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Class of 2021: Madeleine Dugan digs into art history, Paris at her fingertips

By Dina Weinstein, VCU News

Virginia Commonwealth University art student Madeleine Dugan’s work uncovering facts about the lives of the people in famed photographer Man Ray’s portraits played a key role in creating the exhibition “Man Ray: The Paris Years,” on view at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts through Feb. 21.

When Dugan graduates in December, she will have the unique credential of “exhibition research assistant” on her resume and can tout having a strong imprint on a groundbreaking exhibit that shines a light on those who worked, lived and performed in Paris in the 1920s and 30s. 

“I really have loved it a lot,” said Dugan, who is majoring in craft and material design in the School of the Arts and minoring in art history and criminal justice. “I like making discoveries, and researching is so fun. I just love to learn.” 

Sarah Powers, Ph.D., a VMFA curatorial research specialist who was Dugan’s high school art history teacher at St. Catherine’s School, gave her the tip about the job opportunity two years ago. Powers is married to Michael Taylor, Ph.D., chief curator and deputy director for art and education at the VMFA. Once in the job, Dugan worked directly with Taylor, who included her in meetings organizing the show, always asking her opinion on plans from design to programming. Dugan had a key role in other tasks from writing labels to proofreading copy. 

“There were wonderful discussions around cultural appropriation [in Man Ray’s photographs],” Taylor said. “Madeleine brought so much to the fore and I think that’s what’s been great about this is that the exhibition is unlike any previous Man Ray exhibition.”

“Man Ray: The Paris Years” focuses on the innovative portraits that Man Ray made in the French capital between 1921 and 1940, a time when Paris emerged as a powerful center of artistic freedom and daring experimentation. Shortly after his arrival in July 1921, Man Ray started documenting the international avant-garde in Paris in a series of portraits that established his reputation as one of the leading Surrealist photographers of his era. 

“His photographs do not look like those of other photographers,” Taylor said. “He had a special way of working where he would make a contact print and he would basically crop out all the extraneous details and then he would blow it up. So people say the sitters are bursting out of the frame. And when you do that, it also softens the features and gives them a glow.”

Born Emmanuel Radnitzky in 1890, Man Ray was 30 years old when he arrived in Paris. Dugan views him, and his contemporaries, as young artists exploring their boundaries, much like her peers.

“They were just some young guys who wanted to mess with people,” Dugan said. “They were making revolutionary images to make themselves laugh that didn’t have to make sense. I think that’s a cool form of art.”

With photos from the VMFA’s collection, photos on loan, auxiliary materials and research, Dugan and Taylor made discoveries about Man Ray and the lesser-known or forgotten people in his portraits. They are satisfied with the portrayal of the artist in a less heroic light than in previous exhibits. Taylor and Dugan aimed to convey the dialogue between Man Ray and the people in his photographs.

Read the full article here.

Lead Image: Madeleine Dugan outside the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Her work uncovering facts about the lives of the people in famed photographer Man Ray’s portraits played a key role in creating the exhibition “Man Ray: The Paris Years,” on view at the museum through Feb. 21. (Allen Jones, University Marketing)