It’s no easy task for a work of history to dish all the gossip you want hear and still manage to seem culturally and sociopolitically substantial. Man Ray’s Montparnasse, by Herbert Lottman (2001) does just this. Suitable for the beach or the classroom, it manages to maintain the pace of a tight page-turner while encompassing the major personages, relationships, movements and trysts at the center of Paris’s interwar bohemia...rendering them as they might have appeared in the lens of its appointed photographer: a diminutive Jew born in Philadelphia to Russian immigrants.
“All of Greenwich Village is parading up and down Rue Montparnasse,“ quipped Man Ray’s friend Marcel Duchamp, (who had already achieved notoriety in New York and was refusing to paint at any price.) Such was then the romantic tug of the 14th arrondisement for American artists, literati and starstuck aspirants, the last category of which included William Faulkner who, unpublished at 28, haunted cafes hoping for a glimpse of Joyce.
Even more perhaps than other already-established Yanks, like the macho Hemingway and the insecure Fitzgerald, Man Ray made Montparnasse his stomping ground. Facilitating this was his lengthy affair with Kiki de Montparnasse, the unquestioned doyenne of the district, who had modeled for every major artist around and was a cabaret favorite of visiting sailors. The usefulness and neutrality of Ray’s lens also paved his way socially. He seemed to be one of the few confidantes of Andre Breton—the “pope“ of Surrealism—who never earned wrath or excommunication for his heresies. The author too applies evenhandedness, if never disinterest, to the volatile story of Dada and Surrealism: their hermetic insiderishness, their theatrical gift for hype, their violent schisms and reconciliations, their dalliances with the Communist Party, their discovery and cooptation by the haute bourgeoisie. Through it all he paints their lives and interconnections in richly textured strokes, never failing to acknowledge that they were men and women of passions and of their time, but evoking always how far beyond that they went.