Any visitor to the Man Ray exhibition at the Art Gallery of NSW, the first comprehensive retrospective of the artist’s work in Australia, will on some level probably be both disappointed and amazed.

Many of the images in the show have become iconic, familiar from mass-produced posters and the imitative work of other artists and the advertising industry. The first surprise is that many of these images are unusually small in their original form. But once the shock of their size is overcome, there is a different sort of revelation that occurs as you are forced to look closely, and to connect with these intimate images.

What is also immediately apparent is the way Man Ray prefigures so much that we are familiar with in both commercial and art photography. The art photography of Robert Mapplethorpe and Cindy Sherman has its precursor here, as does the fashion photography of Helmut Newton.

Curator Judy Annear argues that Man Ray’s work is also particularly current. His idea of beauty speaks to the artistic rediscoveries of the early 21st century.

All of that work [post-modern photography] steps away from any ideas to do with beauty and then of course theory comes along and nobody’s allowed to talk about beauty. Now fortunately at the beginning of the 21st century we are allowed to talk about beauty again, Annear explains.

This is the other aspect of Man Ray’s work, which is really quite important. There is always a real sensuality and a real beauty to the work. A lot of this has to do with the surface, the texture, the type of papers he used and how he printed. In spite of the advent of modernism, and a much more hard-edged approach to photographing, there is a kind of real warmth to the work. It’s not coldly classical, it’s not only about technique at all, there is often a real subtlety -¦ there’s a kind of playfulness, a kind of tenderness that comes through the work, she says.

Man Ray said that in his photography he tried to capture those visions that twilight, or too much light or their own fleetingness, or the slowness of our ocular apparatus robs our senses of. He continues:

I have always been surprised, often charmed, sometimes literally -˜enraptured’.

Sometimes the sense of this other image that we cannot see is present literally in the shadowing of the object; at other times it is present in the complete transformation of the subject -“ from body to prayer, for example, the title of one of his most famous nudes.

Annear argues in her catalogue essay that although Man Ray was clearly in the current of surrealist thought and the influence of De Sade is also present, it is his love of the ambiguities of form and texture which takes Man Ray away from the excesses of his surrealist peers who aspired to be more specifically and literally Sadean.

Man Ray is what you expect and more.

INFO Man Ray is on at the Art Gallery of NSW until April 18. Adult $8 Concession $5.

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