A Very Long Engagement: Nineteenth-Century Sculpture and Its Afterlives

Man Ray's Herma

by Zoë Burnett

Man Ray’s Herma at the Mount Holyoke College Art Museum [Figure 1] is one of a series of three hundred and fifty bronzes cast in 1975, a year before the artist’s death. These were fabricated by the Paris auction house Artcurial to raise funds for the opening of their new business, and Man Ray also benefited from the sale of the pieces. He had supervised the creation of a silver edition of Herma four years earlier as well, with only six of that edition. Though ultimately made to be sold, Herma is a distinct, retrospective Man Ray object which contains a mystery that he did not necessarily want the buyer to solve. Its form references the evolution of the fractured nude within Man Ray’s career, always skirting the edge of definitive meaning and specific temporal situation. The image of Herma has a distinct predecessor in the earlier stage of Man Ray’s artistic career, but in his extensive writings about art and his work he never explained the origins or meaning of this sculpture. The form is distinguished only by its reappearance after decades in his career, and by inclusion in a collection of his favorite works, where the mystery of Herma becomes even more pronounced. By the time this series of bronzes was created, its pose was recognizable as one Man Ray had often used in his sensual photographs of nude women, in which their bodies were almost always incomplete, or fractured. Because there is no written record which explains Herma, the Mount Holyoke copy must be analyzed in the larger thematic and visual context of his career. 

The sculpture is in the shape of a female human torso, with its thighs, upper arms, and head emerging from the body. It can be identified as a female form by the wide hips, small breasts, slim waist, and lack of male genitalia. The right upper arm seems to be forming from the chest, but the there is no indication of a left forearm [Figure 1.1]. Every other limb is incomplete, the legs terminating at the knees and at the left elbow. The thighs are fused together in the front, forming a pubic triangle, and the buttocks are clearly defined from the back [Figure 1.2]. There is some hint of shoulder blades, and the waist is indented from the rear by a horizontal crease that joins the upper and lower portions of the body [Figure 1.3].

Each of these anatomical terms are assumed, as there is hardly any definition of musculature or bone. Only from behind does the viewer see some hint of bodily structure, where the shoulder melts into the back of the head and the triceps. Its head is tilted as though to rest on the right forearm, giving the impression of yawning and stretching. [Figure 1.4] The sculpture is balanced on a conical, black matte base, making it look unstable but heightening the illusion of movement. 

The sculpture’s golden surface is highly reflective and the viewer’s face is distorted into the curves while observing the object. As one moves around it, the effect is like that of molten metal or a fun house mirror. This artificial liquidity is embellished by the absence of any truly flat surfaces, which creates depth and contouring in the figure as well as in the reflected image. In the more defined, curved surfaces of the object, such as the front of the head, upper thighs, and back, the viewer is able to see their whole face minimized by the small surface space [Figure 1.5]. The fluid quality of the gold almost invites the viewer to press their fingers against it, but in doing so they would be interfering with the narrative, as though the burgeoning person would shrink from their touch. There is something fetus-like about the sculpture, with the curled right arm and lack of any other distinct features. Though an adult figure, it moves as a baby would, either in its mother’s womb or stretching on a cushion. One can imagine that, in walking around the sculpture, it would seem as though it was squirming to life. This lack of solid figural form was present in the earliest stages of Man Ray’s career, even before he had expanded into three-dimensional representation.

In his first paintings, Man Ray abstracted and fractured the female form, stripping it of most identifiable features, leaving the body as more of a dressmaker’s mannequin than an individual person. In Promenade (1915, location unknown) [Figure 2], we see a central figure with wide hips and a single, jutting breast, surrounded by abstract forms against a red background. (Naumann, 130) When he painted this and other works showing featureless bodies Man Ray was praised for their hermaphroditic qualities, but here the form is distinctly female (Ray, 60; 1983). Her head is featureless and is devoid of depth and color, almost creating a black hole in the canvas where an expression should be. Here Man Ray has reduced the female body to a “flat-patterned disarticulated form,” which is the first of his “amorphically distorted” nudes (Naumann, 130). The red background conveys a dangerous situation, disturbing especially when examining the figure’s instability. Man Ray wanted to emulate flatness in the painting, yet only her form gives a sense of movement or space with the two points of her supposed feet in the position of walking toward the viewer. The first version of this painting was lost and then recreated in 1945, painted on silver gelatin. (Naumann, 131) The small size coupled with the reflectiveness of the canvas creates an icon-like effect, similar to shine of the 1971 and 1975 recreations of Herma. It also adds depth to the scene as an appropriate revision, as Man Ray did not continue with the flat ideal for much longer.

