The following essays were written by Francis M. Naumann and Gail Stavitsky for the illustrated catalogue Conversion to Modernism -- The Early Work of Man Ray, ISBN 0-8135-3147-0, which accompanied a February 16 - August 3, 2003 exhibition at The Montclair Art Museum. The essays are reprinted with permission of the Montclair Art Museum and without illustrations. If you have questions or comments regarding the essays, or wish to purchase a copy of the catalogue, please contact the Montclair Art Museum directly through either this phone number or web address:


"Conversion to Modernism"

by Francis M. Naumann



Approaching the Art of Painting in Two Dimensions: The Paintings, Drawings, and Watercolors of 1914


The year 1914 could well be considered the period of greatest experimentation and transition in Man Ray's early work. Curiously, Arturo Schwarz, author of the first major monograph on the artist, characterized the paintings from this year as exhibiting "less variety and style" than works from the previous year.[1] In point of fact, however, there is no single period in Man Ray's artistic development that reveals a greater diversity in approach, nor a more rigorous, though still somewhat unresolved, investigation of the various modernist styles to which he had been exposed. Throughout the course of this year, Man Ray felt perfectly at liberty to employ whatever style best suited the subject he selected, without allowing the dictates of any one approach to impose themselves upon the future development of his work. He was capable of incorporating the characteristics of a certain style in one image, for example, only to adopt a completely new vision with the very next picture he produced.

By the winter of 1913-1914, Man Ray and Adon Lacroix had settled into a comfortable and welcome routine of domestic tranquility. He made the excursion into Manhattan three days a week to work, while she remained at home in Ridgefield caring for her daughter, painting, and writing poetry. Although Man Ray later recalled their first winter together as having been especially severe, as soon as the snows thawed, he ventured outside and discovered interesting subjects to paint. It was a scene he came upon one afternoon in the front of their cottage that provided the subject for a small watercolor (fig. 90) executed with the same degree of naturalism as his earlier landscapes. "Came spring," he wrote, recalling the scene that inspired this work, "it was pleasant to walk through the damp greening woods to the cottage .... One warm late afternoon I came upon Donna washing her hair over a basin outdoors; it was a charming picture and I immediately made a watercolor."[2] It may have been a similar scene that he witnessed one day near the cottage that inspired the watercolor sketch of a young woman (possibly Lacroix or eight-year-old daughter, Esther), scantily clad, wearing only a brilliant cobalt-blue sweater, and standing in the out-of-doors (fig. 91).

While a number of drawings from this period were derived from subjects the artist observed in his immediate environment, others appear to have been more imaginatively devised. Having come to the decision that he would no longer rely upon a direct observation of nature as the only inspiration for his work, he used the "imaginary landscapes" he had made upon his return from the Ramapo Hills camping trip (figs. 80, 81) as the basis for two larger and more highly finished oils, paintings that were made on the same size canvas and both given the same title: Ramapo Hills (figs. 92, 93).

In the first of these paintings - derived from the left side of original landscape study (fig. 80) and executed in greater detail in a subsequent watercolor (fig. 81) - the simplified form and deep blue coloration given to a large tree in the center of the composition make it visually difficult to comprehend. (It looks more like a misshapen, oversized boulder than a tree.) The surrounding landscape appears to have been just as arbitrarily colored; the hill in the background is painted in a vibrant orange hue, while the palette employed in the immediate foreground varies from pale green to bright mauve. An equally intense infusion of color is given to the painting (fig. 93) derived from the right side of the earlier study (fig. 80), a landscape that almost appears to glow from some inner source of radiance. While Man Ray may have been trying to simply capture the bright colors of a beautiful and brilliant autumnal landscape, in the isolation of his Ridgefield studio he felt perfectly at liberty to depart from a strict reliance upon the motif, a tendency toward the acceptance of a more abstract imagery that, as we shall see, he would continue to pursue in his future work.

Meanwhile, memories of the Ramapo Hills camping trip served to inspire other works made in this period, including an unusually large canvas entitled Departure of Summer (fig. 94), where three nude female figures are seen bathing in a stream. One morning, Man Ray, Hartpence, and another unidentified individual who had accompanied them on the camping trip arose to quietly observe their female companions bathing in a small stream. "We watched the nude figures moving about through the branches," he recalled. "I thought of Cezanne's paintings, and made a mental note of the treatment of figures in a natural setting, for future works."[3] By the time he got around to translating this mental note into a concrete image, the results bore little if any resemblance to the paintings of Cezanne, except, of course, in their selection of subject. One woman reclines in the center of the composition, her right foot immersed in the water, while the other two appear to be helping her stand erect. All three figures are painted with little volumetric suggestion, an impression of flatness that is reinforced as a result of the obvious detachment between the foreground figures and the background landscape. Not only is there a lack of integration between these two elements, but the artist appears to have intentionally sought their separation. For the background of this painting, he simply "inserted" the basic forms of an earlier landscape (fig. 95), after having made only minor adjustments to incidental details.

