In Paris with Kiki, Dada

Article excerpt

Byline: Colin Walters

Some generations have the luck to live through seminal chapters in the life of literature, music and the visual arts, and others don't. Recent decades have not been seminal years and such periods, dating back to the artistic achievements of Periclean Athens in the runup to the Peloponnesian War, often have coincided with political turmoil. So it was with Paris between the two world wars, a time of what Herbert Lottman calls "ferment" in the arts.

One Paris neighborhood without boundaries, Montparnasse, always has been associated with those years, as it earlier was with the Impressionist painters. It was where, in the 1920s and '30s, residents and visitors alike, many of them American, frolicked in a combination of modernism and cosmopolitanism that the Islamic extremists with whom we now find ourselves in deadly contention would have loved to hate. Montparnasse then was a key station on the road that has brought us to where we are today.

The heterogeneous mix of artistic outlooks existing within the space of a few square miles - the Left Bank from north of the Luxembourg Garden down to the cheap rent district and the river - seemed to Mr. Lottman difficult to integrate in any whole until he remembered how Man Ray, the American painter and surpassing photographer, successfully navigated the different social classes and often warring artistic factions that included the artists of the Ecole de Paris, Dadaists and later Surrealists. This was, too, the Paris of Adrienne Monnier, Sylvia Beach, Alice B. Toklas and Gertrude Stein. Ezra Pound, James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway and Alexander Calder were there. And Berenice Abbott came along to rescue for posterity the wonderful photographic prints of the elderly Eugene Atget.

Anybody who has ever looked at art photos or a fashion plate knows Man Ray's work whether they realize it or not, for he was that influential. Twenty-five years after his death, he is not known so much for his painting, collages, airbrush paintings which he called aerographs and other constructions as he might have wished. His photography, which started out as taking pictures of his paintings because he was not satisfied with other professionals' photos of them, came to dominate his working life, make him a famous man and, not incidentally, bring him first a modest living and later a handsome one. Everyone who was anyone in literature and the arts came to his Paris studio to have their portrait done, and the lavish illustrations in Mr. Lottman's book include an affecting portrait of James Joyce - snapped in profile just as he turned his hurting eyes away from the photographer's lamps.

Being American allowed Man Ray to stay out of the worst of the quarrels between groups, which could degenerate into fisticuffs and bloody noses - Andre Breton, the Surrealist "pope," once broke an adversary's arm, slamming down on it with his walking stick. The American was not generally expected to take sides, though he did on occasion sign a manifesto or associate himself with a partisan position. None of this kept him from maintaining close relations with all manner of people, from the American heiress and art collector Peggy Guggenheim to the initially waif-like model, Kiki (born Alice Prin in Bergundy), with whom he lived for some years.

The future Man Ray was born Emmanuel Radnitsky on Aug. 27, 1890, the first of four children of Russian Jewish immigrants. When he was seven, the family moved from Philadelphia to Brooklyn where his father worked as a tailor. The boy showed early signs of enthusiasm for the visual arts and, importantly, a resolve to choose his own career. As a young man in New York, he found his way to Alfred Stieglitz's studio, the famous 291, and began to make his way among artists and get his work increasingly taken seriously.

The 1913 Armory Show, in which Stieglitz introduced Americans to the modern art being produced across the Atlantic, was an important event for the aspiring artist. …