Modernist appeal of an unfamiliar art form

If you saw a photograph of a painting, what would you say is the piece of art: the painting itself or the photo of the painting? Wendy Grossman, independent scholar and curator of the Man Ray, African Art and the Modernist Lens exhibit, believes it is a combination of both, as “the photo was created through someone's interpretation of what they saw.” It is with this belief that she has discovered the ways in which photography can be seen in a new light.

The Man Ray exhibit explores the role that photography played in bringing African art to the attention of the modern art world. Featured at the UBC Museum of Anthropology, the exhibit explores photographs of African objects by American artist Man Ray. The exhibit includes a number of original African artifacts along side their image and gives insight into Man Ray's avant-garde work and life. Grossman, independent scholar and curator of this exhibition, devoted 20 years of research to Man Ray, and eventually wrote her doctorate on him and his innovative work.

The first misconception she discovered about Man Ray was the belief that “as an artist, he was not particularly interested in African art, as there were little photographs of his published and were rarely seen.” However, Grossman came to discover over 50 pieces of Man Ray's work, all focusing on African art, primarily composed of three dimensional sculptures with an emphasis on visual abstraction. She proclaims Man Ray to be “the thread and pioneer of this development.”

Grossman wants people to have, “if nothing else, a better enlightenment of the view of art, whether an object or a photograph, and for people to have a better common understanding of Man Ray's work and the historic intersection which he creates between photography, African art and the way they can both be viewed.” She hopes people will learn how to view art as a mediated image: a “true documented reflection of reality,” and be able to “look at photographs, not through them.” She wishes people to experience a “moment of ‘aha’” when they first see something in a photo, or an object, that they have never seen before.

Grossman largely credits Man Ray for bringing attention and knowledge to photography as an art form. How Man Ray is able to play with angles, lighting, and cropping is “undeniable to how it affects the objects in which he is photographing” she explains. His approach to photographing African art was “with a proclivity to animate inanimate objects with his irrepressible sense of play.”

Grossman believes this also contributes to why Man Ray is so popular right now, as more people have become fascinated with the medium of photography. When the exhibit first opened at The Phillips Collection Center for the Study of Modern Art in Washington, it was “breaking a mold of how art was to be seen,” she explains. The public that was used to seeing exhibits at this museum were used to seeing Western modern and contemporary art, and thus were not as educated in African art and the beauty it contained. Many people here knew of Man Ray for his work as a photographer, but not for his interest or work in African art, and the volume of it which he photographed. “It was in this form that the modern tool of photography was, and still is, instrumental to the introduction of African art as modern art,” declares Grossman.

However this exhibit is viewed, and whatever is taken away by each individual, it is undoubtedly a masterpiece in portraying the correlation between an object of art and the photograph in which it is taken. The exhibit supports how multifaceted Man Ray was by incorporating two very different forms of art and leading the way of modern art and how it is viewed.

Man Ray, African Art and the Modernist Lens runs until January 23, 2011.

//Emma Muller, Writer

//illustration by Stefan Tosheff

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