by Mark Van Proyen
A few years before the time when Andre Breton published his First Surrealist Manifesto in 1924, the American-born Man Ray (né Emmanual Radinitsky) temporarily abandoned painting in favor of other artistic activities, the best-known of which was his longstanding series of photographic monoprints called Rayographs. After befriending Marcel Duchamp in New York in 1915, he went to Paris in 1921 and set up a studio on the Rue Campagne in the Montparnasse district. From 1921 to 1929, he made four short surrealist films in 16 millimeter, the latter three being on view in this stunning, museum-quality exhibition, accompanied by a choice selection of Ray’s later found-object sculptures and a suite of pictorialist-looking photographs, almost all of which are still shots from the films.
The films are Emak Bakia (1926, 20 minutes), L’Etoile de Mer (The Starfish, 1928, 16 minutes) and Le Mystere du Chateau du Dé (1929, 19 minutes). Only Emak Bakia has a soundtrack, an unobtrusive one at that, and it and the others are presented here as parts of a trio of separate high-resolution digital projections in a ]grey room sequestered behind a plush red velvet curtain. Nearby, we can also note that three celluloid prints of L’Etoile de Mer are displayed like holy relics in a vitrine, each labeled in their antique canisters and storage boxes. The films themselves are mesmerizing, almost hypnotic, made all-the-more-so by the way that
their digital restorations actually enhances the graininess of the originals, emphasizing their antique character and also reminding us of the more familiar look and feel of surveillance tapes. Only in this case, what was being surveilled were artificially constructed fantasies that reflect back on the optical unconscious of cinema itself. This last point is the most important, as it opens on to the way that cinematic exposition operates as a scopophiliac “desiring machine” that masks, reveals and otherwise constructs the translation of wish fulfillment into visibly believable form, and vice versa. This last statement may now be commonplace in the context of contemporary film criticism, but when applied to early Surrealist cinema made during the 1920s, it reveals that Man Ray’s work was very far ahead of the art historical curve. All one has to do is think about the relationship between these three films and Matthew Barney’s Cremaster Cycle, and you will get the idea. And if that doesn’t do the trick, look at other artist-made films created by Robert Rauschenberg, Bruce Conner, Carolee Schneeman and Bruce Nauman, all of which are clearly indebted to Ray’s earlier efforts.
Because of its sequencing of abrupt juxtapositions of “ominous” images, Emak Bakia comes across as the most classically surrealist of the three films, if by “classical,” we mean to refer to the later cinematic collaborations between Salvador Dali and Luis Buñel. Near the film’s conclusion, we see the appearance of Kiki de Montparnasse, who was Ray’s girlfriend at the time. The camera closes in on her face, where she repeatedly blinks her eyes to reveal alternative sets of eyes painted on the exterior of her eyelids, signaling the birth of one of the most durable art student clichés that have ever existed. Or maybe the scene is an homage to the all-seeing eye of Wadjet; it is hard to say.
Kiki de Montparnasse (née Alice Prin) appears again in L’Etoile de Mar, a film that moves away from the esthetic of rapid jump cuts toward more lyrical passages that tell a kind of aquatic love story between three people who enter and exit a scene dominated by an omnipresent starfish. One of them is Surrealist poet Robert Desnos, whose poem of the same name forms the narrative basis for the film. Here, the use of subtle fades and overlays wins the day, making it the most Freudian of the three films.
Compared to the other two films, The Mysteries of Chateau de Dé seems almost like a vintage home movie. It recounts an automobile journey from Paris to the countryside, recording the passing of rural and industrial scenery until arriving at the destination that is the film’s namesake. Once there, we witness as many as four people with faces obscured exploring the chateau and playing games with oversized dice, behaving like precocious teenagers who have happened upon an abandoned wonderland. Their explorations eventually take them to an indoor pool, where they make half-hearted attempts at synchronized swimming. The chateau itself gradually takes on the character of being…a character; that is, a labyrinthine treasure box full of secrets, signs and wonders that invite their explorers to join into playful interaction.
