Memories of a friendship with Man Ray: ‘He was a very sweet man, with a kink in his jokes’

After first meeting Man Ray in Paris in the 1960s, Marion Meyer became part of his inner circle, and helped establish the Man Ray International Association after his death. As some 200 of the artist’s works from her collection come to Christie’s in Paris, she talks to Jessica Lack about his life and legacy

Left, Marion Meyer. Right, Man Ray, Man Ray et Ady peignant 'Le Beau Temps', 1939, offered on 11 April 2024 at Christie's

Left, Marion Meyer. Right, Man Ray (1890-1976), Man Ray et Ady peignant ‘Le Beau Temps’, 1939. Two gelatin silver prints (one photograph shown). Each image/sheet: 4⅜ x 3¼ in (11.3 x 8.4 cm). Sold for €2,520 on 11 April 2024 at Christie’s in Paris

In 1951, the Surrealist Man Ray returned to Paris from Hollywood with his American wife Juliet and settled in an old sculptor’s studio in Rue Férou in the Latin Quarter. The building was vast, with 20ft-high whitewashed walls and large windows on three sides through which the hazy Parisian light streamed. Objects were suspended from the ceiling by a system of pulleys, and he used a reproduction of his 1934 painting Les Amoureux, featuring Lee Miller’s giant red lips, as a bed post. It was here, in the late 1960s, that the young German gallerist Marion Meyer met Man Ray.

Meyer was the wife of Marcel Zerbib (1924-1980), Man Ray’s editor and a close friend of the artist. The couple spent many afternoons in the studio, picking their way through Man Ray’s prodigious output to sit on furniture he had fashioned from wooden crates and canvases around a giant pot-bellied stove. ‘The space was huge and had such a special atmosphere,’ recalls Meyer. ‘I used to think it was like a cathedral.’

Man Ray (1890-1976), Groupe surréaliste, c. 1924-1925, Gelatin silver print. Image/sheet: 3⅝ x 3¼ in (9.2 x 8.3 cm). Sold for €20,160 on 11 April 2024 at Christie’s in Paris. Top: artist Georges Malkine kissing his first wife Yvette Ledoux. Front, from left: André de la Rivière, poet Robert Desnos and sculptor André Lasserre

At the time, Man Ray was preparing for a major retrospective at MoMA, recreating lost objects made in New York before his move to Paris in 1921. Meyer offered to help and quickly became part of the artist’s inner circle, socialising with his fellow Surrealists Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, Roland Penrose and Lee Miller (who taught her how to make a salad dressing), as well as a steady stream of admirers from New York who were keen to discuss new innovations in art — among them Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg and the collector Roz Jacobs.

‘Man Ray was delighted that Surrealism had such an impact on younger artists,’ says Meyer. ‘He used to say that Surrealism had upset things, subconsciously, to clear the way for something new.’ Indeed, Man Ray’s desire to do extraordinary things with ordinary objects undoubtedly anticipated Pop art.

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Man Ray (1890-1976), Le manche dans la manche, 1966. Gelatin silver print, after the original rayograph of 1966. Image/sheet: 11⅝ x 9⅜ in (29.6 x 23.8 cm). Sold for €25,200 on 11 April 2024 at Christie’s in Paris

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Man Ray (1890-1976), Cadeau, 1970. Flat-iron with nails. From an edition of 11 plus artist’s proofs, after the original object of 1921. Height: 6⅜ in (16 cm). Sold for €40,320 on 11 April 2024 at Christie’s in Paris

‘You react to it on several levels,’ says Meyer of Man Ray’s art. There are double meanings and ambiguities, the debunking of religion and the elevation of ridicule. Man Ray was an instinctive Surrealist, quick to see how the modern world could be used to convey the movement’s miraculous ideas. His famous 1921 sculpture Cadeau — in which he converted a domestic flat-iron into an object of destruction by sticking nails on its base — showed Warhol just how provocative the everyday could be.

