Man Ray, like so many Surrealists, took inspiration from his imagination, the world around him as well as the visual and literary arts, then re-arranged and re-interpreted them to create entirely new compositions, statements of the spirit of Surrealism and the political events that would later lead to the disbandment of the Surrealist group. Painted in Hollywood in 1950, Aline et Valcour is a prime example of the artist's inspirations and political statements and can arguably be considered his last great Surrealist painting, prior to experimenting in other styles upon his return to Paris the following year.
The composition at first conveys an inexplicable scene - an array of objects, a mannequin figure on a table, while a head, apparently bodiless, is presented as an object under a glass dome, all seemingly unrelated. The work's title offers the clue to untangle the enigma: Aline et Valcour, a novel written by the Marquis de Sade in the Bastille prison in the 1780s and first published in 1793. Aline et Valcour describes opponent kingdoms, one lead by a philosopher-king, Zamé, who rejects state execution precisely because it is merely a secular version of human sacrifice rituals. The heroine Aline is virtuous, obedient and modest, persecuted constantly, until she destroys herself rather than suffer the embraces of an old libertine, to whom the father intends to marry her. Throughout the book, there are references to government morality, political economy and the relation of the sexes, which were later topics of the day in the wake of World War II. De Sade foresaw the coming French Revolution as did Man Ray the impending war. Ever mindful of the war and a 'refugee' himself in his homeland, having escaped France in 1940 to settle in Hollywood, Man Ray drew upon these references of dehumanisation and created a captivating composition in Aline et Valcour.
The present composition combines imagery previously explored by May Ray in the medium of photography as well as in assembled objects: the Wooden mannequin figure lying between a sphere and a cone, a photograph from 1926 (fig. 2), was published in La Révolution Surréaliste (Paris, 15th June 1926, no. 7). A key figure in Man Ray's iconography, the mannequin also appears in a painting of 1946, where the artist places mannequin figures entangled with chessmen in the middle of a game, symbolising the chaos of the war and giving it the chess title Endgame, referring to the lack of any foreseeable solution to the war by 1942. On the right, the artist depicted a head, guillotined and blind-folded, and presented as a fetish-like object under a glass dome. This striking image refers again to dehumanisation and the French Revolution, underlying topics in De Sade's Aline et Valcour. Once again, Man Ray draws upon his own inspiration and this haunting image is taken from his photograph (fig. 3) published in Le Surréalisme au service de la révolution (1930, no. 2). For the photograph, Man Ray positioned the model behind the glass dome and cropped the print to remove her body below. This same composition was finally made as an object in 1953, entitled Reliure (fig. 1), to be offered in the Impressionist & Modern Art Day sale.
Discussing the present painting, Arturo Schwarz wrote: 'In Aline et Valcour (1950) the manikin is sitting on a table, his back against the wall, his arms resting on a sphere and a cone, and his head turned away from a glass dome on a piece of furniture level with the table, under which is placed, on a book, the head of a woman with eyes bandaged. As a model for this detail Man Ray used a photograph of a girl positioned behind a piece of furniture. Aline et Valcour is also the title of Man Ray's favourite novel by Sade. "It's a beautiful book, one of his most important novels, in which Sade solved every problem by merely pointing out the absurdity of universal standards. You may remember the story, it is that of a couple that travels around and finds out that each country has completely different moral and political standards." The painting, too, illustrates the relativity of moral standards - the manikin looks away indifferently from the gruesome sight of a severed head placed under a glass dome as if it were an objet d'art. At the same time it again points to the dehumanization of man, represented as a manikin' (A. Schwarz, op. cit., p. 121).
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