While working at a New York advertising agency during the early years of the twentieth century, Man Ray brought home his professional airbrush tool and began using it for his personal projects. The first conception of Herma can be seen in his air brush paintings, or aerographs. He manipulated the stream of paint to apply varying concentrations of tone, creating depth on the paper. Instead of exacerbating the flatness of a two-dimensional image, Man Ray was now more interested in creating a three-dimensional image on a two-dimensional surface. Airbrushed Nudes (1919, private collection) [Figure 3] shows three views of a similar body type to Herma with wide hips and a small bust, limbs ending at the elbows and knees, but no head. In a later interview, Man Ray described how he would use different objects as templates or stencils and move back and forth for depth, with each of his movements planned and choreographed beforehand. Using this technique, he could make three nudes in twenty minutes (Ray, ed. Mundy, 438-39; 2016). These forms are definitely female; the compressed air that sprayed the white paint onto the dark paper gives the illusion of rounded thighs and breasts, forming contours in the body. Here we see a profile with the right arm lifted, an overlapping body that leans back at the hip with the thighs spread and the arms thrust forward as though for balance, and a third body with its arms raised and its thighs closest in position to Herma. Though these nudes can be identified as individual bodies, they are all still missing some vital parts. Like in Promenade, the limbs are incomplete, and here their heads have also been excluded. Nonetheless, this painting marks Man Ray’s fractured nude motif into a developing body, despite the missing parts. The forms themselves have begun to press out into the viewer’s space, inhabiting a distinct physical plane of their own.

Man Ray’s first image of Herma (1919, Private Collection) [Figure 4] was conceived in the same year as Airbrushed Nudes, using an aerograph with the addition of graphite pencil for details. Posed in three-quarter view facing right, Herma extends her left arm while demurring into the crook of her right arm. Like in Promenade, a single breast stands out in profile. Unlike his previous figures, Herma is Man Ray’s first standalone “nude” and the first to be given a specific context with its title, which will be examined subsequently. Like the Airbrushed Nudes, Herma is aerographed in white paint and embellished with graphite marks resembling moss or perhaps the veins of marble. The shape and position of the figure creates a cameo-like illusion of relief sculpture, an effect which heightens the depth and shadow of the image, adds to the sculptural effect. These embellishments to his aerograph medium mark Man Ray’s further progression in pushing the three-dimensional image on the boundaries of two-dimensions, and would serve as the model for when his work eventually broke free of the canvas.

Later in 1919, Man Ray carved the Herma in marble (Private Collection) [Figure 5], which would become the sculptural model for the Mount Holyoke sculpture series in 1975. A few years before the conception of Herma, Ray was reflecting upon different mediums of art, with sculpture being the final mode of expression. He wrote in 1915, “On a flat plane the contrast of absolute plastic values produces the same sensations as the opposition of planes in three dimensions, and so the essence of sculpture is adequately represented by the new medium.” (Ray, ed. Mundy, 31; 2016). These ideas were smoothly transferred into a three-dimensional representation of Herma, which for Man Ray was the natural next step in his progression from painting to sculpture; like the painting, the marble curves and expands. In marble, the possible ancient inspiration for Herma begins to emerge. 

The title, shortened from Hermaphroditus, could indicate a distinct moment from the Greek myth. The beautiful Hermaphroditus, son of Hermes and Aphrodite, was watched by a nymph while he was bathing. She fell in love with the youth and made advances towards him, but was rejected. In a desperate bid to claim him, she threw her arms around Hermaphroditus and prayed to the gods to unite them forever. Her request was granted, but not in the way she had expected. Their two bodies were physically fused together, creating one deity with both male and female genitalia. Ray’s sculpture seems to depict the moment after the two became one, and their new unified body stretched into existence. The movement could also be explained in this way, as the shock of the way in which the gods granted the nymph’s wish must have been considerable.

Ray’s inspiration for this subject most likely comes from images of the Louvre’s Sleeping Hermaphroditus (2nd century BC, Louvre) [Figure 6]. Though the original marble Herma was made in New York, Man Ray writes in his biography that while he was still working at the advertisement agency, he would spend his weekends browsing through art books and visiting the city’s many galleries (Ray, 25; 1983). He must have seen a photograph of the Louvre Hermaphroditus in one of these books. If Herma is placed face down, she is in a very similar position to the ancient sculpture. With her right arm raised and left arm thrust forward, the legs moving as though she were readjusting in her sleep, only the position of the head is different. Here Man Ray creates a smaller version of the Louvre Hermaphroditus, one which has been eroded by time past recognition. Herma would be the last of his figural sculptures for decades, but the ambiguity of the sculpture would endure. Man Ray later favored variations of her pose in his photography, most notably in positioning nude women with one or both arms raised and their faces pressed against one bicep. In these each of these photographs, the women are fragmented in some way, the whole of their bodies never truly visible either because they are intentionally missing limbs, or because the existing limbs are cut off by the frame.

