From the colophon, we know Man Ray’s reportage was sent to a select group of his friends, among them the Surrealists Louis Aragon (the present example), André Breton, Robert Desnos and René Char. Breton and Aragon were vociferous in their protests against the Exposition Coloniale, both on political grounds and because they believed that African art and myth bypassed conscious, rational thought to reach into the fertile unconscious. They responded by mounting an alternative exhibition called La Vérité sur les colonies (The Truth about the Colonies).
The satirical tone of Man Ray’s portfolio, intended for a select few, is announced by the cover photograph showing a group of African herdsmen tending livestock. Visible in the midst of the cattle are unlikely objects including a flat cap and a disproportionate ladder, illusions created by Man Ray using the photomontage technique.
The next two photographs, presented on a folio, while obscure in their relationship to the theme of the colonial exhibition, are far more arresting. The composition of the provocative image of a handheld hairdryer brought in close and dangerous proximity to a woman’s sex is echoed by the electric lamp caught amongst the erotic and prickly forms of cacti leaves. Such combinations of man-made everyday objects with the human anatomy recall the Surrealists’ adhesion to the poet Lautréaumont’s dictum in ‘Chants des Maldoror’ : “Beautiful…as the fortuitous encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on a dissecting table”.
Man Ray and the Surrealists’ interest in erotica in the early 1930s was greatly influenced by the writings of the Marquis de Sade. While it may be observed that the composition of the woman’s legs is certainly reminiscent of Gustave Courbet’s outrageous 1866 painting L’Origine du monde (Musée d’Orsay, Paris), whether the juxtaposition of this image with its pair can provide clues to the artist’s intent is left for the viewer to determine.
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