Painting/Art of the Day

19 Dec



The Kiss. by Man Ray (1890-1976). Gelatin silver print (photogram), 1922. In the collection of MoMA, NYC (not on view).

Notes from

A photogram is a picture made on photographic paper without the aid of a camera. To make this one, Man Ray exposed the paper to light at least three times. Each time a different set of objects acted as a stencil: a pair of hands, a pair of heads kissing, and two darkroom trays, which seem almost to kiss each other with their corner spouts. With each exposure, the paper darkened where it was not masked.

“It is impossible to say which planes of the picture are to be interpreted as existing closer or deeper in space. The picture is a visual invention: an image without a real-life model to which we can compare it,” notes curator John Szarkowski. A Surrealist might have said, instead, that it discloses a reality all the more precious because it is otherwise invisible.

Man Ray claimed to have invented the photogram not long after he emigrated from New York to Paris in 1921. Although, in fact, the practice had existed since the earliest days of photography, he was justified in the artistic sense, for in his hands the photogram was not a mechanical copy but an unpredictable pictorial adventure. He called his photograms “rayographs.”

Additional notes from

This is one of Man Ray’s earliest Rayograms, a process by which objects are laid directly on to a photo-sensitive paper then exposed to light. To create this particular picture, he transferred the silhouette of a pair of hands to the photographic paper then repeated the procedure with a pair of heads (his and his then lover’s, Kiki de Montparnasse).

Rayograms gave Man Ray an opportunity to be in direct contact with his work and react to his creations immediately by adding one layer upon the next layer. He used inanimate objects as well as his own body to create his earlier pictures, and the pictures sometimes have an autobiographical quality, with many of his photographs portraying his lovers. 

Man Ray has long been considered one of the most versatile and innovative artists of the twentieth century. As a painter, writer, sculptor, photographer, and filmmaker, he is best known for his intimate association with the French Surrealist group in Paris during the 1920s and 30s, particularly for his highly inventive and unconventional photographic images.

Until recently, Man Ray’s contribution to the history of American modernism has been largely overlooked. The majority of critics have found his work derivative or, for those with an even more myopic vision, little more than a pastiche of work by more accomplished painters and sculptors. The issue of influence is one that Man Ray was well aware of, and for which he had established a simple defense: “I had never worried about influence. There had been so many – every painter whom I discovered was a source of inspiration and emulation…sufficient that I chose my influences – my masters”

The “problem” of Man Ray begins with the matter that he cannot be classified as an artist in one genre. Painter, photographer, filmmaker printmaker, object-maker, poet, essayist, philosopher – his eclecticism flaunts the ground rules of art history. Man Ray is a chain of enigmas. Paradoxes characterize each phase of his long and complex career and combine to make him the quintessential modernist personality.

Why, to begin with, did he believe that family ties and roots existed to be severed? Information about Man Ray’s childhood and formative years was exceptionally difficult to obtain because Man Ray did not want people to know about his youth. He did not want his family in America to grant interviews about his past. The special tension of Man Ray’s early life emerges like a photographic print slowly developing in the tray.

He insisted that dates were meaningless and bore that out within the stream-of-consciousness, out-of-sync narrative of his memoirs; yet at the same time, he compulsively catalogued all his works over nearly three-quarters of a century, to the extent that he always knew at any time the status, ownership, and location of everything he had ever produced.

Man Ray participated centrally in Dada – a loosely formed movement motivated by the urge to subvert the entire range of artistic endeavor preceding it-yet at the same time he maintained a reverence for the Old Masters, and for the value of tradition as it shaped individual talent.

Even with disappointments and embitterment about his position as an artist, he insisted upon making his way as a painter, to the point where visitors to his studio who sought to bring up the subject of photography were brusquely turned away.

Was the fabrication of a persona called Man Ray ultimately more significant to him than the reputation of the artist Man Ray? If the impression his paintings made was important to Man Ray, why did he pride himself on being such un type rapide (quick study), able to knock off a portrait in a headlong rush? why did he insist upon the inherent passivity of the artist as the most harmless member of society-when his passion and commitment were boundless and electrically apparent to anyone in his presence?

Man Ray’s greatest conflict was his lifelong struggle with the one form of expression in which he had no peer: photography. His unerring eye could pick out a constellation of details and frame them so that they appeared to have arranged themselves. In the studio on the rue Ferou, among thousands of outtakes from portrait sessions and en plein air ramblings never revealed to public view, it is nearly impossible to find a bad picture.

Man Ray’s photography is great because it embraces variety. It represents a virtual new order of reality; it is its own world. It is restless and omnivorous, taking on all the possibilities of perception as its territory.

The supreme present, another modernist obsession, was all that mattered, and the photograph, as a “certificate of presence,” in Roland Barthes’s definition, embodied that instant in time. In 1966 Man Ray told Jules Langsner, the curator of the Man Ray retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, that:

A camera alone does not make a picture. To make a picture, you need a camera, a photographer, and above all a subject. It is the subject alone that determines the interest of the photograph.”

Talking to journalist Colette Roberts, Man Ray alighted upon another metaphor for photography’s place in his life, calling it a “second violin for me, just as necessary in the orchestra as the first violin.”

Man Ray was blessed with lifelong curiosity verging upon voyeurism; he was naturally intrigued by the way people looked and lived. The camera was “his passport, permitting safe passage across otherwise perilous boundaries” – however, he did not inhabit these new and exotic countries for very long. The camera was also a shield defending him while serving as a key to the secrets of others, and therefore a perfect vehicle for Man Ray’s reflective personality.

To his detractors, Man Ray’s solarizations, rayographs, and distortion studies were trucages, the ultimate technical tricks produced by a magician who was not to be taken seriously. However’ his admirers were – and continue to be – those who recognized his capacity to pierce the protective veil of what seemed real. The eyes in Man Ray’s portrait photographs always appear liquid, softened just enough for us to think they might indeed open upon the soul. His outdoor shots force us to rethink nature as something less than natural and closer to imaginary. His fashion photography is so dynamic it wants to leap from the page. His nudes manage to be sensual and untouchable simultaneously. 

My comments:

It’s interesting how different artists treat the theme of the kiss, and evoke different feelings as a result. This photograph is quite small, measuring about the size of an 8.5 x 11 inch piece of paper (It’s actually 9 3/8 x 11 3/4 in), but I feel like if I passed this image in real life, it would catch my attention and make me stop, arresting me more than another artwork of the same size would; it is small but powerful. Its power lies in its mysteriousness, the inability to identify the expressions or any physical characteristics about the two figures in the photogram. Depending on who is kissing who, it will garner different reactions in the viewer, ranging from wistfulness to disgust. Here, none of these visual cues are present, yet the action of the figures is very clear from the title and the image itself; as viewers, we are left in this kind of uncomfortable situation. Given that one of art’s greatest truths is its powerful ability to evoke a rainbow of emotions in the viewer with just a few formal details, when artworks such as this photogram lack so many indicators that viewers often use to form a reaction, it can be a bit unsettling–at least to me; maybe this is just my problem. But assuming this is not just my personal view and that others might share it about this artwork, I wonder if Man Ray wanted it to be ambiguous. He could have painted or sculpted the same subject to make the details less ambiguous, since he also painted and sculpted, but he deliberately chose to make this a photogram. Was he even trying to be mysterious, or just experimenting with a medium and trying to be innovative?

One Response to “Painting/Art of the Day”

  1. tara December 20, 2012 at 1:09 am #

    In answer to your question, he was being true to his surrealist soul.

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