The security guard in Christie’s lobby last Thursday told me where to find the pre-auction viewing for The Surrealist World of Rosalind Gersten Jacobs & Melvin Jacobs. He motioned to the left, saying “go through the keyhole,” an arched liminal cutout into a mysterious realm, and, when I passed across the threshold, there it was – on the far facing wall. I flashed back to the mid-eighties, during the hyped-up, dreamlike flux of writing Man Ray – American Artist when I first set eyes upon Le Violon d’Ingres at Roz and Mel’s apartment; I had emerged from the private elevator and yes, there it was, at eye-level, the gelatin silver print mounted on board sheltered by curtains on either side – and now, as then, I gasped at the luminous immensity of its modest size.
Rebecca Jones, associate specialist and head of sale in photographs at Christie’s, graciously guided me around the exhibition. Past works by Duchamp, Magritte, Tanning, both Copleys (William and Noma), and Celmins, I revisited the arcane imagination of Man Ray, smiling to myself when I zeroed in on the wall of rayographs, cameraless photographs authenticated in pencil on verso with the artist’s note, in French, that these were unique, one of a kind works.
Indeed, another facet of Man Ray’s persona has coalesced in the developing-tray of my affectionate memory over the decades: his propensity to stake wildly various claims – to insist, tongue in cheek, that “Photography is not art” while, in the same breath, applying connective tissue between “originals, graphics, [and] multiples.”
Of all the images of his lover, Kiki, there is none so compelling, notorious and powerful as this one, her smooth, naked curved back adorned with the curlicue “f” – holes of a violin. Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres and Man Ray had certain points of convergence. The painter glorified odalisques, houris swooning langorously. The photographer took equally insatiable delight in contours of the flesh. Like Ingres, his predecessor, Man Ray was chronically eclectic. Both experienced brief formal educations. Both emerged from humble upbringings. And both were victimized by critical assessments that their imagery was too enigmatic.
This magisterial construct of 1924 plays with the idea of photography as the virtuosic Man Ray’s self-deprecating “hobby,” even as Ingres insisted that visitors to his studio attend to his precious instrument. It also plays with the idea of woman, maintaining Man Ray’s erotic obsession with the classic female form.
Naomi Savage, the artist’s niece — who studied photography with him, bearing witness to his darkroom technique, and whose 1959 snapshot of her uncle at his favorite haunt, the Café de la Mairie, across the Place Saint Sulpice from his rue Ferou studio, appears below — recalled Man Ray remarking to her that “The work has already been done.”