Man Ray’s Big Blond, Cindy Sherman’s Rich Dames: SF Art

'Observatory Time -- the Lovers'
"Observatory Time -- the Lovers" by Man Ray, a 1964 photograph after a 1931 oil painting. The work is a highlight of "Man Ray/Lee Miller: Partners in Surrealism," through Oct. 14, 2012 at the de Young Museum in San Francisco. Source: 2011 Man Ray Trust/Artists Rights Society/de Young Museum via Bloomberg

The huge red lips hover over the landscape like a pair of sexy nuzzling blimps in Man Ray’s “Observatory Time -- the Lovers.”

The lips are modeled after those of Ray’s student, muse and lover Lee Miller, and they’re one of the highlights of an intriguing show of both their work from the heyday of surrealism.

Miller was tall and blond, a Vogue model, a favorite of Edward Steichen and an aspiring photographer when she moved to Paris in the late 1920s at the age of 22.

There, she single-mindedly attached herself to Ray, an established figure who was almost old enough to be her father. They moved in the artistic circles that included Pablo Picasso, Max Ernst, Andre Breton and Alexander Calder.

“Man Ray/Lee Miller: Partners in Surrealism” at San Francisco’s Legion of Honor museum features Ray’s elegant solarized portrait of Miller in profile with her short hair pulled back; the high contrast of the print makes the image almost sculptural.

There are Ray’s studies of a nude Miller -- her torso, her neck, her behind -- that make her look willowy and submissive. There are also nude self-portraits by Miller in which she appears strong, athletic, almost a woman warrior.

While Ray worked mostly in his studio, combining photography into multimedia works such as a metronome that incorporates a photo of Miller’s eye, the younger woman photographed in the streets of Paris, creating spooky, surrealist images of shop windows, carousel horses, rat tails.

The pair broke up in three years. Miller moved back to the U.S. in 1932, and Ray followed later in the decade.

As a World War II photographer for Conde Nast, she returned to Europe, where she documented the concentration camp survivors and made a creepy series on Nazi officials and their families who committed suicide at the end of the Third Reich.

Sherman’s March

The big Cindy Sherman show from New York’s Museum of Modern Art has come to town, and it’s a mixed bag. The elegant installation at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art devotes a separate gallery to each series of the photographer’s self-portraits, highlighting her progression from ingenue to grande dame.

The exhibition includes all 70 black-and-white images of Sherman’s amusing, almost amateurish “Untitled Film Stills” of the late 1970s, in which she poses as a clueless Hollywood starlet or a young damsel in distress. They’re inventive without involving a lot of technical fakery.

Unhappy Women

By the 1980s she’s switched to color, and the prints in the “Centerfold” series grow larger and more garish, the subjects more troubled or unhappy.

In one, she’s wrapped in a red robe before a paint-spattered wall, with darkened eyes and hair askew, looking like the victim of domestic violence. In others she lies or kneels on a wooden floor, as if waiting for a lover or an attacker to arrive. Soon she’s shooting grotesques, making still-lifes out of Halloween masks and vomit.

She jumps the shark completely in the 1990s with a series of historical portraits based on Old Master paintings -- an imitation Caravaggio “Bacchus,” an escapee from Holbein’s “Ambassadors” in a fake beard and wig, a reclining French aristocrat in a lacy, low-cut gown in the style of Francois Boucher.

More successful are the recent impersonations of rich society women, the sort of Upper East Side matrons who might be collectors of Cindy Sherman photographs. The pictures are technically impressive and emotionally cold, a long way from the wistful girls who populated her early work.

Photography 101

Money can’t buy you love, but it sure can buy you some nice photographs. The de Young museum has put up a show from the collection of Trevor Traina (the son of the museum board’s president, DeDe Wilsey), and it offers an introduction to the big names of the field without giving much context for any of them.

The curators mix in a few classics like Robert Frank, Diane Arbus and Lee Friedlander -- “straight” black-and-white photographers who specialized in the weird and banal -- though the exhibition focuses more on big splashy images by recent stars like Andreas Gursky, Thomas Struth, Jeff Wall and Larry Sultan.

Gursky’s “Dortmund” of 2009 places a strip of intensely green grass across the bottom of a huge vertical print, with the rest of the frame mostly filled by a soccer-stadium crowd dressed in yellow jerseys.

The level of detail is jaw-dropping, in the same way that Struth’s landscape of “El Capitan, Yosemite National Park” is powerful, though in a much quieter way.

“Man Ray/Lee Miller: Partners in Surrealism” runs through Oct. 14 at the Legion of Honor, Lincoln Park. Information: +1-415-750-3600;

“Cindy Sherman” runs through Oct. 8 at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 151 Third St. Information: +1-415-357-4000;

“Real to Real: Photographs from the Traina Collection” runs through Sept. 16 at the de Young Museum, Golden Gate Park. Information: +1-415-750-3600;

(Stephen West is an editor for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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