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April 16, 2014 / 16 Nisan, 5774
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Posts Tagged ‘Man Ray’

Is There Religious Significance To Man Ray’s African Obsession?

Wednesday, December 9th, 2009

Man Ray, African Art and the Modernist Lens

Through January 10, 2010

The Phillips Collection

1600 21st Street, NW, Washington, D.C.



Jews, and particularly Jewish kings of the biblical period, are not supposed to be too keen on horses. An unhealthy love for things equestrian, according to the admonition in Deuteronomy 17:16, will tempt the king to return the Jewish people to Egypt.  That being said, it must be admitted upfront that it is quite a stretch to ask whether a biblical prohibition against amassing royal stables of Egyptian horses applies to Jewish artists today. There are countless representations of the Genesis and Exodus narratives in Haggadahs and other Jewish books – some of which might even have been made by Jewish artists – so there was surely no ban on representing Egypt in art. Yet, if the bible espouses what we can only describe as an anti-Egyptian perspective, which anyone who attends a Passover Seder cannot help but confront, this could trickle down to artists.


So when Isaiah 31:1 curses “Woe (hoy) unto those who go to Egypt for help, who depend on horses” and fail to realize “Egyptians are men not G-d, and their horses are flesh not spirit” and Ezekiel 17:15 promises the Jews who send representatives to Egypt seeking horses and servants will not prosper, what, if anything, do they have to say about the Jewish artist Man Ray?


“Egypt appears most notably in Man Ray’s chess sets, in which he designed the king as an Egyptian pyramid. But I never considered the biblical connection to Egypt when thinking about those pieces,” said Wendy A. Grossman, curator of the exhibit Man Ray, African Art and the Modernist Lens at The Phillips Collection, in an email. In addition to the show at the Phillips, Man Ray, born Emmanuel Radnitzky (1890 – 1976), is also the subject of an exhibit at The Jewish Museum called “Alias Man Ray: The Art of Reinvention” (through March 14).




Man Ray, Comtesse de St. Exupery Modeling an African Hat, Mode au Congo, 1937, © 2009 Man Ray Trust/Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY/ADGAP, Paris, Baltimore Museum of Art.



According to Grossman, who specializes in Man Ray, the history of photography, early 20th century European and American Modernism, and the relationship between African and modern art, it would be “highly uncharacteristic” of Man Ray to have associated the Egypt of his chess board with the Egypt of Exodus. Indeed, on the website of the Museum of Modern Art, which owns a silver-plated and oxidized silver-plated brass version of Man Ray’s “Chess Set” (1920 – 26), the bible is not mentioned.


“Moreover, while Egypt is indeed part of the African continent, the avant-gardes’ embrace of African objects was focused on Sub-Saharan Africa,” Grossman said, “which was rarely considered in relationship to Egypt at that time.” Thus when Man Ray photographed African sculptures and masks, he embraced the objects for “the challenge they presented to Western culture as a whole and classical artistic hierarchies in particular,” according to Grossman, and “the taboo nature of such objects specifically for his Jewish peers was far from his conscious concerns.”


But even if Man Ray did not have biblical slavery in mind, there is actually quite an interesting Jewish narrative surrounding one particular photograph (Man Ray’s most famous, of the artist, singer and model Kiki of Montparnasse with an African mask) that appears in both the Phillips and the Jewish Museum shows, according to Grossman. In the black-and-white image, Kiki’s white face with black hair sharply contrasts with the black mask, although there are similarities between the softly modeled features of the mask and the model. Though the two faces have many differences (cultural, ethnic, racial), they share a similar olive-shape and striking beauty.



Man Ray, Black and White (Noire et Blanche), 1926, © 2009 Man Ray Trust/Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY/ADGAP, Paris, Baltimore Museum of Art.



Writing in “Unmasking Man Ray’s Noire et blanche” (American Art, summer 2006) with co-author Steven Manford, Grossman notes that varied interpretations of Man Ray’s “enigmatic” photograph of the mask reflect the image’s “ambiguous and provocative character.” Instead of turning out to belong to “a phantom French collector of African art,” the mask, Grossman and Manford discover, belonged to the American George Sakier (1897 – 1988), a Paris-based art director for Vogue, which published the photograph.


“Although the relationship between these two individuals has been largely overlooked, they knew each other growing up in Brooklyn, where Sakier’s Russian Jewish family (then Sacken) had immigrated around the same time as Man Ray’s,” Grossman said. She says it is “anyone’s guess” whether Jewish artists at the time like Man Ray may have been more likely to have been sympathetic to art of other marginalized groups (like Africans) since they were considered outsiders themselves.


“But it is worth noting that a Jewish artist, Max Weber, was instrumental in bringing African art to the American avant-garde after his studies in Paris,” she said, “just as an artist of Jewish origin (viz., Man Ray) was instrumental in introducing African art to a large audience through his photographs.”


