Shakespeare and higher mathematics meet in Man Ray’s late, great series of paintings, “Shakespearean Equations.”
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The protean Surrealist Man Ray was expert in many media—photography, film, writing, sculpture, and painting—and today he is probably best known for his pioneering experiments in photography, both with and without a camera. But it was painting, which he called his “first passion,” that mattered to him most, and his ambition was always to be recognized primarily as a painter. In 1947–48, while he was living in Los Angeles, Man Ray returned to painting in a major way after a long period of immersion in photography. He created a series of 20 large, bold compositions in oil on Masonite that defy the distinction between abstraction and representation. Richly colored, depicting strange forms that seem to emanate from the realm of the imagination, all are titled after plays by William Shakespeare, daring the viewer to draw some connection between the words of the dramatist and the dramatic, enigmatic images.
This series, which Man Ray collectively titled “Shakespearean Equations,” did not immediately—or even for quite a while—earn the artist the recognition he craved, but over the years their reputation has grown. Their mystique has doubtless been enhanced by the fact that they have rarely been exhibited, and never all together since their debut. Until now, that is. This spring, Man Ray aficionados will have the chance to see all the “Shakespearean Equations” reunited, along with three other paintings added to the series slightly later, in “Man Ray—Human Equations,” an innovative and ambitious show at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. (through May 7). Not only that, but the exhibition elucidates for the first time the sources of these paintings, a form of human creativity far distant from the stage or the studio—the recondite equations and graphs of higher mathematics.
Even a cursory glance at the 23 paintings on display reveals that they contain some unusual, even astonishing shapes. Left to his or her own devices, the viewer would probably conclude that they sprang straight from the fertile brain of a Surrealist intent on defying visual conventions. But in fact they were taken more or less directly from a set of mathematical models that Man Ray first saw in the Institut Henri Poincaré in Paris in the mid-1930s. The story of how they got from there to the paintings of more than a decade later reveals a great deal about Man Ray’s creative process and the way he was able to cause ideas and images to migrate across media.
It was Max Ernst who twigged Man Ray on to the artistic potential of the Poincaré models. Ernst had recently wandered through the Institut, named after the great French mathematician and theoretical physicist, and been intrigued by their challenging shapes. He drew a few and eventually used them as elements in a series of collages in which they were combined with drawings or prints of Classical sculptures such as the Apollo Belvedere. In 1934 Man Ray asked the Institut for permission to photograph the models in situ, using studio lights and black and white backdrops to isolate them and dramatically heighten their contours. At first, this was just a documentary project, part of the Surrealist impulse of collecting trouvailles, or found objects that might or might not inspire actual artworks. In 1936, cropped versions of the photographs were published in an issue of the journal Cahiers d’Art.
For the public to even see mathematical models such as these, in a Surrealist magazine or anywhere at all, was highly unusual. The objects, mostly of papier-mâché and plaster, were created not by sculptors but by mathematicians for other mathematicians, in the last two decades of the 19th century. Basically, they are geometrical, three-dimensional representations of algebraic equations, aids for visualization and understanding. Three centuries earlier, the French mathematicians René Descartes and Pierre de Fermat had discovered that by plotting numerical values as dots on a grid, an equation could be translated into a line or a curve. Soon it became clear that other, more complex kinds of equations yielded curves that could only be plotted on curved surfaces. So the best way to depict these was to leave the paper and pencil behind and construct three-dimensional objects instead. For example, an equation of the type x(3) + y (3) + z (3) = 1 (known as a cubic equation) yields 27 distinct lines that can only be drawn on what is called a cubic surface—a version of which happens to be the central “figure” in Man Ray’s The Merchant of Venice (The Monument), one of the “Shakespearean Equations.”
Man Ray was no mathematician. He freely confessed that he had no understanding of the technical points of the Poincaré models—in fact, he photographed a stand made to hold one of the models just as lovingly as he did the models themselves, possibly failing to realize that it was just a support structure. To be sure, geometry has played a major role in Western art, from the Renaissance on down, but Man Ray wasn’t looking to create a non-Euclidean system of perspective or do anything that depended on exact numerical values. A telling clue as to his intentions is found in Julius Caesar, a painting in the series. Behind the intricately depicted mathematical model is a blackboard with equations written in chalk. One of them reads, “2 + 2 = 22.” This and a few other absurdities and tautologies make it clear that, as was so often his habit, Man Ray was not dealing with his subject matter on its own terms. He was treating the mathematical models as Surrealists treated all their found objects—he was engaging in dépaysement (estrangement), intentionally removing the object from its normal context in order to stimulate the imagination. The impulse here was not rational, as in mathematics, but irrational. And of course, this being Man Ray, there was also a strong element of humor in the process.
