MAN RAY (1890-1976)
MAN RAY (1890-1976)
MAN RAY (1890-1976)
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MAN RAY (1890-1976)
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MAN RAY (1890-1976)

Songe de la clef

MAN RAY (1890-1976)
Songe de la clef
signed and dated 'Man Ray 1942' (lower right) and titled 'Songe de la Clef' (upper left); signed, dated and titled again and inscribed 'Man Ray 1942 "La songe de la clef" (center of painting 40 x 80 inches) (without key)' (on the stretcher)
oil on canvas
9 1⁄8 x 18 1⁄4 in. (23.2 x 46.3 cm.)
Painted in Los Angeles in 1942
Acquired from the artist by the late owners, by 1965.
Man Ray, Self Portrait, Boston, 1988, p. 265 (original version illustrated in situ in the artist’s home).
Miami, Museum of Contemporary Art, Sweet Dreams and Nightmares: Dada and Surrealism from the Rosalind and Melvin Jacobs Collection, March-May 2000, no. 22 (illustrated in color).
New York, Pace/MacGill Gallery, The Long Arm of Coincidence: Selections from the Rosalind and Melvin Jacobs Collection, April-May 2009 (illustrated in color).
New York, Di Donna, Enigma & Desire: Man Ray Paintings, October-December 2019, p. 118 (illustrated in color, p. 119).
Further details
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 raisonné of the Paintings of Man Ray, currently in preparation.

Lot Essay

Painted in 1942, Le songe de la clef is a prime example of the deceptively simple nature of Man Ray’s Surrealist compositions, its playful theme wrapped in an enigmatic image that challenges and disrupts the viewer’s sense of perception. Initially created as a larger work, measuring 40 x 80 inches, the canvas depicted a pair of intersecting diagonal lines dividing the canvas into triangular quadrants of subtly gradated grey tones that grow darker as the eye travels in a counter-clockwise movement. Man Ray later added a trompe loeil key at its center and cut down the canvas to its present size. The carefully rendered skeleton key floats weightlessly against an ambiguous, empty background, the ornate curves of its bow and precisely cut teeth catching the light as it reflects off the metal surface. By employing a clever trompe loeil effect in his rendering of the key, Man Ray conjures a strange sense of space within the scene, causing the object to shift under our gaze, at once sinking into the grey expanse while simultaneously appearing to project outwards from the canvas, towards the viewer.

With the outbreak of war in Europe, Man Ray was forced to flee Paris in 1940 and return to his homeland, arriving first in New York, before travelling westwards to California. Though at first captivated by the sunlight, which he said reminded him of the South of France, by 1942 Man Ray grew restless: “California is a beautiful prison,” he wrote to his sister in September, “I like being here, but I cannot forget my previous life, and long for the day when I can return to New York, and eventually to France” (letter to Elsie Ray Siegler, 24 September 1942; quoted in J. Mundy, ed., Man Ray: Writings on Art, Los Angeles, 2016, p. 234). In the same letter, he described the quiet patterns of his life during this time: “I suppose I shall not get really active until this war is over, and all I can do in the meantime is to lay low and prepare for the years to come” (ibid.). While photography continued to offer an important stream of income during these years, painting became Man Ray’s primary creative outlet, with new works emerging alongside revisions of older compositions, many of which he had been forced to leave behind in Paris.

In Le songe de la clef, Man Ray takes inspiration from a recent assemblage of the same title, which he had created using newspaper, string, watercolor and pencil. Now housed in the collection of the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), this work also employs overlapping diagonals and the imagery of a key, though in this version, the object disappears into a keyhole, leaving only the upper portion visible. Exaggerating the shadow cast by this section of the object, Man Ray disrupts the effect of the trompe loeil in the rest of the drawing, creating an uneasy tension between the different elements of the work, forcing the viewer to reconsider his or her understanding of the image. In the 1942 painting, Man Ray develops these ideas further, eschewing any contextual detail and instead focusing our attention exclusively on the key as it hovers before us. In this way, the artist enhances the visual illusion at play, accentuating the impression that it is alternately moving away and towards the picture plane, creating a disconcerting effect that challenges our own sense of perception.

Man Ray famously claimed to love things which are incomprehensible, reveling in the humorous confusion conjured by verbal puns and word games. In the present painting he deliberately inverts a familiar phrase, La Clef des songes (The Key to Dreams) which was a common title for popular manuals of dream interpretation in France. At once invoking and playfully subverting the Surrealist fascination with dreams and the subconscious, the title now tasks the viewer with considering the dream of an ordinary, everyday key, suggesting previously unimaginable depths within the inanimate object. In its choice of title and subject, Man Ray’s painting appears to directly echo the work of his fellow Surrealist, René Magritte, who also took inspiration from “la clef des songes” when naming his 1927 composition of precisely rendered quotidian objects against a dark, blank background. However, Man Ray maintained that although closely associated with the Surrealists, his aesthetic was distinctly his alone: “I have never really used their idiom, but followed my own bent, meeting the others at certain points only” (quoted in J. Mundy, ed., Man Ray: Writings on Art, Los Angeles, 2016, p. 232).

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