Man Ray and the Société Anonyme, New York

Founded in 1920, by Katherine Dreier, Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray, the Société Anonyme was the first institution to promote avant-garde art in America. The organisation which built upon the legacy of the pioneering 1913 Armory Show and Alfred Stieglitz’s 291 Gallery (which closed in 1917), is today much lesser known than its successor, the Museum of Modern Art, founded nine years later. A new exhibition at Yale University of Art Gallery, Société Anonyme: Modernism for America, presents an opportunity to expand upon Man Ray’s work with the Société Anonyme, and acknowledge the significance of this experience in his artistic development.

Following his formal education, Man Ray dedicated himself to painting and drawing while living at the artist’s colony at Ridgefield from late 1912 until the end of 1915. Here his circle included his first wife, the Belgian poet Adon Lacroix (born Donna Lecoeur), modernist painter Samuel Halpert and poet Alfred Kreymborg. Man Ray’s life-long friendship with Duchamp began he visited the colony with art patron Walter Arensberg in the autumn of 1915. Katherine Dreier had studied at the Pratt Institute and at studio classes in Paris, exhibiting at the 1913 Armory Show alongside Duchamp. By 1920, when Dreier initiated discussions with Duchamp to establish a ‘museum of modern art’ in New York, he naturally wanted to involve his dear friend Man Ray.

Dreier had originally considered the name ‘The Modern Ark’, suggesting the symbolism of rescuing modern art from floods of conservatism. However Man Ray suggested a phrase he had once read, ‘Société Anonyme’, thinking it meant Anonymous Society. Duchamp explained the expression’s true meaning, that it was akin to ‘Incorporated’ (with all the commercial connotations this word embodies). But the name was liked and agreed upon, becoming satirical in nature; for the organisation’s aim was educational, to provide a public, non-commercial centre for the study and promotion of modern art.

The Société’s inaugural exhibition took place on April 30 1920, at rooms rented by Dreier at 19 East 47th Street. Man Ray designed “‘electroliers” (customized lighting) for the exhibition and the Société’s banner. He was also employed by Dreier to take publicity photographs of the artworks, as well as recording those in her own private art collection. This functional use of photography, to record his own artworks and those of leading artists, was Man Ray’s primary use of the medium at this time. Alongside artists including Duchamp and his brother Jacques Villon, and Brancusi, Man Ray contributed the Dada work Lampshade for the inaugural exhibition.

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Man Ray ‘Lampshade’ reproduced on a Societe Anonyme postcard (1920)

The original Lampshade was a hanging spiral of paper, which Man Ray recalls in his 1963 memoir Self-Portrait, was destroyed by a janitor the night before the exhibition. He describes learning of the object’s destruction, and going to a tinsmith, tracing a pattern on a sheet of metal, which was then cut to size. Man Ray describes taking the metal shape and some fast-drying white paint to the exhibition space, where he fashioned a spiral form, hung it on a stand, and painted it white:

“With satisfaction I contemplated the substitution, taking pleasure in the thought that it would resist any attempt at destruction.” (Man Ray, Self-Portrait, 1963)

At the end of the exhibition, Dreier kept the artwork for her personal collection, and also purchased a number of Man Ray’s paintings including L’Arc de Triomphe (1923). However Man Ray would make various editions of Lampshade in the years that followed, writing further in his autobiography:

“I have duplicated it a dozen times for other exhibitions. I have no compunctions about this – an important book or musical score is not destroyed by burning it.” (Man Ray, Self-Portrait, 1963)

Man Ray’s involvement with the Société Anonyme came at a critical point in his early career, when he had not yet found the financial stability and confidence to fully explore the potential of photography. (Remembered today as one of the most innovative photographers of the twentieth century; it must be noted that Man Ray himself questioned the status of photography throughout his life. He excelled across all mediums, including photography, painting, drawing, sculpture and film. However Man Ray considered his photography secondary to his painting. Indeed he excluded photography from his first American retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1966, showing only two sets of rayographs in an exhibition of 300 objects.)

Dreier’s inclusion and support of Man Ray introduced him to an international audience, and writing in her first annual report (1921) she declared him among artists “belonging to no school, but imbued with the new spirit in art“. Some of Man Ray’s earliest photographic portraits arose from connections made through the Société, notably fellow member Joseph Stella, whom he photographed with Duchamp in 1920. The short-term injection of funds from sales arising from the Société’s inaugural exhibition gave Man Ray a brief financial freedom to actively seek subjects for photographic portraits:

My larder being temporarily replenished with proceeds from photographic work and Miss Dreier’s purchase, I sought distractions in the Village and through invitations to my studio, the latter as a means of obtaining subjects for portraits. One day it was two handsome young women, writers, Mina Loy and Djuana Barnes…Another young woman came in from time to time, it was Elsa Schiaparelli, whom I also photographed but not so successfully….” (Man Ray, Self-Portrait, 1963)

Following Man Ray’s correspondence with Dada artists in Paris including Tristan Tzara, and Duchamp’s move to the city, Man Ray set sail for a new life in France on 14 July 1921.

At various points in his life Man Ray referenced the significant role the Société Anonyme played during his formative years in New York, by repeating the motif of the spiral in other artforms, including in silent films Le retour à la raison (1923) and Emak Bakia (1926). In 1968, Man Ray once again used this symbolism when he was commissioned by the Sunday Times Magazine to photograph Catherine Deneuve. She is shown wearing gold-plated spiral bronze earrings made by Man Ray. His study of Deneuve was one of his most important last commissions, and the considered inclusion of such objects referencing important events in his personal and professional life, offer us a retrospective image. The portrait of Deneuve is included in major new exhibition Man Ray Portraits at the National Portrait Gallery, London from 7 February 2013.

Related links:

The Société Anonyme: Modernism for America, Yale University Art Gallery

Man Ray Portraits, National Portrait Gallery

African Art, New York, and the Avant-Garde, Metropolitan Museum of Art

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