The simplified and sharply reduced elements of this earlier landscape - entitled simply Hills - suggest that it, too, might have been composed from the artist's recollection of a given scene, rather than inspired directly from the motif itself. Behind the silhouetted, twisted branches of two barren trees positioned on flanking ends of a horizontally oriented composition, a magnificent vista unfolds. Deep in the central foreground is the far end of a rectangular field, portions of which are rendered as cultivated ground; a series of black parallel lines was intended to depict freshly plowed furrows. Behind the field there appears a cluster of brown, semicircular shapes, possibly meant to represent a stringcourse of trees, the leaves browned by the encroaching frosts of autumn. Directly behind these shapes can be seen the most distinguishing feature of the landscape: a series of gently rolling hills, from which the painting derives its title. These majestic hills, separated from one another by a low-lying atmospheric mist, range in hue from a deep gray in the immediate foreground to a brilliant purple color in the central range to a milky gray at the distant horizon. Finally, in the upper reaches of the composition, prominent cloud formations appear to consciously echo the repetitive linear and circular patterns of the landscape below.[4] Such a contrived manipulation of form serves to enhance and reinforce the inherently decorative characteristics of the painting, demonstrating a reliance upon certain formal conventions that would, in the years to come, gain increasingly in importance for the artist.

On May 3, 1914, Man Ray and Adon Lacroix married in a civil ceremony in Ridgefield. Normally, those committed to the basic tenets of anarchism would not have required nor wanted their emotional bond to be sanctioned by a legal authority, but since Lacroix had a daughter, Man Ray thought it would cause their friends to more readily accept their living situation. He got married, he later explained, "in order to set at rest all speculations of our friends and eliminate the disapproval of others."[5] On their marriage certificate (fig. 96), Man Ray gave his age as twenty-four, and listed his occupation as "artist." Adon Lacroix gave her age as twenty-seven; typically for the time, no space was provided for her occupation. Each indicated that it was a first marriage, and they listed the names of their witnesses as Alanson Hartpence and Helen Slade.

After the ceremony - which took place on an exceptionally warm Sunday morning - the newlyweds and their witnesses retired to the lawn in front of the Ridgefield cottage, where they celebrated the event by spreading out a picnic blanket and having breakfast (fig. 97). Man Ray decided to mark the occasion with a painting - entitled After Breakfast and dated May 1914 (fig. 98) - where all four figures are quickly sketched in gouache on a large sheet of paper. A comparison of the unfinished painting, visible in the photograph, with the completed picture reveals certain procedural details typical of the artist's technique in this period. In the photograph, we can see that Man Ray has applied the pigment in thin, uneven washes of color, providing a visual description of the basic divisions of form. Only later, in the finished picture, is it clear that he has carefully reinforced the shape of each figure with a dark black line, providing a more precise and graphic definition of these figures. Despite Man Ray's professed admiration for the unfinished quality of Cezanne's watercolors, it does not appear as though he considered his own paintings completed until these finishing details were applied.

Man Ray's inclination toward a more pronounced graphic expression may have been the result of his experience in the field of commercial publication. In the spring of 1914 he was still employed as a draftsman for a publishing firm in Manhattan, where one of his principal responsibilities was to add embellishing details to the designs of ornamental borders around maps and atlases. With few exceptions, line diagrams or boldly rendered ink drawings serve as similar decorative enhancements on nearly every page of the numerous pamphlets and other limited edition publications that the artist designed and hand-printed in these years. A number of small figurines, for example, appear as marginal illustrations in Adonism (fig. 99), a collection of poems that, as the title indicates, were written as a tribute to his new bride. As we shall see, several of these drawings would be used as preparatory models for paintings completed later in the year.

In "Hieroglyphics," perhaps the best poem to appear in Adonism, images drawn from nature are subjected to a direct correspondence with the written word, somewhat in the manner of Egyptian hieroglyphic writing. But unlike this ancient pictographic language, the alternating lines of this poem rely upon a forced verbal/visual interchange, a concern that will occupy Man Ray for the rest of his artistic career. In another poem - entitled, appropriately, "Intrusion" - Man Ray establishes an interesting metaphor between a person intruding upon a landscape and an ink blot falling on the very page on which the poem appears. An even more literal verbal/visual interplay can be found on the back cover of this ephemeral publication, where, in a small, oval-shaped woodcut, Man Ray presents the simple form of a landscape. A series of sharp architectonic shapes represents cliffs, while a more distant view of hills and mountains can be seen in the background. A second look, however, reveals that these landscape elements vaguely mime the artist's initials: MR.

