VCUarts alumna’s research highlights women, people of color in VMFA exhibition

VCU alumna Madeleine Dugan stands outside of the VMFA, where she worked as a research assistant on the current Man Ray exhibit. Photo by Kaitlyn Fulmore

Gabriela de Camargo Gonçalves, Spectrum Editor

Selna Shi, Contributing Writer 

VCUarts graduate Madeleine Dugan spent her last semester at VCU researching and recontextualizing historical art for the “Man Ray: The Paris Years” exhibition at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

During this time, Dugan was responsible for helping to research the photographs featured in the exhibition. Dugan, a VCUarts craft and material studies alumna, said she spent time in the James Branch Cabell Library looking through its databases. She said she scoured through Vanity Fair magazine archives and eBay Inc. to find vintage magazines related to the exhibition.

“Research wise, it was kind of like a treasure hunt. I would have moments where I was like, ‘oh my God, I finally found it,’” Dugan said. “Something that we have been looking for that kind of puts all the puzzle pieces together.” 

VCU alumna Madeleine Dugan holds her research notebook, where she uses an unsolarized photo of Man Ray to identify the camera he is holding. Photo by Kaitlyn Fulmore

The exhibition, which opened on Oct. 30, showcases the work of Man Ray, the pseudonym for Emmanuel Radnitzky, an American visual artist and photographer. Man Ray is best known for his contributions to the surrealist movement — an art movement that highlighted the illogical and unnerving in post-war Europe from the 1920s to the 1940s, according to the Museum of Modern Art.

Visitors to the exhibition can view over one hundred of Man Ray’s photographs from his time spent in Paris during “Les Années folles,” French for “the crazy years,” the time of cultural prosperity in the French capital between the two World Wars. The exhibition features portraits of cultural icons, including artist Pablo Picasso, author Ernest Hemingway and fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli, according to the VMFA’s website.

As a part of her research, Dugan focused on Ruby Richards, an African American singer and dancer who worked in Paris. She is the subject of Man Ray’s 1938 portrait “Ruby Richards with Diamonds,” which is featured in the exhibition. Dugan said Richards was a “star” in her own right. 

“We kind of rediscovered her legacy,” Dugan said. “That felt really empowering, being able to give back voices to women who had otherwise been written out of history, either because of racism, sexism, or just the men in their lives overpowering them.”

During her research, Dugan spoke with members of Richards’ family about her life and career. “Introducing Ruby Richards,” an onstage talk hosted at the VMFA on Feb. 3, discussed Richards’ legacy, according to Dugan. 

“I think people just forgot about her or, you know, as I think, unfortunately, a lot of people of color end up being written out of history, because it’s white people who are telling the history the whole time,” Dugan said.

Dugan said she feels “extremely lucky” to have been a part of the research and said she was inspired by the idea of giving voices back to Man Ray’s subjects, specifically women and people of color.

“A lot of women in the show have been written off as the wife or ‘tragic love interest’ of men whose names we know of, when in reality, they were artists, gallery owners, writers and strong women who deserve to have their stories told,” Dugan said. 

Dugan’s research on Richards is ongoing and will potentially be used in a book by the VMFA’s exhibition curator Michael Taylor, according to Dugan.

“Madeleine was involved in every aspect of this exhibition, including research, design, layout of the galleries, programming, and writing for the catalog,” Taylor stated in an email. “Her contributions to the exhibition were immense and are still continuing with things like her live poetry readings in the galleries every Wednesday. I am so proud of everything that Madeleine has done to make ‘Man Ray: The Paris Years’ a success.”

Taylor stated he hopes the audience will leave the exhibition with a better understanding of Man Ray’s techniques and accomplishments, as well as the stories of his subjects and their lives in Paris.

VCUarts professor A. Blair Clemo, Dugan’s former ceramics professor, said he encouraged Dugan in her artistic practices and the ability to connect narrative threads to tell stories in her own work.“One of the most important things an artist does is paying attention; to materials, to processes, to the field and the world around them. Curators need this fundamental skill too, to be able to look deeply, highlight connections and content that others may miss and to reveal that to an audience,” Clemo stated in an email. “Madeleine’s background as an artist is more than a foundation in making things with her hands, it’s the ability to unpack meaning from visual language.”

Madeleine Dugan sits for a portrait in Man Ray’s solarization process. Photo by Jeffrey Allison

Dugan said she hoped to work with forensic facial reconstruction when pursuing her degree, but, after her work with Man Ray, she wants to continue her studies for a doctorate focusing on curating and research.

“But I definitely want to do curatorial, and research, because I think it’s just so rewarding,” Dugan said. “And it’s fun. It’s just something that I enjoy. I really like puzzles, and being able to solve the puzzle.”

Man Ray: The Paris Years, will be on exhibit until Feb. 21, 2022. For tickets, visit the VMFA’s website.

Managing editor Grace McOmber contributed to this report.

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