‘His photographs were highly sought-after, but not his paintings, objects or drawings, and those were the works I really loved and wanted to preserve’
Marion Meyer

The collector remembers Man Ray as a ‘very sweet man with a kink in his jokes. He loved word play and paradoxes.’ That offbeat humour is evident in his art as a Dadaist and a Surrealist. A consummate experimenter with mediums and forms, he became a pioneer in photography and film, in particular photo-collage, creating strange, silvery ‘rayographs’ designed to excite the imagination.

Man Ray (1890-1976), Le Violon d’lngres, 1924. Silkscreen on celluloid, executed circa 1970. Image: 21½ x 17⅜ in (54.7 x 44 cm). Sheet: 24¾ x 20⅞ in (63 x 53 cm). Sold for €151,200 on 11 April 2024 at Christie’s in Paris

To a good Surrealist, there was no gap between daily life, fantasy life and sex life. Man Ray was close to his fellow American expat Henry Miller, and their exploits in Montparnasse in the pre-war era are well documented by the novelist. However, Meyer challenges the perceived assumption that Man Ray was ‘very macho’. ‘In fact, he was quiet, very introverted,’ she says. Yet he attracted an array of glamorous women, including the bohemian sorceress Kiki de Montparnasse, whom he portrayed naked and transformed into a musical instrument to be played with.

He also had an intensely passionate affair with the photographer Lee Miller. ‘I think Man Ray loved me when he found out I had the same birthday as Lee,’ says Meyer. ‘She was his great love and they were very close right up until the end of his life.’

Man Ray (1890-1976), Chess set, executed between 1962 and 1966. From an edition of 50 plus five artist’s proofs, published by Marcel Zerbib, Paris. 3¾ x 39½ x 22½ in (9.5 x 100.5 x 57 cm). Sold for €201,600 on 11 April 2024 at Christie’s in Paris

By the time Meyer met Man Ray in the 1960s, the beautiful women and wild nights had been replaced by a bohemian domesticity with Juliet and a passion for chess. ‘He used to play regularly with my husband and Duchamp. The Two Marcels, he called them,’ she says.

A chess set is one of the artworks offered in Man Ray dans la Collection Marion Meyer at Christie’s in Paris on 11 April 2024. The collection, comprising some 200 pieces, is among the most comprehensive of the artist’s work and spans his entire career, beginning with the objects and drawings he made in New York in the 1910s as a Dadaist, and ending with his late assemblages.

Man Ray (1890-1976), All's Well That Ends Well, 1948. Oil on canvas. 16⅛ x 19⅞ in (41 x 50.7 cm). Sold for €264,600 on 11 April 2024 at Christie’s in Paris

Meyer started to collect the artist’s work in the 1970s, first through friends and later at auction. ‘His photographs were highly sought-after, but not his paintings, objects or drawings, and those were the works I really loved and wanted to preserve,’ she says.

Man Ray had asked Meyer to look after his wife Juliet on his death, and Meyer took the request seriously. ‘Juliet was his muse and the first hippy I ever met, a flower child. She was a dancer, very delicate, with these beautiful movements, but quite unworldly. She found the weight of art history too heavy for her shoulders.’

Man Ray (1890-1976), Juliet, c. 1945. Gelatin silver print. Image/sheet: 3¼ x 2.4½ in (8.2 x 6.3 cm). Sold for €2,142 on 11 April 2024 at Christie’s in Paris

When Man Ray died, in 1976, Juliet was overwhelmed with requests for certification of the artist’s work. Still living in the studio they had shared for 25 years, she was beset by dealers and collectors arriving with objects, photographs and drawings to be authenticated. Meyer stepped in to help, and they established the Man Ray International Association to document his art. ‘It has been an enormous project, but it is done now,’ she says. ‘There is very little out there that we don’t know about.’

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Meyer is now a world expert on Man Ray and has also realised her long-term dream of seeing his art in the collections of major international museums. ‘It has been almost 60 years that I’ve devoted my life to Man Ray, and I don’t feel he needs me any more,’ she says. ‘It’s done — I’ve fulfilled my goal.’

Marking the centenary of André Breton’s 1924 Surrealist Manifesto, Man Ray dans la collection Marion Meyer is offered at Christie’s in Paris on 11 April 2024. The collection will be on view from 3 to 11 April

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