Man Ray and Fashion at MoMu exhibition review

12 November 2023, by Babette Radclyffe-Thomas

In this week’s blog, News Editor Babette Radclyffe-Thomas reviews the Mode Museum Antwerpen (MoMu) exhibition celebrating the links between art and fashion: Man Ray and Fashion.

“For Man Ray the realms of art and fashion weren’t mutually exclusive. His commercial fashion photography inspired his artworks and vice versa. We hope the exhibition once again illustrates that fashion is part of society and is permeated by many influences,” Romy Cockx, MoMu.

Opening in April 2023, Momu’s new exhibition Man Ray and Fashion highlights the legacy of renowned surrealist artist Man Ray celebrating his enduring impact on the contemporary fashion landscape. To create an exhibition featuring approximately three hundred items MoMu curator Romy Cockx worked with guest curators Claude Miglietti, Catherine Örmen and Alain Sayag and it is evident how much research went into identifying the broad range of designers and creatives inspired by Man Ray’s work. Approximately 60 items hail from MoMu’s own collections with loans from private collectors, fashion houses and museums.

One section is dedicated to Man Ray’s atelier featuring his furniture and video projections and as well as garments, this large exhibition displays art works by Man Ray, alongside his photographs for designers such as Coco Chanel, Paul Poiret and Elsa Schiaparelli and photoshoots for magazines including Vogue, Vanity Fair and Harper’s Bazaar. These show how Man Ray’s depictions of women and fashion, using unexpected and novel angles, staging, new techniques such as solarization and multiple exposures, continue to influence fashion photography today.

“2023 is just over 100 years since Man Ray made his first fashion photographs for Paul Poiret (in 1921). Subconsciously, when we decided (in 2020) to programme the exhibition, we also felt perhaps that surrealism would once again have a lot of resonance, which the fashion collections and exhibitions of recent years have proved,” MoMu curator Romy Cockx said.

The exhibition features a range of garments from iconic French houses Chanel, Maison Lanvin, Madeleine Vionnet and Yves Saint Laurent as well as iconic pieces from Belgian designers Martin Margiela, Olivier Theyskens and Dries Van Noten demonstrating the inspiration designers have taken from Man Ray’s work. Some of the most recognisable pieces from modern fashion history featured in the exhibition include Margiela’s S/S 1996 two-dimensional tailored pieces printed with photographic negatives of clothing in flowing materials and his S/S 1997 collection of mannequin-esque clothing which is presented alongside wax busts from the 1920s and 1930s.

“I cannot choose one favourite item on show in this exhibition because I am very grateful to all lenders who made my hopes come through. By lending their items they made it possible to visualise the links that I find so inspiring. As for Man Ray’s photos: I really love the campaign image,” Cockx said.

The exhibition opens with ‘from scraps of cloth to Dada’ displaying Man Ray’s 1920 art work Obstruction assembled of coat hangers, alongside Martin Margiela’s Untitled 1991 piece similarly depicting a coat hanger but shaped into a pair of breasts. Although he did not explicitly mention his fashion background in dressmaking as a source of inspiration, the exhibition shows that dressmakers’ mannequins, sewing machines, flat irons and pins all appeared as elements in his work.

Man Ray’s transition into professional photography is explored in the ‘capturing stylish women’ section, which depicts images of couture designer Norine and Chanel alongside their historic garments. His relationship with Belgian couture designer Norine is a key feature of the exhibition, from photographs he took of her, to the surreal visual vocabulary she applied to fashion. The following section presents Man Ray’s influential muses and clients such as Luisa Casati, Nancy Cunard, Kiki de Montparnasse and Lee Miller. The next chapter of the exhibition explores ‘surrealist body images’ exploring Man Ray’s Surreal images of female body parts. Use of mannequins show the surrealist approach to depicting erotic desire, and isolated body parts such as eyes, lips, hair, hands. The final section of the exhibition focuses on ‘optical illusions’. 

Links are made between Man Ray’s surrealist visual language, his  influence on contemporaries and more current design, with pieces on show ranging from the 1920s to the 2000s. On one wall images created by Man Ray of his muse Louisa Casati in 1922 are presented next to fashion images taken by Paolo Roversi of Tilda Swinton for Acne Paper Winter 09/10 in the exact same style. Garments by Celine’s Phoebe Philo, Viktor & Rolf, J W Anderson for Loewe and Galliano for Dior all demonstrate how designers still find inspiration in the same influential women of Man Ray’s time.

The curation process unveiled particular highlights for MoMu curator Cockx, “For me it was a discovery that the first reference to Man Ray in Belgian fashion dates to 1938 and can be traced back to the fashion house Norine. Man Ray not only photographed the couple that ran the couture house, but one of his drawings was incorporated in a dress.  Also, it was interesting to discover that Man Ray greatly inspired Martin Margiela throughout his career.”

The museum also has a huge permanent collection of 38,000 items. Items from the permanent collection are on show in a room on the ground floor which is separated into key themes drawing links between designers and eras such as craftmanship, the trend and the black cape.

The exhibition ran until 13th August 2023, and the catalogue continues to be on sale.

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