Andrew Strauss and Timothy Baum of the Man Ray Expertise Committee have confirmed the authenticity of this work and that it will be included in the Catalogue of the Objects and Sculpture of Man Ray, currently in preparation.
‘Painting is directed by the heart through the eye. Photography is directed by the mind through the eye. But desire and love for the subject direct both mediums. One cannot replace the other…’ – Man Ray
(quoted in N. Baldwin, Man Ray, American Artist, p. 274).
Created in 1950, Man Ray’s enigmatic painting Aline et Valcour emerged during a crucial moment in the artist’s life, as he contemplated his return to Paris following almost a decade living in California during the Second World War. Throughout the artist’s time in America, he committed himself almost solely to painting, often delving into the archives of his early work to re-evaluate subjects which had fascinated him since the beginnings of his artistic career. Taking the form of an eerily staged still-life, the composition uses an arresting combination of motifs appropriated from Man Ray’s photographs and assembled objects of the 1920s to create an uncanny, composite image that straddles the boundary between reality and artifice. At the same time, the painting is an ode to the notorious eighteenth-century author, the Marquis de Sade, whose prescient writing on political systems and morality in his novel of the same name, Aline et Valcour, profoundly resonated with Man Ray in the wake of the war. While Sade’s work was still considered taboo within mainstream culture, the author’s sexual libertarianism, revolutionary rhetoric, and clear refusal to conform to tradition resonated strongly with Surrealist artists and writers, and directly inspired Man Ray’s interest in themes of power, manipulation, dehumanisation and violence.
Sade composed Aline et Valcour between 1785 and 1788 while imprisoned in the Bastille. An elaborate epistolary novel involving numerous subplots and an enormous cast of characters, the book is amongst Sade’s least salacious works and marked his attempt to establish himself as a serious writer and political thinker. Built around a framework of seventy-two letters, it tells the tragic tale of two young lovers – Valcour, a young man of noble birth but little means, and the virtuous and innocent Aline – who fall victim to the evil machinations of Aline’s depraved father, which ultimately lead the heroine to commit suicide rather than submit herself to her father’s will.
At the same time, Sade uses the novel to explore structures of power, comparing two socio-political systems as characterised by the fictional lands of Batua and Tamoé. The dystopian Portuguese-African Kingdom of Batua, a satirical vision of absolute monarchy, is ruled by fear, oppression, violence and the subjugation of women. This is contrasted with the utopian, but nonetheless, conformist Tamoé, governed by a benevolent despot and underpinned by a strictly enforced equality. These imagined lands are ultimately ruled through an in-depth knowledge of the mechanisms of the human psyche, manipulated in both cases as a means of asserting power and maintaining control.
Man Ray was deeply fascinated by Sade’s Aline et Valcour, describing it as ‘a beautiful book, one of his most important novels, in which Sade solved every problem by merely pointing out the absurdity of universal standards’ (Man Ray, quoted in A. Schwartz, Man Ray. The Rigour of Imagination, London, 1977, p. 121). Although his painting bears the title of the novel, it does not aim to illustrate the book’s narrative in any way, but rather explores various aspects of its central themes. It was De Sade’s willingness to show the true character of humankind, ‘with all its capacities for horror, crime and indifference’, that particularly appealed to Man Ray, (Man Ray, quoted in K. Hoving Powell, ‘”Le Violin d’Ingres: Man Ray’s Variations on Ingres, Deformation, Desire and De Sade’, Art History, Vol. 23, No. 5, December 2000, p. 796). It is in part this indifference and de-sensitivity to crime and suffering that is illustrated in Man Ray’s Aline et Valcour, as the recumbent mannequin turns away apathetically from the disturbing spectacle of a severed and blindfolded head, boldly displayed in its glass casing. As Arturo Schwartz has posited, this conjunction of imagery may also point to the notion of the relativity of moral standards, which had so interested Man Ray upon reading the novel (A. Schwartz, op. cit., 1977, p. 121).
The image of a jointed wooden mannequin reclining between a sphere and a cone, so evocative of the mysterious atmosphere of Giorgio de Chirico’s paintings, had first appeared in a Man Ray photograph of 1926, published in La Révolution Surréaliste (15th June 1946, No. 7). Along with the accompanying geometric shapes, which Man Ray had previously created as chess pieces, the uncanny figure of the mannequin signifies the dehumanisation and manipulation of mankind in the modern world, corresponding to the themes found in Sade’s novel. Similarly, the woman’s head, blindfolded, resting upon a book and encased within a bell jar, was adapted by Man Ray from an iconic photograph published in Le Surréalisme au Service de la Révolution in 1930. Entitled Hommage à D. A. F. de Sade, this disquieting image of a guillotined head evokes the French Revolution, an event which de Sade claimed to have foreseen in 1788 when writing Aline et Valcour, although the book was not published until 1795. Conceived in collaboration with Lee Miller and echoing a self-portrait by Claude Cahun from 1925, the photograph featured the model Tanja Ramm as the woman in the jar, but appears to have initially been posed without the blindfold. A reversal of the story of Judith and Holofernes or Salome and John the Baptist, this captured sacrificial head, perhaps a momento mori, is here presented like an exotic specimen, while the addition of the blindfold has been said to remind us of the traditional personification of justice who is often depicted with her eyes covered.
Man Ray famously claimed to love things which are incomprehensible; the inscrutable nature of this work, with its depiction of a closed drawer and book, blindfolded eyes, sealed bell jar and juxtaposition of two of the artist’s earlier images, serves to create a highly enigmatic and deeply fascinating painting. Despite previous encounters in his oeuvre with individual elements of the painting and knowledge of Sade’s book, Man Ray’s homage to Aline et Valcour remains a work which can be viewed as tending towards that incomprehensibility he loved in its re-portrayal of the familiar and unfamiliar, suffering and indifference, manipulation and our own lack of humanity.