After Man Ray’s move to Paris in the 1920s, he fell in with the Dadaist movement and began to move away from painting in favor of photography. Using a camera, Man Ray was able to capture the three dimensional form of a subject with a snap of a button rather than a choreographed series of movements. This enabled him to start experimenting with live models, building upon their forms with different materials and visual manipulations of depth, but not quite giving the subject a cohesive storyline or purpose. The Coat Stand [Figure 7] (1921, Centre Pompidou) is a new step in his series of fractured nudes, layering artificial materials onto a live female model. A woman stands behind the arms and head of a paper doll, concealing her identity. She’s almost nude, save for a single black sock that blends in with the backdrop. The metal bar that bisects her body and holds up the paper doll parts objectifies her in a way that transforms this woman into a coat stand. Like the Mount Holyoke Herma, this woman is missing limbs and is positioned as though she is fused to a metal bar. The Coat Stand shows this nude woman as a tabletop object, and the small size of the photograph exacerbates the thingness that Man Ray imposes on this living person. Because her face is covered and her identity is concealed, any woman could project herself onto this blank expression and nude body, much like the distorted reflection one sees in Herma’s surface. Man Ray would continue his nude photography and shed the Dadaist trappings to focus on the nude female form as a blank slate.

During his expatriation in Paris, Man Ray again found inspiration from his commercial work. While supporting himself with commercial photography, he photographed hundreds of women as portraits, many of them artistic nudes. Almost all of them are, at some point in their series of photographs, posed in the same way as Herma. One of Man Ray’s first great muses was Alice Prin, an infamous performer known better by the name Kiki de Montparnasse, so named for her popularity in the area of Paris that she and Man Ray adopted as their home. First working as a model for Man Ray, they became a couple and began a relationship that would last for at least a decade, on and off, and would remain friends until her death in 1953 (Schwarz, 281). A nude photograph of Kiki shows her in an odalisque-like manner, with earrings, a bracelet, and a white sheet bordered with lace around her legs [Figure 8] (1922, Man Ray Trust). Her left arm is raised behind her head and the right is draped down over the front of her body, which stands out against the black background and erases any hint of her hair. Kiki stares down her raised chin at the viewer, evaluating but also preening. This is unusual in May Ray’s photography, and even in his later work a direct gaze is rare; most of his women look off to the side, or stare into their own arms [Figure 9] (1930, Man Ray Trust). Herma’s pose echoes throughout these photographs. Unlike Kiki with her direct gaze, any woman could be projected onto such a faceless object but the surface would mirror the male viewer’s reflection, causing either shame, arousal, or more arousal from the shame. Viewed in this way, the sculpture could provoke primal urges in the same way a nude photograph could. Herma’s waist is defined in a backward bend and its left thigh is raised, giving a sensual impression as though the sculpture was a lover posing for the viewer. Again, we see that Kiki’s limbs have been removed, one behind her head and her legs covered by the sheet. Even if they were not concealed, her limbs would be removed by the frame. 

Women are abbreviated and never wholly represented in Man Ray’s photographs. The image itself is blurry, adding to the instability of Kiki’s pose. Like Herma, she could almost be described as falling backwards, especially with no indication of where she is sitting. Whether he realized it or not, Man Ray was capturing that moment of falling even when creating his aerographs, trying to capture his women in that one moment of movement which could only accurately be recorded in film. Man Ray would continue to photograph nudes throughout his life, but as his more conceptual work progressed and he began depicting actual objects, his views on the production and reproduction of art would develop and evolve along with his theme of the fractured, contained nude.

During his Surrealist years, Man Ray perpetuated his motif of confined and incomplete female bodies, the most striking of which is Venus Restored [Figure 10] (1936, Man Ray Trust). Instead of restoring the missing limbs of a plaster cast of an ancient fragment, the rope that binds this torso is meant to contain the parts that remain. According to Man Ray, this containment creates a metaphorical wholeness in the object as itself, apart from those missing limbs (Kamien-Kazhdan, 2013). While also sharing a reference to antiquity with Herma, Venus Restored is also contained and kept immobile, complete in her incompleteness. The original sculpture which Man Ray photographed has been lost, but it was later reproduced in a series only a few years before the Mount Holyoke Herma [Figure 11]

Ever the pragmatist, Man Ray once wrote, “to create is divine, to reproduce is human” (Ray, 158; 1986). Creation was the artist’s job, but he also needed to live. Man Ray had no issue with the reproduction of his pieces, as many had been lost, and Man Ray had steadily built his career into an independent artist. He made a production of his earlier original works, distinguishing replicas from multiple editions. Most of his replicas exist now in museums, while his multiple editions, like Herma, were made specifically for commercial sale. Instead of placing the sanctity of the art in the single object, Man Ray likened the sale of his multiples to that of the lithographs of his paintings and the copies of his photographs. Each were created at a certain point in time which cannot be replicated, whether the photograph shows a person or an object. The photograph itself is a copy of the object or person that exists without the original, and Man Ray’s concern was not with the authenticity of the object itself as long as the original moment and idea of it was preserved within the copy (Ray, ed. Krauss, 12; 1986).

