"A compelling image of restrained lust and enhanced naturalism, Portrait of a Tearful Woman is, while entirely unique, an exciting moment from Man Ray’s artistic pursuit, constantly in a state of inquiry and innovation. “It was inevitable that the continued contact with painters should keep smoldering in me my first passion—painting… Ideas came to me that demanded a more flexible medium for their expression than the rigidity of the camera. To be sure, I had used photography as freely as I dared, or rather to the limits of my inventive capacities, but color was lacking” Man Ray
Portrait of a Tearful Woman is a unique and rare work due to the nature of the techniques that Man Ray employed in its making. The artist’s bold, creative intervention of selectively applying colored pencil to the underlying photographic print both dramatizes the visual impact of the image and destabilizes the medium of the object, thus making this sensuous work a masterwork from one of the most avant-garde photographers of the 20th century.
In 1936, the year that Man Ray created this portrait, he would have been living and working in Paris as both a photographer for Harper’s Bazaar magazine as well as a portrait photographer. The subject, who remains unknown, may be a model from an editorial fashion shoot or perhaps a client who commissioned a portrait by the artist. Previously in the collection of photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, Portrait of a Tearful Woman has been in the collection of Emily and Jerry Spiegel since 1982. The unique work was chosen as the cover image for the important exhibition surveying the medium of photography titled, The Art of Photography, which opened at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston in 1989 and toured to the Australian National Gallery, Canberra and to the Royal Academy of Arts, London. A small, focused group of very significant works by Man Ray were selected for this exhibition, each truly emblematic of the artist. In addition to Portrait of a Tearful Woman, Woman (1918), Man (1918), Le Violin d’Ingres (1924), and Glass Tears (Larmes) (circa 1930) were exhibited amongst a total of nine important works by the artist.
While Man Ray was famously experimental, it is rare to see photographs by the artist that incorporate hand-applied color in this fashion. In the catalogue for the 1988 exhibition, Perpetual Motif: The Art of Man Ray, Merry Foresta documents that the artist actually often worked on his photographic prints with colored pencils or ink, “In order to enhance the image, to make them appear more like drawings” (M. Foresta, “Exile in Paradise: Man Ray in Hollywood, 1940-1951,” Perpetual Motif: The Art of Man Ray, exh. cat., National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., 1988, p. 293). Indeed, the skillfulness of Man Ray’s rendering in this work, particularly impressive in the model’s eyes and lips, demonstrates the artist’s command, not just of photographic manipulation, but also of drawing and painting. In his autobiography, Self-Portrait, Man Ray discusses the important relationship between painting and photography during this period of his life. “It was inevitable,” he said, “that the continued contact with painters should keep smoldering in me my first passion—painting… Ideas came to me that demanded a more flexible medium for their expression than the rigidity of the camera. To be sure, I had used photography as freely as I dared, or rather to the limits of
my inventive capacities, but color was lacking” (M. Ray, Self Portrait, Boston, 1963, p. 254).
This work is a prime example of the artist’s desire to expand into more flexible—and colorful—modes of representation. Other innovations by the artist in color media from around this time included the laborious tri-color carbro process and autochromes, one of the earliest color-photography techniques. Beyond explorations with color, Man Ray’s artistic output included an immense range of other photographic manipulations such as superimposing multiple exposures or screens over negatives, inverting tonal values using solarization, and producing camera-less images (Rayographs). Considered amongst such explorations, Portrait of a Tearful Woman can be seen as one of the many unique results of a photographer’s mind that’s constantly in pursuit of something new. Indeed, the original negative located in the Centre George Pompidou, Paris, gives insight to his artistic process.
Here, a variety of brilliant colors and types of strokes are observed upon close inspection of the model’s hair, cheeks and lips and is perhaps most striking in the artist’s treatment of her eyes in this portrait. The emphasis on eyes in both the work of both Man Ray, and in that of other Surrealists of the interwar era is significant. In “Inventory of a Woman’s Head,” an essay written by Man Ray titled for a 1959 Surrealist exhibition at Galerie Daniel Cordier in Paris, the artist wrote, “The more daring poets who have seen in a woman’s eyes her sex, have realized that the head contains more orifices than does all of the rest of the body; so many added invitations for poetic, that is, sensual exploration. One may kiss an eye or provoke it to wetness without offending decency” (Man Ray, “Inventory of a Woman’s Head,” Exposition international due Surrealism, Galerie Daniel Cordier, Paris, 1959).
The emphasis on lips in this portrait clearly also calls to mind Man Ray’s famous painting of the woman’s mouth floating in the sky, A L’Heure de l’Observatoire - Les Amoureux (1932-1934), oftentimes referred to as simply, The Lips. Neil Baldwin, in his biography of Man Ray, describes the woman’s lips in this painting as, “flying through the air—reveling in sublime height, set in a faint smile, redder than any lipstick-reddened lips could possibly be” and goes on to write that the color of the lips are, “as emancipated as its subject: the woman gone, the woman flown” (Man Ray: An American Artist, 1988, p. 172). Accentuation on the female mouth in both Portrait of a Tearful Woman as well as in The Lips and other Surrealist works, demonstrates the definitive focus on eroticism, driven partially by the group’s interest in Freudian psychology.
The confluence of two major artistic forces in Man Ray’s life at this time, fashion and Surrealism, is expressed in this image that is both a glamorous, modish 1930s portrait while also truly a Surrealist investigation. It’s notable that Man Ray’s fashion photography for Harper’s Bazaar strongly exhibits influences from the avant-garde, as at this time fashion was aptly using Surrealist strategies towards commercial motivations of provoking desire. Selective color was sometimes applied in the offset printing process for Man Ray’s Harper’s Bazaar images, observable in works such as The Red Badge of Courage (1937) and Beauty in Ultra-Violet from (1940), an effect which created something of an alternative reality like the dreams and hallucinations that interwar Surrealists were interested in representing. The artificial, added color and hand-drawn marks in this present portrait similarly interrupt the realism of the image, transporting a sober and truthful document that’s established by the underlying black and white image, to a fantastical, enhanced realm. Evidently the bold use of selective color for emphasis and evocation of desire that Man Ray employed in his editorial works was something that he was mastering at this time.