This very same approach is employed in Man Ray 1914 (fig. 100), a painting that at first glance appears to be little more than a rather simplistically rendered Cubist landscape, composed of a series of roughly parallel, slanting cliffs and a grouping of sharp, angular clouds in the far background. A closer inspection, however, reveals that these separate elements are constructed - literally-from the individual letters in the artist's name and the separate numbers of the painting's date: MAN RAY 1914. Although several authors have identified this painting as Man Ray's first Dada picture, it is better understood within the context of his verbal/visual preoccupations of this period.[6]

Whenever Man Ray was not working on a painting, he continued to seek inspiration from the surrounding landscape, completing a series of works on paper in a variety of media that recorded the wooded area around his cottage (figs. 101, 102), as well as more distant views of the countryside near the town of Ridgefield (figs. 103, 104). When he translated his impressions of the landscape to canvas, however, the naturalism that had informed his drawing style became markedly relaxed. While working in his studio, he may have felt sufficiently detached from the source of inspiration to reinvent, or at least artificially enhance, the elements of nature as he remembered them. Elderfiowers (fig. 105), for example, is an exceptionally large and imposing image that was probably based on reproductions the artist had seen of Monet's celebrated series of water lilies. In spite of the fact that this painting is composed entirely from naturalistic details, it is designed in such a way that its overall, evenly repetitive pattern and square format create a predominantly decorative image, one that not only points in the direction of the artist's future work but curiously foreshadows the movement of Lyrical Abstraction by more than six decades.

The basic monochromatic palette of this painting stands in sharp contrast to other landscapes of this period. Wood Interior (fig. 106), for example, is painted with such a pulsating staccato of color that the branches of a tree in the center of the composition almost appear to vibrate. The inner darkness of the forest is illuminated entirely by the light of a radiant full moon, which, set against a pale yellow orb, emits a golden aura that permeates the ambience of the entire scene. The painting may have been based on an actual event Man Ray witnessed during a lightning storm. "With each illumination the landscape stood out as in daylight," he recalled, "but with a quality of intense moonlight."[7]

An equally vibrant palette is employed in The Reaper (fig. 107), a landscape that features the figure of a man harvesting wheat in an open field.Here we view the Ridgefield landscape from an elevated position, screened on the left by a dark rock formation and on the right by the edge of a multicolored hill, painted in a spectral array of color. The field in which the figure works is bordered on the near side by a bright red farmhouse and in the distance by a pearl-white river, beyond which rises a series of majestic rolling hills, softly colored in gradual modulations of deep cobalt blue.

In light of Man Ray's political convictions in this period (discussed in chapter 2), one could be easily tempted to interpret the laborer in this landscape as a symbol of the proletariat. With few exceptions, however, Man Ray carefully avoided making such bold political statements with his paintings. (He did make them occasionally when drawing, as in the two illustrations that he did in this same year for covers of Mother Earth, figs. 38, 39). Instead, the figures in his landscapes of this period should be understood as relatively incidental details, no more important than other elements in the composition that are meant to facilitate our reading of the subject.

In at least one painting from this year (fig. 108), these figures are so dramatically enlarged that they barely fit within the confines of the canvas. Similar in style to the anonymous figures that populate the pages of Adonism, these larger painted effigies are decidedly more monumental, rendered as if to represent monoliths carved in stone. The reduction and simplification of form that characterizes the figures in this landscape represents an intermediate step in the development of a more abstract vision, a direction in which Man Ray's art would soon evolve.

That this progression had already begun in Man Ray's paintings of this period can be demonstrated by placing into an approximate chronological sequence a group of five still lifes painted in 1914 (figs. 109-113). In following this order, we could very well be paralleling the very steps Man Ray himself followed in his gradual attainment of a more abstract style.[8]

The first of these still lifes is essentially a line drawing with highlights of watercolor representing an assortment of bowls and dishes arranged into a corner space (fig. 109). The severe isometric configuration establishes a perspectival recession, an illusion of depth that diminishes sharply as we view the remaining still lifes in this sequence. In the larger oil that follows, for example (fig. 110), various household items - coffeepot, sugar bowl, serving dish, cup and saucer - are placed on the seat of a homemade chair, its back cut into a triangular shape and set against the surface of a colorful Native American rug hanging on the wall in the background. Since the rug, chair back, and dish are presented in full frontal elevation (facing the viewer), our sense of space is compressed, lending the overall composition a flatness Man Ray seems to have consciously desired.