The Shakespearean titles themselves may be humorous. Man Ray liked to keep people guessing and to distance himself from any explanation of what his work might mean. While scholars may engage in elaborate exegesis to figure out why one particular Surrealist composition is called Julius Caesar and another The Merry Wives of Windsor, the curators of the Phillips show suggest that the Shakespearean attributions may have originated as a prank directed at Man Ray’s ex-friend, the art collector Walter Arensberg, who was also an amateur Shakespearean scholar. Arensberg had incurred Man Ray’s eternal displeasure by discarding (perhaps unintentionally) a 1917 assemblage the artist had given him. Since Arensberg was a tireless advocate of the hypothesis that Shakespeare’s plays were really written by Francis Bacon, positing a far-fetched connection between the paintings and those plays might have been a sort of bitter inside joke.
Nonetheless, in Man Ray’s work, humor and seriousness are always intertwined, and Shakespearean allusions can be found in at least some of the paintings without too much effort. In King Lear, drips of paint evoke the famous “tears speech” of the title character. Romeo and Juliet are a pair of mathematical objects merged into one, as if by love. The moth at the right of The Merchant of Venice most likely refers to the play’s line, “Thus hath the candle singed the moth.” The four vertical shapes clustered together in The Merry Wives of Windsor could be the women themselves. The floating sphere within a frame in As You Like It refers to the play’s line, “all the world’s a stage,” and possibly by extension to the Globe Theatre where Shakespeare’s plays were performed. And as for Hamlet, Man Ray himself broke his rule and offered a little commentary: “The white triangular bulging shape you see in Hamlet reminded me of a white skull”—no doubt referring to the skull of Yorick that Hamlet interrogates in play—“a geometric skull that also looked like Ophelia’s breast. So I added a small pink dot at one of the three corners—a little erotical touch, if you will!”
The original exhibition of “Shakespearean Equations” opened on December 14, 1948, fittingly enough, several weeks after the release of the Laurence Olivier film of Hamlet. The venue was the Copley Galleries in Beverly Hills, owned by the eccentric artist, collector, publisher, and dealer William N. Copley, who was at the time an enthusiast for Surrealism and would later become involved with Pop art and pornography. Despite Copley’s energetic promotion of Man Ray, Roberto Matta, Joseph Cornell, Yves Tanguy, Max Ernst, and René Magritte, Los Angeles had not yet embraced Surrealism. Man Ray quipped that in terms of modern art, L.A. was 20 years behind New York, which itself was 20 years behind Paris. On the other hand, he pointe out, because of the Tinseltown fantasy element, “there was more Surrealism rampant in Hollywood than all the Surrealists could invent in a lifetime.” So while the artist experienced his decade-long stay in L.A. as more or less of an exile, he did have plenty of friends among the artists, composers, writers, and other creative people in the community, and he pulled out all the stops for the opening-night party of “Shakespearean Equations.” Among the attendees were Igor Stravinsky, Harpo Marx, Henry Miller, Aldous Huxley, and Luis Buñuel, as well as the usual gang of Surrealist expats. Some of the connections to the movie studios came courtesy of Copley’s business partner and brother-in-law, John Ployardt, who was an animator at Disney, assigned to the character of Mickey Mouse.
After the Copley show, the “Shakespearean Equations” were scattered to the four winds, and the impetus to reunite them and place them in the context of their source material came from an unexpected quarter, the Institut Henri Poincaré. In 2009, the new director, Cédric Villani, was informed that the mathematical model collection was under restoration and that it had been photographed by Man Ray. He contacted the Man Ray Trust, saying that the Institut had never seen those photographs and would be glad to exhibit them if they were to be lent. That ensuing dialogue led to the models going on the road for several exhibitions, including one at the Fondation Cartier in Paris in 2011, called “Mathematics: A Beautiful Elsewhere.”
Phillips Collection curator Wendy Grossman, co-organizer of the present exhibition and editor of its catalogue, says, “Ask some of the old Man Ray guard, and they’ll say, ‘Oh, I had the idea for a show like this 30 years ago.’ But not that many people know much about this material, and the paintings, the models, and the photographs were all over the place, a logistical nightmare.” She credits Villani as the catalyst for the show, which, she says, puts the “Shakespearean Equations” series “into the trajectory of the artist’s work, in the context of what we call the metamorphosis of the object.” Starting with the 19th-century mathematical models, proceeding to the photographs by Man Ray of those models, through to the book publication of those photographs in Surrealist context, then the paintings, and finally to black-and-white photographs of the paintings that Man Ray made at the time of the Copley show, we see the full cycle of transformation of the image and the object.
Grossman calls the “Shakespearean Equations” a “theatrical tableau” in which “inanimate forms become animate.” The series, including the source material that went into it, is in the direct line of descent from the proto-Surrealist impulse articulated in the 1870s (around the same time the models started to be made by the French mathematicians) by the poet the Comte de Lautréamont in the phrase, “beautiful as the chance meeting of an umbrella and a sewing machine on a dissecting table.” Humanizing and eroticizing inanimate objects by juxtaposing them in unexpected ways in unexpected places, as Man Ray did in this project, is a uniquely Surrealist form of drama, part tragedy, part comedy, and if by some miracle Shakespeare could have rubbed shoulders with Harpo Marx at the Copley Galley in 1948, he might well have appreciated it.