Herma is only addressed in Man Ray’s extensive writings once, and in a revisionary context. In 1963, he released 100 Objects of My Affection, in which he photographed and described his favorite creations. His preface explains his hope that these objects can be approached with respect to their own mystery, without a critical bias, because they cannot be classified. Man Ray writes, “These objects are a mystery to [the artist] himself as much as they might be to others, and he hopes they will always remain so. That is their justification, if any is needed.” (Ray, ed. Mundy, 409; 2016) The first marble edition of Herma was not included in this first edition, but one of the same series as the Mount Holyoke Herma was added to the second edition, released in 1986. Jean-Hubert Martin writes in the new introduction that the pieces added to this catalogue were those which were reinvigorated by a new sense of life in the years leading up to the Man Ray’s death in 1976 (Ray, ed. Martin, 7; 1983). The shiny new Herma was one of these, despite its status as one of multiple edition. Man Ray left no written record of his conception of Herma, leaving us to embrace the mystery of the original as well as its copy.

Besides Martin’s explanation for the added pieces in the introduction, there is also no available reason recorded for this the inclusion of the new Herma, nor its revival in bronze or in a silver edition in 1971. In his Self-Portrait, Man Ray recalls seeing the “gleaming, golden bronzes” of Brânçusi in New York galleries of the early twentieth century (Ray, 25, 1983). The 1975 series of Herma shares such a reflective surface with Brânçusi’s Male Torso [Figure 12] (1915, The Cleveland Museum of Art), the truncated form of which could also be related to the Man Ray’s recurring theme of the fractured nude. However, this observation can only be conjecture without the discovery of Man Ray’s explanation for Herma, which would be incredible since it was formally placed in the category of his mystery objects by those who revised 100 Objects of My Affection. The passing of time since the creation of the original marble Herma and Man Ray’s time in New York also lessens the possibility that he was directly influenced by works such as Male Torso for the reinvention of Herma over half a century later. Man Ray often did not explain why he decided to alter original designs for multiple editions. In a 1971 letter to Arturo Schwartz, a gallery owner who first promoted Man Ray’s replicas in 1963, he contains a list of objects to be reproduced. Though he mentions in which finish he would like these editions to be fabricated, Man Ray provides no reason for these choices (Ray, ed. Mundy, 427-8; 2016). Until a letter or description surfaces, the mesmerizing bronze finish of the Mount Holyoke Herma must remain another part of its mystery.

n his reproduction of Herma, Ray in his art by gilding the ideas and themes that persisted throughout his body of work. Whether it was a conscious decision or not, the preening pose in which Man Ray would often depict his subjects would reappear in almost every medium he used. As he removed their limbs, he also created a story that may or may not have had a distinct ending, or even a plot. In the Mount Holyoke Herma, we see that idea and mystery revitalized with a new finish. The idea of a mysterious woman involved in her own story, was tantalizing to the artist and continues to be so to the viewer.

Works Cited

Dehò, Valerio, editor. Man Ray; Women. Translated by Emily Ligniti, Bologna, Damiani, 2005.

Ellis, Andrew, editor. Man Ray. Translated by Sylvia Notini, Milan, Skira, 2011.

Kamien-Kazhdan, Adina. Staging Displacement: Man Ray's Still Life Composition With Chess Set, Plaster Casts, And Observatory Time – The Lovers In Context. Shpilman Institute for Photography, edited by Aya Lurie, Tel Aviv, A. R. Printing Ltd., 2013, pp. 87-103.

Mundy, Jennifer, editor. Man Ray; Writings on Art. Los Angeles, The Getty Research Publications Program, 2016.

Naumann, Francis M. Conversion to Modernism; the Early Work of Man Ray. New Jersey, Montclair Art Museum, 2003.

Ray, Man. Objets de mon affection. Edited by Marcel Zerbib, Paris, Michel Belmont, 1986.

Ray, Man, and Jean-Hubert Martin. Self Portrait; Man Ray. Paris, Philippe Sers, 1983.

Schwarz, Arturo. Man Ray; The Rigor of Imagination. London, Thames and Hudson, 1977.

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