Private Collection, Italy (sold: Sotheby's, London, 27th March 1985, lot 194)
Purchased at the above sale by the present owner
Los Angeles, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Man Ray, 1966, no. 103 (titled The Harpist)
Turin, Galleria Il Fauno, Man Ray, 1971, no. 14
Ferrara, Galleria Civica d'Arte Moderna, Palazzo dei Diamanti, Man Ray, 1972, no. 131, illustrated in the catalogue
Janus, Man Ray, Milan, 1973, fig. 109, illustrated in colour
André Morain, Le Milieu de l'art, seize années de chroniques photographiques, Paris, 1977, illustrated in a photograph of the 1962 exhibition p. 35
Janus, Man Ray, Œuvres 1909-1972, Milan & Paris, 1990, fig. 74, illustrated in colour
A monumental canvas from Man Ray’s late Paris period, Femmelaharpe amalgamates a range of the themes that fascinated the artist throughout his career, from depicting the interaction of women and objects to the synthesis of music and traditional mathematical models within his works.
Born in Philadelphia and raised in and around New York City, Man Ray first went abroad to Paris in 1921. Heavily involved in the Dada and Surrealist movements, he approached each with his unique combination of object creation, painting, sculpture and photography. It was through photography that he financially supported himself, his fashion images and portraiture appearing in magazines from Vogue to Harper’s Bazaar. He would remain in Paris for nearly two decades, returning to live in the United States in 1941 at the height of the Second World War.
It was during his time there that he met his future wife, Juliet. In a story that is now legendary, when Max Ernst and his companion Dorothea Tanning came to California to marry and asked Man Ray and Juliet to serve as witnesses, they decided on the spur of the moment to marry too: ‘One evening the four were having drinks in the studio on Vine Street, when Man Ray, only half-jokingly said, “if Max and Dorothea can do it, maybe we should too!”… On the afternoon of October 24, 1946, the foursome went quietly to justice of the peace Cecil D. Holland in Beverly Hills, hoping to avoid publicity and attention. But he recognized Max Ernst, and an annoying horde of photographers trailed the wedding party out into the street’ (N. Baldwin, Man Ray, American Artist, New York, 1988, p. 255). A few years later, Man Ray would return to Paris, bringing Juliet with him.
Femmelaharpe dates to these post-war years in Paris. The first decade that Man Ray and Juliet spent there together was largely occupied with work and Man Ray began to focus increasingly on painting. As the artist observed: ‘Painting was an adventure, in which some unknown force might suddenly change the whole aspect of things’ (quoted in ibid., p. 290). The act of painting was of huge importance as he sought to recalibrate himself following his return to Paris. As Neil Baldwin writes: ‘Man Ray would sense an almost erotic anticipation of “a certain anxiety… a sort of misgiving of the outcome of [his] enterprise.” But he also recognized that intimation of self-doubt as a prerequisite for making art, and “once engaged in the act, all uncertainty disappeared, and [he] carried on with complete assurance.” For Man Ray, the problem of painting was a noble one, to be resolved with pride by marshalling one’s best efforts, never made light of or shrugged off, or (as in taking a photograph) viewed as “a matter of calculation,” of sheer mechanics and little else’ (ibid., p. 290).
In Femmelaharpe, Man Ray depicts a female figure seductively entwined with an abstracted harp-form. Hands reach from the edge of the canvas, seemingly to pluck the strings or caress her figure while a clock at lower left points to the hour, perhaps a reminder of the metronome or an echo of the vague form of a sundial suggested by the green base below the harp and the yellow disk at upper left. Man Ray had photographed a room full of harps the same year Femmelaharpe was painted and in the 1940s drew and painted several less finished images of women holding and playing the harp. Man Ray often looked to the art of the past for inspiration – or rather, opportunities for subversion – and it seems likely this synthesis of woman and instrument was suggested by works such as Rossetti’s La Ghirlandata (fig. 1). The present work certainly captures the same erotic charge, although it is transformed and intensified by Man Ray. It is hard to discern where the figure of the woman begins and the physical body of the harp ends, a conceit surely related to his iconic Le violon d’Ingres (fig. 2) – another subversion of an Old Master in which a seated odalisque acts as both an instrument and an object of desire. The title of the present work – which recalls the wordplay and puns of Dadaism – reinforces this idea with the elision of the two words femme and harpe in this unusual way mirroring the subject of the composition.
At once enigmatic and seductive, Femmelaharpe is an important example of Man Ray’s work in this medium, drawing together many of the artist’s key themes from the preceding decades in a composition of striking vivacity.
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