Man Ray’s Montparnasse – Herbert Lottman

Harry N. Abrams
2001

Herbert Lottman’s book on Man Ray and Montparnasse,
at that time in history the center of the art world, is one of the best books I’ve read about the pre-WWII art scene. Most of my previous reading on the Surrealists have come either from their own texts, or in the stodgy writings that accompany art books. But none gave a sense of time and place as this history of a neighborhood.
It’s not exactly a book on Man Ray, but the American born, reluctant photographer (nee frustrated painter) serves as a conduit through which passes nearly every single important artist of the early 20th Century. Man Ray moved to Paris, believing he would be a painter, but wound up paying the bills with photographic portraits. His subject/client list is enviable: apart from the group of Dadaists and Surrealists that haunted the cafes there, he photographed Gertrude Stein, Eric Satie, Marcel Proust (the day after he died), Picasso, James Joyce, Hemingway, and many more. He was able to stay above the fray of many political/artistic fights and divisions because of his portraiture, and never earned the wrath of Andre Breton.
Lottman reports all this in the context of how these artists spent their time–sleeping with their models and mingling with people of all nationalities at the cafes and clubs that lined the street. They moved in and out of tiny studio apartments, and they opened and closed galleries. Man Ray had several major love affairs, first with the infamous Kiki, who is the model in his most famous early work, Lee Miller, his student and lover who then went on to a successful career in her own right, and a few other dalliances.
The world that we get to look into in the book is refreshingly modern, but also long past, especially when one considers how important creation and art was to all these people (well, except Duchamp, who had a successful career doing as little as possible). It would be hard to imagine such vigorous defences of art made today.
Anyway, a bloody quick read, to be had on Amazon for cheap, printed on lovely thick glossy paper, and full of relevant photos (although I would have liked more).

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