies, eventually the police commissioner of Paris and ambassador. (Aragon was a made-up name, but at least his initials were the same as his father's). "Slim, elegant, seductive, with fine features, an insolent manner, his eyes sparkling with intelligence; witty, but above all—insolent." So Aragon would be remembered by a younger contemporary, Marcel Duhamel, whose ramshackle house on the quiescent rue du Château below the Montparnasse station served for a time as the Surrealists's unofficial headquarters.

    Like Breton, Aragon pursued his medical studies with one eye and all his heart on literature. Adrienne Monnier heard him say that he was so offended by the obscenities of fellow students at the medical faculty that he felt like weeping. And if in 1919 Aragon readily joined Breton and Soupault in publishing a magazine called Littérature, which despite its traditional title was designed to combat tradition, his best biographer saw him in essence as a loner, while Breton was "a leader of men."

    "Massive bearing, heavy build, the perfect head of a tribune, classic profile—or rather leonine," was the way Breton would be remembered by Marcel Duhamel, who also described him as "imposing, intimidating, even to people who didn't know him. [He] knew how to cast a spell." Man Ray's startling portraits of Breton say the rest.

    One member of Dada had missed the reception of Man Ray at the passage de l'Opéra. Also a foreigner, the Romanian-born Tristan Tzara was then traveling in Czechoslovakia. The most garrulous element of the Zurich circle that unleashed the movement and gave it a name, Tzara first appeared in Paris at the beginning of 1920, determined to reenact the Zurich pranks before a wider audience. He had been living at a hotel in a dullish residential district, and it was to this hotel that Marcel Duchamp had taken Man Ray on his arrival. Man Ray got Tzara's room.

    Writing to Tzara soon after his encounter with the newcomer from America, Breton tossed in a gratuitous remark: "I'm unlikely to forget you because of Man Ray. Nor because of Duchamp, who doesn't show himself very often."

    Was this just another Dadaist putdown? Earlier that year, in their magazine Littérature, the editors (who were then Aragon, Breton, and Soupault), published a ranking of "famous names." Those doing the grading were members of the passage de l'Opéra group, together with Gabrielle Buffet (Picabia's ex-wife), Pierre Drieu La Rochelle (another iconoclast and Aragon's friend), the soldier-poet Benjamin Péret, painter-poet Georges Ribemont-Dessaignes, and (last but hardly least) Tzara.

    These ten men and one woman had been asked to judge both ancestors and contemporaries—including Alcibiades, Beethoven, Einstein, and Shakespeare, using a classification running from 20 to minus 25. In keeping with his personality Tzara produced the greatest number of minus 25s. But all of the young judges had it in for the tiresome celebrities among their immediate predecessors: the writer-diplomat Paul Claudel averaged a minus 2.81, Henri Matisse—a modern, but much too popular for these rebels—minus 3.27, the self-advertising Gabriele D'Annunzio minus 7.86, the humanitarian Anatole France and war leader Marshal Ferdinand Foch each earned a severe minus 18. The true heroes among contemporaries were Charles Chaplin, who averaged 16.09, and Chaplin's French precursor Max Linder with 15.63.

    At the time of this survey Man Ray was only a name to the assessors. He obtained a modest 3.90 points, the average dragged down by the insolent zero Aragon gave him and a token 1 from Breton. He was saved by Gabrielle Buffet—the only one of the group who had actually met him—for she gave him the maximum 20, but also by the positive 15 points from Paul Eluard (anticipating their fast friendship), and a generous 11 from the habitually ferocious Tristan Tzara (by then Tzara and Man Ray were corresponding). Another indication of the group's wickedness: their accomplished elder Marcel Duchamp, who should have been their role model, came out with a passable 9.18, Picabia with a still lower 8.63, Max Ernst with an ungenerous 8.54—considering that like Man Ray he was actually making art.

About a month after his first encounter with the Breton group, Man Ray was delivered from his lonely Right Bank lodgings, though without getting any closer to the Left Bank. Marcel Duchamp had been staying at the apartment of his friend Yvonne Chastel near the boulevard de Clichy. The flat came with an independent room, offered rent-free to Duchamp's American guest.

    For he still thought of himself as a transient. He had come to Paris, Man Ray told an interviewer much later, "only for a visit, to look around the museums and meet some other people who were doing advanced work." He explained further at a Paris seminar on expatriates: "I had a very peculiar problem in New York, where I was rejected, criticized, attacked, refused exhibitions.... I thought that if I changed the landscape ... I didn't particularly think about Paris except that there were museums here where I wanted to see the originals of paintings I had doted on ... when I was an art student. Unfortunately, when I got over here I got tied up with the avant-garde movement which despised museums, which wanted to destroy them."

    Yet funds were running low. He had arrived in France with a generous advance payment from a collector, representing paintings to be produced during his Paris stay. Soon he had to ask for more help from the same source, which did not stop him from begging funds from his family in Brooklyn.

    Some time after his arrival, he found his way to the French customs depot in Paris to claim the large case of artworks that had followed him across the ocean. "Cubist," the inspector said knowingly—and cleared the paintings. But a narrow box containing materials such as wire, colored wooden strips, and a zinc washboard—and bearing a title, Catherine Barometer—presented more of a problem. Rather than try to explain that this was a Dada object, he invented a story that it was a guide for his color combinations. Then, after some difficulty, his big trunk was opened. Its contents, airbrush paintings, again posed no problem. But what about a jar filled with steel ball bearings in oil, also with a title, New York 1920. A decoration for his studio, he explained—and that sufficed.

    These oddities were in fact examples of Man Ray's "objects," each an assemblage of two or more unrelated elements. That other notorious pre-Dada creator, Marcel Duchamp, would often put his own title on a preexisting object—like his famous porcelain urinal, which he called Fountain. These were his ready-mades.

Tristan Tzara, the man who graded most people minus 25, became a fast friend and a willing promoter. Using his imperfect but adventurous French, Man Ray informed Tzara, traveling on holiday: "I am very busy—life here is dear, temptations are many—I've got to earn money to maintain the one and pay for the other." Perhaps he would go to Brussels to arrange a show. "But if I do something in Paris I'll stay here. That's what I'm hoping for!"

    He discovered that there was a section of Paris that welcomed people speaking his kind of French. So one evening he made his way down the subway steps, direction "Montparnasse"—to plunge into "a cosmopolitan world," where "all languages were spoken including French as terrible as my own." ("The whole of Greenwich Village is walking up and down Montparnasse," Duchamp had recently informed an American friend.)

    Man Ray wandered from one café to another, observing how they seemed to specialize: one café exclusively French, another a mix of nationalities, a third inhabited by Americans and Britons who stood at the bar, talking loudly. He decided that he preferred the first two cafés, where clients sat at tables, changing places occasionally to talk to friends. And he liked the neighborhood—"the Quarter," as English-speaking contemporaries referred to it.

    Anyway, it was time to move out of the room that Duchamp had arranged for him to use, for Duchamp himself was moving—back to New York. Just around the corner from the Café du Dôme on boulevard du Montparnasse, halfway down the street at number 15, rue Delambre, the Hôtel des Écoles beckoned to him; until recently, after all, it had been the elected domicile of André Breton.

Excerpted from MAN RAY'S MONTPARNASSE by Herbert R. Lottman. Copyright © 2001 by Herbert R. Lottman. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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