In the two smaller painted still lifes that follow (figs. 111 and 112), a similar effect is achieved through a simplification of form. In the first, a long, tapering candlestick featured prominently in the center of the composition is overlapped by an ornamented rectangular object (perhaps a book), which, in turn, extends beyond the visual field at the lower edge of the canvas. These objects, placed in the company of others that are even less distinctly rendered, appear locked into a somewhat ambiguous spatial setting, while an almost incidental distribution of harsh shadow throughout the painting does little to enhance or clarify our understanding of the space. Finally, the objects in this image appear unnecessarily crowded, a problem that is compounded by the inclination of an unidentified flat, rectangular object in the painting's background.

In the second of these two small still lifes, Man Ray has eliminated nearly all textural details and has dramatically simplified the shape of each element within the composition. Although orthogonals still fail to align properly, spatial positioning is made somewhat clearer due to a more consistent application of shadow. As in the earlier examples, the objects within this image are depicted as if seen from an elevated vantage point, a natural position, one might argue, from which to view objects placed on a tabletop.

But in the last example from this sequence, Black Tray (fig. 113), the viewer's position is centralized, raised to a position directly opposite the objects represented. Here Man Ray has so consciously sought to compress the depicted space that he has forced his objects to be aligned along a narrow horizontal shelf. In this shallow confinement, he has placed three vases, a long bamboo-stemmed clay pipe, two oblong serving trays, and, hanging on the wall in the upper left corner, the partial view of a framed print or drawing. It is the sheer simplicity of its design, combined with the overpowering frontality suggested by the planar elements in the background, that allows us to consider Black Tray as one of the most critical steps in Man Ray's attainment of a more abstract style.

The majority of Man Ray's paintings during the latter half of 1914 continue to exhibit a dependency upon the precedence of Cubism, first in its Analytic phase - already explored in paintings made in 1913 (figs. 59, 60) - and then, before the year was out, in its more advanced, so-called Synthetic phase. But in looking at two small Cubist paintings from 1914 - a still life of pears in a basket (fig. 114) and a landscape of houses along a hillside in Ridgefleid (fig. 115) - we will quickly discover that Man Ray's work in this style lacks the elegance and sophistication common to most of the French paintings from which it is derived. This is not due to a lack of talent on the artist's part but to an inevitable loss that results from attempting to translate the visual vocabulary that comprised the original movement in France, a country from which all American artists (with the exception of Max Weber, who studied there) were physically removed.

In Analytic Cubism, the internal forms of a composition are subjected to multiple angular breakup, translucency, and planar fragmentation. To demonstrate that these techniques are operational in Man Ray's work of this period, we need only examine two landscapes from 1914, The Village (fig. 116) and The River (fig. 117). Although these paintings have been lost and are known only through inferior black-and-white photographs, it is still possible to detect the extent to which Man Ray was proficient in applying the vocabulary of the new Cubist style. In both paintings, prominent geometric forms were meant to suggest architectural components within the landscape. In The River, these elements appear to radiate inward, as if controlled by a mysterious, centrifugal force that draws everything into the center of the composition. In The Village, these components are arranged in a more chaotic pattern, and lines appear to have been added in the form of an after-thought, just to provide the landscape with an overall Cubist appearance.

It was the box-like, geometric qualities of Cubism in the earliest phases of its development - the "cubified" look that gave the movement its name - that most strongly appealed to Man Ray. Providing one of the few citations of a specific time period in his entire autobiography, Man Ray pinpointed the development of this style to the winter of 1913-1914: "I started a series of larger canvases," he wrote, "compositions of slightly Cubistic figures, yet very colorful."[9]

It is likely that this geometric style was developed through a series of relatively small figure studies, similar to those that appeared as marginal illustrations in Adonism (fig. 99). Indeed, certain of these images were simply enlarged and form the basis of more elaborate, painted studies. The embracing nude couple that accompanies the poem "Spring," for example, was clearly used as a preliminary study for The Lovers (fig. 118), one of Man Ray's most powerful paintings in this new geometric style. While the blunt and simplified form given to these figures closely resembles the early Cubist paintings of Picasso, Braque, and Picabia, as well as works by a number of other French painters Man Ray would have seen at the Armory Show, it was the example of Adolf Wolff's Cubist sculpture that provided the most direct and accessible source of influence; compare, for example, the severe geometry and angularization of Wolff's The Suppliant (fig. 36) with similar features in Man Ray's The Lovers. [10]

It is likely Man Ray had himself and his wife in mind when he called this painting The Lovers, for another image made in this same period depicts an entangled couple (fig. 119), one of whom has a guitar in hand. We know that Adon Lacroix played the guitar (see fig. 73), but Man Ray may have included this instrument to signify more than his affection for his wife. He may also have wanted to allude to the union of painting and music, a theme, we will recall, that he had explored a few years earlier with his fellow students at the Ferrer Center. The shape of the reclining figure in the foreground is articulated in such a way as to echo the profile of the distant mountain range, a repetition of form that might have contributed to the painting's title, The Rug, for the overall effect is not dissimilar from the decorative pattern found in Native American blankets or Persian rugs.

