“Silhouette” by Man Ray: a Dadaist dialogue between Arts

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One of the main features of modernism is the ceaseless dialogue between different artistic languages, in an effort to provide new interpretative methods to analyse its complex contemporaneity. An interesting example of this is Silhouette by Man Ray (1916), as it seems to reread Nijinsky’s choreographic revolution under the lens of Dadaism, whose innovative key points were outlined in Tzara’s manifesto (1918). 

silhouette
Man Ray, Silhouette, India ink and charcoal on board, 1916, Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice

In Man Ray’s work, the Dadaist anti-bourgeois matrix is evident: the drawing annihilates ballet, one of the artistic codes reflecting the middle-class taste in the “age of capital”. The performance is destructured according to the principle of “distrust toward unity” described in Tzara’s manifesto. Ray splits the two main features of ballet, movement and melody, in two different areas of the board.  By representing the dancer from three different points of view simultaneously and through thick black lines, Man Ray operates the “surgical” observation of reality that Apollinare acknowledged as one of the main features of Cubism. Music, on the other hand, is relegated to the lower part of the work and is represented by a violin scroll and a chaotic, extremely thin pentagram.

The work is totally different from previous artistic attempts to portray dancers, such as Degas’ and Matisse’s. These French painters both represented the dynamism of ballet in a “carnival of colours” – in Tzara’s words – and captured it in single frames that described precarious poses. Conversely, Ray opts for a bi-chromatic and minimalist composition and a dancer stuck in a solid pose, like a wooden mannequin – she is not even a human being, but a “silhouette”. The plasticity of the dancer is thus reduced to a mere juxtaposition of geometrical forms: the painter is not interested in a beautiful or lifelike representation of reality. This artistic nihilism echoes Tzara, who declared the death of “beauty” and the uselessness of “pictorial and plastic work”. 

Man Ray’s work seems also influenced by Nijinsky’s radical innovation in dance. In the latter’s famous interpretation of L’après-midi d’un faune (1912), the dancers seem bidimensional, as they do not move on the entire stage, but only horizontally on the proscenium. Moreover, Nijinsky replaced the soft round lines of academical technique with harsh and segmented port de bras, similar to the silhouette’s arm position on the Ray’s Dadaist board.  

Laprès-midi-dun-faune
Nijinsky, Vaslav, L’après-midi d’un faune, 1912, in a photography by Gayne De Meyer, Adolf

In conclusion, starting from the quintessential bourgeois art form and analysing the innovations that were radically changing dance in those years, Man Ray accomplished the “work of destruction” proposed by Tzara in 1918. The principle of mimesis which ruled Western aesthetics for centuries was smashed. The very human figure is flattened to a bidimensional silhouette. In its absolute simplicity, this work fulfils the “unprejudiced leap from a harmony to the other sphere”, replacing “Art” – here embodied by the virtuosity of ballet – with the disenchanted and nihilist poetics of Dada. 

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