Extremely creative from a very early age, Man Ray (born Emmanuel Radnitsky) became famous as a painter, photographer, print-maker, object-maker, essayist, and poet. Indeed, in this immensely readable and informative biography, Neil Baldwin makes quite clear that, besides being one of the most enigmatic and eclectic Dada-Surrealists of the 1920’s and beyond, Man Ray was the quintessential modernist personality.
Inspired by Walt Whitman, Man Ray decided while still in his teens that the “artist’s first duty was to himself"; he not only came to believe “that family ties and roots existed to be severed,” but he imagined himself “as a Thoreau, breaking free of all ties and duties to society.” Throughout his fifty-year artistic career, then, this genius moved freely in the world of the avant-garde on both sides of the Atlantic, associating with such artists and writers as Alfred Stieglitz, Robert Henri, Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, Gertrude Stein, and James Joyce. Yet despite the many years he lived in Europe, Man Ray was, in the words of his wife Juliet Man Ray, “always an American,” perhaps in no way more so than in his intrepidly entrepreneurial, artistic, and iconoclastic expansions into so many different genres; “his eclecticism flaunts the ground rules of art history,” Baldwin asserts and proves.
More than an insightful study of Man Ray’s heretofore obsessively concealed personal life, this remarkable book is also a social history: The portrait here of a modern master is set against a backdrop of intellectual and social drama at a time when the world’s artistic, literary, and political communities were in an unprecedented international convergence. Baldwin’s portrayal of this pivotal era is superb.