The remarkable degree to which Man Ray was influenced by French Cubist painting can be demonstrated by comparing his Five Figures (fig. 120) with Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (fig. 121). Today the Demoiselles is one of the most important pictures in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, but in 1914 it was still in Picasso's studio in Paris and, outside a close circle of friends, virtually no one knew it existed. Ironically, years before the French would learn of this work, a handful of Americans knew about the painting. In May of 1910 it was reproduced as a black-and-white illustration in an article on modern art written by the poet and artist Gelette Burgess for The Architectural Record. [11] It was from publications such as this that Man Ray learned a great deal about advanced European art. "Although he has never been abroad," noted a journalist who interviewed him in 1919, "and consequently has not followed the development of Picasso and Picabia, to name but two, he has of course seen stray works by them and reproductions that have come to America."[12]

Burgess's article featured interviews with Matisse, Picasso, Braque, Derain, and others and included not only a reproduction of Picasso's Demoiselles but also his monumental Three Women (Hermitage State Museum, St. Petersburg). In Five Figures, Man Ray may very well have derived different features from each of these two great paintings by Picasso. The subject, compressed space, and angular forms given to the figures are similar to these same features in Picasso's Three Women, and the two figures wearing African masks on the right in the Demoiselles correspond approximately to the masked figure on the right in Man Ray's painting. Primitive art became of increasing interest for the artist in this period. In the fall of 1914, he saw an exhibition of African sculpture at 291, a show organized for Stieglitz by the Mexican caricature artist Marius de Zayas (who had borrowed most of the sculpture from the Parisian dealer Paul Guillaume). The show represented one of the first serious attempts to display African art for its artistic merits and not purely for the ethnographic or cultural value it may also have possessed.[13]

When Five Figures was acquired by the Whitney Museum in the late 1950s, Man Ray was asked to fill out a questionnaire explaining, among other things, his motives for having painted the picture. It was in this context that he identified the painting as "one of a series of compositions inspired by forms in primitive sculpture."[14] Indeed, there can be little doubt that the masked figure was derived from sources in African art; the pointed chin and generally ovoid cast of the head resemble similar details found in Baule masks, while the repetition of short parallel lines on the side of the face may have come from the striated patterns common to many Kota reliquaries.

Like Picasso's Demoiselles, Man Ray's Five Figures was preceded by a number of preliminary studies: one for the two seated or crouching figures on the upper left (fig. 122) and another for the two reclining figures in the lower foreground (fig. 123).[15] Both of these studies were executed in watercolor, a medium conducive to the use of a bright and tonally atmospheric palette, qualities that, to a degree, are retained in the final composition. The reclining figures are exceptionally bright and colorful, clearly in contrast to the predominantly monochromatic palette of most Analytic Cubist painting. The figures themselves are placed in opposing positions, in the fashion of river gods in Renaissance and Baroque art. The comparison may not be entirely coincidental, for, just as with the painting Departure of Summer (fig. 94), the subject of Five Figures may have been inspired by his recollection of having seen nude women bathing by the side of a river during his camping trip to the Ramapo Hills.

Given the way in which light reflects off the surface of bodies in Five Figures - note especially the red figure with orange highlights in the immediate foreground, as well as the glowing light behind the two figures in the background - it may be that Man Ray envisioned the whole scene as being illuminated solely by the light of the moon. With this in mind, it is possible that a small landscape from this period entitled simply Moonlight Landscape (fig. 124) may also have served as a preparatory study for Five Figures. The smaller painting, however, contains no figures and is purely a night scene; a tree on the left and a cluster of houses in the distance are silhouetted by the light of a bright and full summer moon.

Although Man Ray would soon resolve "never to allow any primitive motive to influence [his] work,"[16] in 1914 primitive art was still a very important source of inspiration. This is nowhere more apparent than in his painting Totem (fig. 125). Gail Levin, a scholar of American art who wrote about this painting in the context of primitive art, described it as "a pastiche of such American Indian wood carvings as Zuni War Gods and Northwest Coast Indian totems, such as could be seen at the Brooklyn Museum and the Museum of Natural History." [17] Totemic imagery does indeed figure prominently in the makeup of this picture: surrounding the large, towering head in the center of the composition is a dark rectangular frieze, which observant viewers will notice is populated by an alignment of crouching, distorted figures, not unlike the carved and painted totems traditionally placed before the tepees and houses of Native Americans. Another reference to the American West can be discerned in the form of the quiet, rambling landscape that appears superimposed on the chest of the dominant central figure. Whereas these are perfectly viable and accessible sources for Man Ray, until now it has not been noticed that the large, truncated figure in Totem more closely resembles the monumental volcanic stone carvings from Easter Island, huge heads (some thirty-six feet high and weighing up to fifty tons) that were propped up in the soil and positioned with a view of the sea. Man Ray would have known about these artifacts from a variety of popular publications, for they had been a subject of fascination ever since they were discovered in the eighteenth century.

