Thomas Primeau, Director of Conservation and Paper Conservator
In an era where technology allows for the precise reproduction of images and even 3 dimensional objects, why are we still fascinated by the idea of original works of art? In a previous blog post on Albrecht Dürer’s “Ecce Homo,” I noted that woodcut printing, a process for making multiples of the same image, has existed in the West since the early 15th-century. Other posts on the 16th-century engraver Diana Mantuana and the 19th-century lithographer Honoré Daumier, described how subsequent advances in printing technology, revolutionized the visual environment as duplicated images became increasingly sophisticated and omnipresent. When, in the 19th century, optical and chemical experiments led to practical methods of photography, artists found a new way of recording the world and improved methods for creating, reproducing, and circulating pictures. Of course, the question of whether creating a photograph, an image made using a machine, required artistic talent has haunted the medium since its inception and throughout history photographers have continually defended their work as art.
The Philadelphia-born artist Man Ray (Emmanuel Radnitzky) was perhaps responding to this challenge when he took a photograph of the model Kiki de Montparnasse (Alice Prin), posed nude and seen from the back as a classic odalisque, and manipulated it in the darkroom to make it appear as if she had f- holes cut into her torso. The photograph is compelling in itself as it plays on the similarity between the woman’s silhouette and a musical instrument, but once one understands that it is titled Le Violon d’Ingres, it becomes a humorous and pointed critique on the history of art and traditional representations of women in painting. The photograph is both a homage to and parody on the French neo-classical artist J. A. D. Ingres (1780-1867) who painted romanticized Oriental scenes populated with voluptuous nudes. (The Walters Art Museum has several paintings by Ingres including Odalisque with Slave (1842) which is exactly the type of picture that Man Ray references with his photograph.) Knowing that Ingres was also an amateur violinist and that the expression “Ingres’ violin” was used colloquially to refer to one’s “hobby,” heightens the comedy and focuses attention on the unsettling sexuality of the photograph. More than just a punch-line though, the image questions long-established concepts of what constitutes a work of art and how we see the world in an age of rapidly evolving technologies and philosophies. Man Ray made several prints of the photograph, and it became more well know when it was published in the journal Littérature (June, 1924). Today the work has been so frequently reproduced that it is instantly recognized as an icon of Dada and Surrealist art from the early 20th century.
Verifying the authenticity of a photograph such as this can be complicated: the artist continued to make prints of Le Violon d’Ingres into the 1960s and, due to the high prices that Man Ray photographs command in the art market, forgers have attempted to pass off fakes to unsuspecting collectors. In 1998, the discovery of a large group of forged Man Ray prints attracted worldwide press coverage and prompted conservators to develop new methods for authenticating vintage photographs. The provenance or record of ownership for the BMA photograph indicates that it is one of the originals prints from 1924. However, in order to verify this, the museum collaborated with Paul Messier, a photographic materials conservator, and Walter Rantanen, a forensic specialist, to study the print. They examined the paper composition of the photograph and determined that it was made of all cotton and flax fibers. Significantly, this combination of paper fibers was typical of photographic papers made around 1924. By the late 1920s, manufacturers began incorporating wood pulp into the papers and by the 1930s photographic papers were made exclusively with wood pulps.
When a photograph such as this one is so well known, and can be very easily replicated, is there still much value to seeing an original print? I would argue that when we view an original object, in the medium that it was conceived of by the artist, we gain insights into the processes that inspired the artist. The work of art holds onto its past: it shows signs of how it was made and bears subtle marks of wear from age and handling. In the presence of the original, even a relatively recent photographic print, the viewer is able to make a direct and personal connection with the time of the artworks creation.
BMA Voices is an insider’s exploration of The Baltimore Museum of Art collection through the eyes of its curators, conservators, and registrars. Featuring a new object every day during the BMA’s 100 Day Celebration, the project will highlight some favorite, amusing, unusual, and obscure objects.
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