Vive Le Surrealisme.

Somewhere in the middle of my elementary school years, I was leafing through one of my mother’s Famous Artists volumes and stumbled upon The Persistence of Memory. My eyes moved across it with dread as its sinister furnishings revealed themselves. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. “Is that…? It can’t be. Why is there… uhh…”

I scanned and re-scanned the painting, trying to process it and failing. I repeated self-soothing mantras. One thing I especially couldn’t absorb was the painting’s central figure. The academic text was no help, faithfully preserving ambiguity. It said something like, “It could be a piece of driftwood, but it has disturbing connotations.” Oh, no.

At that age I’d go through periods of being unable to sleep. I’m sure at some point this scene persevering behind my eyes was a contributing factor. Little did I know that feeling unmoored, uncanny, unsafe before the looming potentialities of art would become one of my favorite sensations, one I would perpetually pursue for the rest of my life.

I felt it was a good time to turn my attention to this particular formative influence, given that: 1) I have been formulating a plan for over a year now to record an EP of experimental music inspired by the lives and works of five different underrated/overshadowed woman surrealists, and I just resumed research for this project within the past couple days. 2) I just watched a very good, concise piece on Persistence by one of my go-to video essayists. 3) Having just been gifted a year of membership to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, I am fresh off an exhibit of portraits that Man Ray took of influential figures during his time in Paris between 1920 and 1940.

Of course the portraits were accompanied by rich little vignettes that fleshed out the relationship between Man Ray and the notable oddballs pictured. Stein and Toklas, who apparently thought portraits should be free among friends. Virginia Woolf, who reluctantly donned lipstick for the sake of the shot and forgot to remove it before going out in public. The patron who fell out with Man Ray but whose ego was subsequently satisfied by his portrait. Or, conversely, the poet who took offense at his portrait and ripped it to shreds (part of a seemingly miniscule minority of unhappy customers).

I did a lot of placard-snapping throughout the exhibit. I was careful to collect information about artists I’d never heard of but who sounded enticing. I also captured concepts that seemed to hold metaphorical potential, as well as memorable, evocative phrases or passages that could easily be incorporated into songs or interludes.

Here are the things I took down for posterity (and personal utility):

Lee Miller – not that I was completely unfamiliar, but I had no idea that following a fruitful partnership she ultimately left Man Ray due to her own photography ambitions.
Barbette, a gender-fluid high-wire performer (IMHO, a strong contender for the most stunning woman in the whole exhibit)
Louise de Vilmorin, French writer who carried on affairs with both the British Ambassador to France and his wife, “but never at the same time.”
Marie Laurencin, whose work was marginalized at the time for its overtly queer, femme gaze, but whose importance has since been realized.
Elsa Schiaparelli, who leveraged the visuals of surrealism into successful fashion designs (god, what a job!)
Valentine Hugo, a Surrealist painter whose destructive affair with Andre Breton ended in a physical altercation and an unfinished magnum opus.
Suzanne Duchamp, sister of Marcel, who with her husband created a branch of Dadaism based on Freud’s Totem and Taboo, and who “frequently included machine imagery in her work, such as the conical plumb bobs, wheel, and other mechanical elements…” (This was notable to me as I have found the work of some prominent woman surrealists to include, moreso than that of their male counterparts, mystical human-like figures, seemingly women and children, in dreamlike interiors. Whatever the reason for this, I tend to prefer those works that are colder, starker, and more mechanical.)

Man Ray’s solarized portrait of Meret Oppenheim, one of the surrealists that will inform my eventual project and whose fur cup was essentially to her what “Creep” was to Radiohead.

Cadeau (“gift”), “…an ordinary flat iron with a row of tacks glued to the underside,” created by Man Ray and muh man Erik Satie (who knew he was so cheeky!) together, which “has become an emblematic image of Dada’s corrosive humor and subversive intent.”
-Man Ray’s goal of “expanding the limits of portraiture“: “…his photography transcended the camera’s mechanical ability to record a person, an experience, or a moment in time, and he was able to imbue his portraits with a sense of drama, excitement, mystery, and wonder. [His] photographs reflect his lifelong commitment to nonconformity […] resulting in the radical assault on the visual codes and conventions of portraiture…” Of course this sometimes involved obscuring the subject’s face, that old thing I’m also a sucker for whenever Magritte (not to mention his many disciples) does it.
Solarization, the dramatic over-exposure technique Man Ray adopted after Lee Miller, acting as his darkroom assistant and allegedly startled by a mouse, had a happy accident with negatives. “Although difficult to control, the resulting image…gave his subjects a rich, glowing outline, as if they were radiating an invisible source of energy.” Said Man Ray in one interview, “The technique enabled me to get away […] from banality…”
Rayograph: “…a photographic image made without a camera by placing ordinary objects [e.g., ‘combs, disks, glass funnels, feathers, fern fronds, filmstrips, keys, matchsticks, paper ribbons, thumbtacks, and wire spirals used for drying film’] directly onto the surface of a light-sensitive material, such as photosensitized paper, and briefly exposing it to light…”
-Man Ray’s “Electricity Portfolio,” an inspiring example, not only of making the banal uncanny (the series spot-lit everyday uses of electricity in the home), but also of capitalizing on one’s niche preoccupations to achieve commercial success (the ultimate win-win). Not to mention being the kind of super-focused project that seems genius in its specificity. Though not an official part of the portfolio, my favorite work from this time frame was of the model Tanja Ramm with “what appears to be an oversized starfish-shaped brooch on her shoulder,” which is actually a heating element placed there through photomontage.

Killer Lines
-“Man Ray’s portrait focused on [elderly British sexologist] Havelock Ellis’ aged features and scraggly beard, which according to Sylvia Beach […] lent him the air of an Apostle, ‘out of which had come all those volumes on sex to enlighten a whole generation.'” (I’m mainly including this because someone other than myself needs to start a band called “Sex Apostle.”)
-“Although he wears the jaunty monocle that had been his trademark since he was nineteen years old, [Tristan] Tzara appears humorless, lost, and weary in this psychologically penetrating portrait.”
-“After seeing two paintings by Giorgio de Chirico… [Yves Tanguy] resolved to become a painter himself despite a complete lack of any formal training. The poetic mystery and unsettling incongruities of de Chirico’s metaphysical paintings, with their deep shadows and foreboding atmosphere, had a decisive impact on his future work.

“The Surrealist landscapes that Tanguy made […] typically feature vast, arid plains and strange rock formations […] Man Ray perceptively described these ‘abstract archeological forms’ as ‘almost human in their shapes and attitudes.'” {<–Writer’s note: Deliciously, as I typed this, Bjork’s “Human Behavior” came up on my playlist}

-“Please cremate my body. Loathing.” – Suicide note of “cherubic” Rene Crevel, a French poet and Surrealist “enfant terrible” who died at just 33, following a lifelong dissonance between his homosexuality and religious background.
-“Wood pusher” – what Man Ray dubbed himself due to his love of the game of chess.

A suggestive juxtaposition.

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