Man Ray's heightened political awareness in this period coincided with a thoughtful reexamination of painting's more formalistic qualities - from both a historical and a modern perspective - resulting in a radical departure from his earlier work. To this end, he was led to investigate the various solutions offered to this problem by the art of the past, looking for inspiration to Byzantine and Early Renaissance sources. These historical precedents, combined with his pacifist reaction toward the outbreak of war in Europe, were among the most significant factors to influence the selection of technique and subject in Man Ray's most important politically inspired pictures of this period: War (A.D.MCMXIV) (fig. 126) and Madonna (fig. 127).

Measuring just under six feet in width, War (A.D.MCMXIV) remains Man Ray's most monumental Cubist composition. Modeled almost entirely with a palette knife, the figures are rendered as overbearing, cylindrical forms - their severe geometry and lack of articulation recalling, again, the sculpture of Adolf Wolff (fig. 36), while their positions and frozen postures seem to imply the frustration and inevitability of their struggle. Locked into never-ending combat with their oppressors, these soldiers are rendered as mere automatons, mindlessly engaged in their struggle, obeying without question the futile orders of their commanders. According to Man Ray, the title of this painting was suggested by his wife, who was dramatically affected by the war in Europe, for her parents were still living in the country of her birth - Belgium, which, despite its position of neutrality; was ruthlessly invaded by German troops in August of 1914. In the lower right corner of this painting, Man Ray dated the picture by adding the Roman numerals A.D.MCMXIV, employing stencil-styled letters that were later overpainted and replaced by a more calligraphic inscription. While Lacroix may have suggested the title, the prominent dating of this picture may have been inspired by Frank Stephens's "A.D. 1914," a poignant antiwar poem that was published in the October 1914 issue of Mother Earth. [18]

The near-six-foot horizontal expanse of this painting was determined by a space Man Ray had to fill in his living room, and its inordinate scale and positioning reminded him of the kind of problems that must have confronted the wall painters of the Renaissance. In emulation of these earlier masters, he prepared the canvas with a base of fish glue and plaster dissolved in water, to provide a matte and chalky surface reminiscent of the intonaco used in fresco.[19] Even the subject, he later explained, was inspired by reproductions he had seen of Paolo Uccello's famous battle scenes. But rather than accept and apply the recessional effects created by a strict application of the rules governing Renaissance perspective systems - of which Uccello was a well known practitioner - Man Ray rendered the figures and background shapes in his painting as if they were mere reflections of one another. The blunt, angular, and unarticulated forms given to the horses and soldiers are echoed in their surrounding environment, creating a uniform surface tension that serves to reassert the painting's inherent physicality.

Such a formalist reading of this picture is precisely what Man Ray would have wanted. Some fifty years after painting it, the artist tried to explain the reasons behind its production in his autobiography. "I myself had been fascinated by the problems of perspective," he wrote. "In my paintings, however [as opposed to his architectural studies], I never forgot that I was working on a two-dimensional surface which for the sake of a new reality I would not violate, or as little as possible." He then even claims to have consciously renounced his own geometric style, due to its unavoidable volumetric suggestion: "I decided, after finishing this series, to work in a more two-dimensional manner, respecting the flat surface of the canvas."[20]

Obviously the formalist vocabulary that informs these statements was derived from the critical writings of the 1940s and 1950s, the majority of which were developed to explain the theoretical basis for Abstract Expressionism. This rhetoric would have been familiar to Man Ray at the time when he wrote his autobiography in the early 1960s. Nevertheless, no matter how derivative his wording may have been, the immediate evolution of Man Ray's paintings in the 1914-1915 period indicates that he was indeed in the process of initiating a change in style, one that would eventually find theoretical support in a fully developed and remarkably early formalist program. In Madonna (fig. 127), a subject derived from Italian painting and an image based on the appearance of Byzantine religious icons, Man Ray has not only retained the frontality and flatness for which these historical precedents are well known but, for "the sake of a new reality," has intentionally amplified them. The madonna, child, and background of this picture are painted entirely with a subdued, opaque pigment, intentionally left unvarnished so as to resemble the chalky plaster surface of fresco. The painting's inherent two-dimensional qualities are reinforced in the form of a bold Roman-numeral inscription arranged in a cruciform format around the madonna's head, indicating the year in which the picture was made.