Man Ray, Untitled (Akan goldweight), c. 1933, © 2009 Man Ray Trust/Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY/ADGAP, Paris, Private Collection.



Man Ray certainly tried to distance himself from his Jewish identity, which the Jewish Museum website calls “conflicted,” though it “was central to an artist who yearned to escape the limitations of his Russian Jewish immigrant past.” But he may have intentionally embraced props that were familiar to him since his father worked in a garment factory and ran a tailoring shop, and his mother was a seamstress: tailor’s dummies, flat irons, sewing machines, needles, pins, threads and fabric.


References to Egypt, biblical prohibitions against creating taboo idols and interest in marginalized art might amount to nothing more than a series of coincidences, but what is clear is that viewers seeking Jewish relevance to Man Ray’s work can find it not only at The Jewish Museum, but also at the Phillips Collection fantastic examination of the artist’s approach to African iconography.


Menachem Wecker welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com. He is a painter and writer, residing in Washington, DC.

Eight Jewish Dada Artists

Wednesday, August 30th, 2006


Through September 11, 2006

The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)

11 West 53 St., (5th and 6th Ave.), New York

(212) 708-9400




         George Grosz’s 1944 painting, “Cain, or Hitler in Hell” shows the Nazi leader with his iconic moustache and uniform sitting sadly, mopping his brow. Surrounding Hitler, Grosz captures his interpretation of eternal punishment, with fiery reds, whites, and yellows, dark blacks, and piles of skeletons. By casting Hitler as the Biblical Cain, Grosz draws attention to the question G-d asks of Cain, “Where is Abel, your brother?” Grosz hints at the question that plagues Hitler as he mops his brow: Where are the six million Jews you should have treated as brothers?


         Although only a select, astute few could anticipate the horrors that the Nazis would be capable of in World War II, the post-World War I psychological and sociological landscape was a devastated one, disillusioned about the human potential for peace and brotherhood. This sentiment was acutely felt within the artistic community, which responded with two movements: Dada (of which Grosz was a member) and Surrealism. Dada was supposedly named randomly, when two poets stuck a knife in a dictionary, and the knife pointed to Dada, French for “hobbyhorse.” Dada arose in “revolt against a world that was capable of unspeakable horrors.” Surrealism, meanwhile, drew its inspiration more from Freud and his conception of the “unconscious” mind, and it attended to dreams and illusion.



Man Ray (Emmanuel Radnitzky), American, 1890-1976. “The Rope Dancer Accompanies Herself with Her Shadows,” 1916, The Museum of Modern Art, New York.



         In particular, Dadaism – which is the subject of a major exhibit at the MoMA, after occupying the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC – was a response to war. One artist declared that the movement’s aim was “to remind the world that there are independent men, beyond war and nationalism, who live for other ideals.” According to the authors of the new edition of Janson’s History of Art: The Western Tradition (Pearson Education, 2006), “The Dadaists aimed to wipe the philosophical slate clean, leading the way to a new world order With the rise to power of Hitler and his National Socialist Party, many avant-garde artists turned their attention to making anti-fascist imagery and exposing the insane thinking and sadistic brutality of the new German government.”


         The Dadaist, then, revolted against logic and reason, which “had led only to war. For them the nonsensical and the absurd became tools to jolt their audience out of their bourgeois complacence and conventional thinking.”


         Eight Jewish artists figure into the MoMA Dada show. Marcel Janco, born Iancu (1895-1984), was a Jewish-Romanian artist who escaped Nazi anti-Semitism in 1941 by moving to Tel Aviv, where he eventually died. Janco – who would later found the Israeli artist colony in Ein Hod – sculpted a mask of his fellow Jewish Dadaist, Tristan Tzara, which appears in the MoMA show. The paper, board, burlap, ink and gouache mask shows Tzara in ochre and purple, with a twisted, distorted face that appears terribly pained.


        Describing one of Janco’s masks, German poet and author of the “Dada Manifesto” (1916), Hugo Ball, described it in a diary as “not only did the mask immediately call for a costume, it also demanded a quite definite, passionate gesture, bordering on madness What fascinates us all about the masks is that they represent not human characters and passions, but characters and passions that are larger than life. The horror of our time, the paralyzing background of events, is made visible.” Thus, in Ball’s view, Janco’s masks recall both a famous “Twilight Zone” episode and Oscar Wilde’s story of Dorian Gray, where a portrait lays bare the moral depravity of the subject.



Man Ray.  “Indestructible Object (or Object to Be Destroyed),” 1964 (replica of 1923 original),

The Museum of Modern Art, New York.