One thing that stands out about all three films is how the musicality of their editing conveys and enhances their visual power. From a cinematic point of view, Ray was working with rather primitive tools. Still, in so many ways, his deft use of them accrues to the viewer’s advantage vis-a-vis his sensitivity to the speed and flow of his passages, and in the case of Emak Bakia, the lyrical abruptions between light and dark also animate undulating shifts between hard graphic and soft pictorial scene-fragments.
The eight photographic prints on view work very well as static images, seeming very much in keeping with the vogue for Pictorialist photography that was so pronounced during the 1920s and 1930s. Their tendency toward soft-focus no doubt had much to do with the fact that they were printed from 16-millimeter negatives, but given their dreamy, otherworldly imagery, that seems to be a plus. But more to the point, they represent
an early recognition of the way that still images achieve meaning by relying on their position amidst implicit sequences. Ray’s handling of them foreshadowed an idea that later artists such as Cindy Sherman would exploit to great effect, adding fuel to the assertion that Postmodernism was a belated and overelaborate extension of Surrealist ideas advanced five decades earlier.
The three films and related photographs locate Ray’s work squarely within the mainstream of the Parisian Surrealism of the 1920s, as did many of his earlier paintings, which were prescient anticipations of that movement. But in recognizing that fact, we might also want to also ask about the ways that Ray’s work deviated from Surrealist orthodoxy. Answers to that question can be found in the array of eight found-object works that are also part of the exhibition. Clearly, these owe a debt to Duchamp’s own found-object works from before WWI, and as was the case with Duchamp’s examples, they are, in most cases, represented as authorized copies of lost originals. That said, it’s worth noting that the sculptural qualities of Ray’s found objects are far more streamlined and austere than those seen in the work of other Surrealists — a fact that points to the then-popular esthetics of African sculpture and, possibly, to Ray’s satirization of the sleek formalism of Constantine Brancusi and Russian Constructivists such as Antoine Pevsner and Noam Gabo.
Given that Ray lived in New York before his first relocation to Paris, we might also want to consider how his work can be seen to reflect American Precisionism and the Italian Futurism that influenced and predated it.
At least one of these objects had a previous identity as a prop in one of the films. It is titled Fisherman’s Idol (1926/1973) and was initially featured in Emak Bakia, only here it is replicated as a bronze casting of the original made from a configuration of corks that suggested an obscure cult object. Lampshade (1919-1964) is an uncanny twirl of white painted sheet metal wrapped into a conical shape, while L’ astrolabe (1957/1966), sets up a spiral of four concentric wooden hoops set on a central pivot, bisected by three straight pieces of wood and a magnifying glass to create a free-standing configuration that did double duty as a drawing device. Positioned nearby are two 1970 drawings (both titled Shadow Study), showing how Ray used the method to cast oblique shadows onto paper, upon which he made deft tracings with a felt-tip pen.
The affinity between Ray and Duchamp’s work is made most explicit in an exquisite chess set that Ray originally made in 1920 (Jeu d’ echecs), and remade in 1962 in anticipation of Duchamp’s retrospective at the Pasadena Museum in 1963. It features two sets of pieces, one in dark bronze, the other in shiny gilded bronze, positioned atop a collapsible wooden case with an interior of plush velvet and posh enamel inlay. Alas, it was not the same chess set that was used for Duchamp’s famous match with a nude Eva Babitz during his 1963 retrospective, but it should have been.
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Man Ray: The Mysteries of Chateau du Dé @ Gagosian San Francisco to February 29, 2020.
Photos: © May Ray Trust/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris 2019.
About the author:
Mark Van Proyen’s visual work and written commentaries focus on satirizing the tragic consequences of blind faith placed in economies of narcissistic reward. Since 2003, he has been a corresponding editor for Art in America. His recent publications include: Facing Innocence: The Art of Gottfried Helnwein (2011) and Cirian Logic and the Painting of Preconstruction (2010). To learn more about Mark Van Proyen, read Alex Mak’s December 9, 2014 interview, published on Broke-Ass Stuart’s website.