Shortly after it was completed, Man Ray subtitled this painting In Mourning, but the relationship of this image to the war in Europe can only be understood when we examine two preparatory studies (figs. 128, 129), ink drawings that were both later used for catalogue covers.[21] In the first of these sketches, we can see that the tapering black shape used to describe the madonna's arm in the finished painting was actually derived from the neck of a large black cannon, while the halos given to the figures are taken from the billowing, cloud-like formations issuing from the cannon's smoldering mouth. "Perhaps the idea was to express my desire for peace as against war," the artist later remarked. "There were no religious intentions."[22]

The tendency to increasingly flatten the internal forms of his compositions - which one author likened to "a slowly deflating tire" - was further intensified through the artist's use of collage and collage-related techniques.[23] Man Ray was first exposed to the possibilities of this new medium in his viewing of the Picasso/Braque exhibition at 291, held from December 9, 1914, through January 11, 1915. Included in this exhibition were the most recent works by these celebrated Cubist painters, thereby presenting the American public with the most current developments in modern French art: Braque's pioneering papier collés and Picasso's daring and expressive use of collage.[24]

Not surprisingly, American critics found the works in this exhibition utterly incomprehensible. But the technique of collage produced an effect that coincided perfectly with Man Ray's formalist concerns: the flat, rectangular pieces of paper and pasted cloth reasserted the pictures' surface tension, forcing a reading of all elements within the pictorial field in relation to the inherent two-dimensional quality of the paintings or drawings. Man Ray was especially impressed by the lack of detail: "The stark-black charcoal lines of Picasso with here and there a piece of newspaper pasted on seemed very daring - rather incomprehensible though."[25] Whether or not he fully understood the implications of this new medium, the artist quickly proceeded to make use of it.

Man Ray's first documented use of collage probably occurred in December 1914, in the form of a response to the Picasso/Braque exhibition. To the surface of a small watercolor entitled Chinese Theatre (fig. 130), he glued a scrap of thin gold metallic paper, boldly accentuating the torso of a small Asian figure. The subject of this collage was probably related to a commission the artist received in these years to remodel a theater in New York, a project that was never realized because his design for a large folding screen was considered too expensive to construct.[26] For the element of collage in this watercolor, it is significant to note that the piece of paper Man Ray employed was irregularly cut and fails to align with the contours of the figure to which it is attached. Consequently, it appears as if the artist salvaged an incidental scrap of paper, the refuse of an earlier cutting project that would normally have been discarded, unlike the carefully cut and shaped geometric pieces of paper and oilcloth used by Picasso and Braque. The artist's incorporation of this scrap curiously resembles his childhood experience of making quilts and blankets from the scraps of his father's tailoring business. As we shall see, however, this technique would soon find an even more significant application in the artist's future work.

For Picasso and Braque, the use of collage and collage-related techniques coincided with the earliest developments of what is today called Synthetic Cubism, the second and more formally abstract phase of the movement. The earlier practice of subjecting a particular motif to analysis gave way to a system whereby the motif itself was created, or "synthesized," from a combination of artificial materials. Newspaper fragments, stamps, calling cards, oilcloth, wallpaper, and other inherently flat materials all contributed to the formation of this new style. In his paintings, Picasso usually affixed these materials directly to the surface of the canvas, while Braque and a number of other so-called decorative Cubists (such as Juan Gris) preferred to depict them illusionistically. From the time of his viewing of the Picasso/Braque exhibition at 291, Man Ray frequently experimented with the basic principles of both techniques.

An untitled and lost still life of 1914 (fig. 131) records the extent to which the artist had already absorbed the lessons of Synthetic Cubism. An opened, shallow box with flat octagonal inserts has been depicted illusionistically, so as to make it appear as if the materials themselves were physically flattened and affixed to the surface of the pictorial field. Just as Picasso and Braque frequently employed illusory devices derived from the tradition of trompe l'oeil, Man Ray has so skillfully painted a number of details in this picture - such as the label (from a Chinese restaurant or laundry service) and crumpled corners of the box - that the depicted elements are interpreted as visually analogous to the objects they represent.[27] Despite the pronounced degree of illusionism, the artist has provided certain details that openly proclaim the painting's inherent abstraction. Two circular objects, for example, interact with the flat elements of the composition so as to defy a logical explanation of their physical properties. The ring on the left appears to be overlapped by the octagonal shape in the center of the composition, indicating opacity. This ring, however, continues to form the shape of a cane, which, in turn, overlaps the octagonal box, indicating translucency (a reading reinforced by the fact that one can see the letters on the label through the cane). Additional visual anomalies contribute to the painting's abstract qualities, but it is predominantly the large octagonal and square shapes in the center of the composition that serve to reinforce the picture's inherent flatness and sense of physicality.