         Tzara (1896-1963), who appears in Janco’s mask, was a pseudonym of the Jewish-Romanian writer, Sami Rosenstock. Tzara helped found Dada through his writings, most notably “The First Heavenly Adventure of Mr. Antipyrine” (1916) and the “Sept Manifestes Dada” (Seven Dada Manifestos) in 1924. The MoMA show includes an illustration by French artist Francis Picabia entitled, “Alarm Clock I (Réveil matin I)” (1919), which was the title page of the journal Dada (number 4-5), which Tzara edited. Picabia’s illustration shows a disassembled alarm clock, with chaotic gears and wires laid bare. Many Dada pieces address machinery and industrialization, suggesting that much of what previously was humanity has become robotic and cold.


         Also in the MoMA show are Jewish artists Hans Richter, Morton Livingston Schamberg and Arthur Segal. Richter (1888-1976) was born into a rich Jewish Berlin family. His father forced him into architecture, though he wanted to paint. Despite suffering partial paralysis from army service in Lithuania, he painted again and produced a new phenomenon, abstract films.


         Segal (1875-1944) was born into a Romanian Jewish middle-class family. His father, who ran a banking business, also discouraged him from painting, but Segal prevailed. After fleeing army service to Zurich, Segal developed the aesthetic idea of “equivalence,” by which he split his canvases up into equal geometric shapes and sought to devote equal attention to all parts of the paintings.



Marcel Janco, Israeli, born Romania. 1895-1984.  “Untitled (Mask, Portrait of Tzara), 1919,

Centre Pompidou, Musée national d’art moderne-Centre de création industrielle, Paris.



          Schamberg (1881-1918) was born in Philadelphia to a middle-class German Jewish family and became a supporter of Picabia’s blend of “machine paintings.” One reviewer described his work as a “wedding of an architect’s plans, machinist’s drawings and a strange sort of Egyptian relief.”


         Walter Serner (1889-1942) was also a Jewish Dadaist, but he converted to Catholicism. Jewish artist El Lissitzky, born Lasar (Eliezer) Markovich Lissitzky, famously illustrated the “Chad Gadya” and many Yiddish children’s books. Lissitzky was denied entrance to the St. Petersburg Academy because of his religion, but he studied with the same teacher as Marc Chagall. Lissitzky’s 1924 gelatin print of German collage artist Kurt Schwitters is exhibited in the Dada show. The portrait shows Schwitters wearing a tie that looks like a gas mask.


         Johannes Baargeld was the pseudonym of Alfred Emanuel Ferdinand Gruenwald (1892-1927), born to Romanian Jewish insurance director Heinrich Leopold Gruenwald. Baargeld grew up in Cologne and framed much of the Dada developments in Cologne until his untimely death at age 34. He was presumed to have frozen to death when lost in the fog while mountain climbing.


         But perhaps the most intriguing Jewish Dada artist is Man Ray (1890-1976). Ray was born Emmanuel Radnitzky in Philadelphia to Russian Jewish immigrants. When the family members moved to Williamsburg when Ray was seven years old, they changed their last name to Ray, attempting to escape anti-Semitism. Man Ray adopted the name Manny or Man for similar reasons. Ray’s father worked in a garment factory and ran a tailoring business, and his mother was a seamstress. According to one online encyclopedia, Ray tried to disassociate himself from his family background, but he continued to use props with familiar significance: tailor’s dummies, flat irons, sewing machines, needles, pins, threads and swatches of fabric.“Cadeau” (Gift), which appears in the Dada show, is an iron with tacks attached to it. Instead of ironing clothing, Cadeau promises to rip the clothing to shreds.


         Ray was the first Dadaist to use photography. Photography is generally an orderly medium, but Ray invented the “photogram” which ruptured that order. In the photogram, Ray placed the objects he was “photographing” directly onto photo paper. When Ray exposed the paper to light, light exposed the empty parts of the paper, while the objects blocked the light. Thus, the finished photograph showed white where the objects had been, while the other areas became black.


         “Object to be Destroyed” is a ticking metronome that Ray conceived of in terms of “destructible” and “indestructible.” Ray placed a photograph of a woman’s eye on the metronome, and he would later rename the piece “lost object,” as Leach Dickerman and Matthew Witkovsky explain in one of the show catalogs, “The Dada Seminars” (National Gallery of Art, 2005).


         Ray’s objects to be destroyed and “Obstruction” (63 wooden coat hangers arranged as a mural), “Theatre of the Soul” (later titled “suicide”,which looks like a balance with teeth), and “Compass” (which shows a magnet attached to a pistol) represent not only the aesthetic responses of individuals opposed to the absurdity of war and fascism. Ray, with the other seven Jewish artists in Dada, bring a particularly Jewish perspective to the insistence on justice and what is now called tikkun olam. And it hardly seems a coincidence that so many of the Dada artists were Jewish.


        Menachem Wecker is a painter and assistant editor of B’nai B’rith Magazine in Washington, D.C. He welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/sections/eight-jewish-dada-artists/2006/08/30/

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