As we shall see, in the years that follow, Man Ray would continue to experiment with a variety of media and techniques to develop a methodical and systematic means by which to express what he increasingly came to call "an art of two dimensions."



1. Arturo Schwarz, Man Ray: The Rigour of Imagination (New York: Rizzoli, 1977), p. 31.

2. SP, p.46.

3. Ibid., pp. 51-52.

4. See Francis M. Naumann, "Man Ray: Hills," Masterworks of American Art from the Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1989), p. 117.

5. SP, p.6.

6. See, for example, Schwarz, Man Ray, p. 32, and Marcel Jean, The History of Surrealist Paintings (New York: Grove Press, 1960), p. 60. In describing this painting, Schwarz mistakenly attributes the statement "In a picture, is it not above all the signature that counts?" to Man Ray, when, in fact, it is only a remark made by Jean in discussing the painting.

7. SP, p.57.

8. There is no proof that these works were completed in the order given here; they are placed into this sequence entirely on the basis of style, progressing from those images strongly dependent upon a naturalistic portrayal of their chosen subjects to those that appear to have been more consciously "abstracted" or stylized.

9. SP, p.45.

10. The original plaster sculptures by Wolff were reproduced in Vanity Fair, October 1914, p. 54.

11. Gelette Burgess, "The Wild Men of Paris," Architectural Record 27, no. (May 1910), pp. 400-414; on the importance of this article, see Edward Fry, "Cubism, 1907-08: An Early Eye Witness Account," Art Bulletin 47, no. 1 (March 1966), pp. 70-73.

12. C. Lewis Hind, "Wanted, a Name," Christian Science Monitor, ca. November-December 1919 (exact date unknown; clipping preserved in the scrapbooks of Katherine Dreier, Collection of the Société Anonyme, Beinecke Library, Yale University, New Haven; reprinted with slight variations in Hind, Art and l [New York: John Lane, 1920], pp. 180-185).

13. For reviews of this exhibition and an account of its organization, see Marius de Zayas, How, When, and Why Modern Art Came to New York, ed. Francis M. Naumann (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1993), pp. 55-64.

14. Questionnaire completed by the artist on March 23, 1957 (Artists' files, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York).

15. There were others as well: another for the two reclining figures in the foreground (Collection Silvo Perstein, Antwerp) and a lost painting for the masked figure on the right (reproduced in the Artist's Card File, document C, no. 52).

16. SP, p. 75. The decision to consciously renounce the influence of primitive art must have occurred around 1915 (according to information supplied in the Whitney questionnaire [see n. 14 above], for the artist said that the influence of primitive art lasted only from 1913 through 1915.

17. Gail Levin, "American Art," in William Rubin, ed., "Primitivism" in 20th Century Art, vol. 2 (New York: Museum of Modern Art; Boston: New York Graphic Society, 1984), p. 462.

18. Frank Stephens, "A.D. 1914," Mother Earth 9, no. 8 (October 1914), p. 254.

19. Interview with Arturo Schwarz, quoted in Schwarz, Man Ray, p. 32.

20. SP, p.49.

21. Although both catalogues were published in 1916, I believe Man Ray used earlier sketches, for both of these images appear to have served as preparatory studies. The subtitle came from the Artist's Card File, document C, no. 48.

22. Statement by the artist published in Mary Lawrence, ed., Mother and Child (New York: Thomas Y. Cronwell, 1975), p. 64. My interpretation of this painting and its preparatory drawing is based on the artist's description of Madonna provided in this statement.

23. Paul Wescher, "Man Ray as Painter," Magazine of Art 46, no. 1 (January 1953), p. 33.

24. For reviews of this exhibition and reproductions of works by Picasso and Braque that were included in the show, see de Zayas, Modern Art, pp. 28-40.

25. SP, p.18.

26. See the artist's description of this project in his interview with Pierre Bourgeade, Bonsoir, Man Ray (Paris: Pierre Belfond, 1972), pp. 49-50.

27. On the relationship of American trompe l'oeil painting to Cubist collage, see Francis M. Naumann, "Illusion and Reality: The Origin and Development of Collage and Assemblage in American Art," in Collage and Assemblage (Jackson: Mississippi Museum of Art, 1981), pp. 1-14.


Return to chapter guide for this essay.

Editor's Note: Please see other published articles and essays concerning Man Ray (Emmanuel Radnitzky) in this magazine:

Read more articles and essays concerning this institutional source by visiting the sub-index page for the Montclair Art Museum in Resource Library Magazine.

Search for more articles and essays on American art in Resource Library. See America's Distinguished Artists for biographical information on historic artists.

This page was originally published in 2003 in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information.

Copyright 2012 Traditional Fine Arts Organization, Inc., an Arizona nonprofit corporation. All rights reserved.