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United States of America 1890 – France 1976

The enigma of Isidore Ducasse 1920 reconstructed 1971 Creation Notes: reconstructed 1971 by Gallery Schwarz, Milan
Materials & Technique: sculptures, object wrapped in felt and string Edition: no.8 of an edition of 10
Publisher: Gallery Schwarz
Place Published: Milan
Date Published: 1971

Primary Insc: signed and dated, incised on brass plate adhered to felt, "Man Ray 8/10 / The enigma of Isidore Ducasse 1920-1971"
Dimensions: 40.5 h x 57.5 w x 21.5 d cm
Cat Raisonné: Penrose ill.45, Schwartz ill.283, Sers cat.27
Acknowledgement: Purchased 1973
Accession No: NGA 73.15
Image rights: © Man Ray/ARS. Licensed by Viscopy
  • Galleria Schwarz, Milan;
  • from whom bought by the Commonwealth Art Advisory Board, January 1972

Like most of his objects made up to the late 1940s, May Ray’s sewing machine wrapped in an army blanket and tied with string was originally assembled to provide an unusual subject for a photograph. The inspiration and title derive from a famous line by Lautréamont in Les Chants de Maldoror 1869, evoking ‘the chance meeting on a dissecting-table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella’. The photograph of The enigma of Isidore Ducasse was reproduced in December 1924, in the first issue of the Surrealist periodical La Revolution Surréaliste, and Man Ray later reissued the object in an edition.

May Ray’s photograph in La Revolution Surréaliste was unattributed, uncaptioned and unexplained.[1] Thus, as JH Matthews points out, it acted as a password to the Surrealist initiate, a reference to the enormous impact of the poetry of Isidore Ducasse (1846–1870).[2]Although obviously related, Man Ray’s objects are more fantastic and mysterious than Marcel Duchamp's assisted readymades. Tied with string, this hidden but suggestive shape has a fetishistic, sinister presence. Were the sewing machine (we are told) to be unwrapped, the felt would retain the imprint of the shape within. The enigma of Isidore Ducasse had a profound effect on other Surrealists: Salvador Dali’s essay, ‘The object as revealed in Surrealist experiment’,[3] Man Ray’s bound plaster cast, Vénus restaurée 1936, Hans Bellmer’s bundled dolls, and Duchamp’s Mile of string at First papers of Surrealism in 1942.

Although intentionally discarded after being photographed, The enigma of Isidore Ducasse has had a long life since its first creation in New York in 1920. The versions remade by Man Ray in the 1960s and 1970s―the Canberra example is no 8 from the 1971 edition issued by Galleria Schwarz, Milan, under the artist’s supervision―actually vary a great deal in form. The fabric ‘strait-jacket’ also ranges from felt to a type of hessian or burlap. Much later in life, Man Ray painted La rue Férou 1952, a work which shows a figure pulling a bound object in a handcart along an empty street.[4] Perhaps this painting stands testament to the endurance of Man Ray’s bizarre and intriguing object.

Lucina Ward
International Painting and Sculpture
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

[1] Elsewhere, the preface signed by J-A. Boiffard, Paul Ellard and Roger Vitrac, in La Revolution Surréaliste, December 1924, p 2, reads: ‘Any discovery changing the nature, or the destination of an object or phenomenon constitutes a Surrealist achievement. Already the automats are multiplying and dreaming … realism prunes trees, Surrealism prunes life. Quoted in Arturo Schwarz, Man Ray: the rigour of imagination,Thames & Hudson, London, 1977, p 161

[2] JH Matthews, ‘Modes of documentation: photography in La Révolution surréaliste’, in Modern Language Studies, vol 15, no 3, Photography and Literature (Summer, 1985), pp 38–48, at p 39. The poetry of Isidore Ducasse (1846–1870), writing under the penname, Comte de Lautréamont, was much admired by André Breton and the other Surrealists for its strategy of dislocation. In Les chants de Maldoror 1869–70, Ducasse describes a young boy as being as ‘beautiful as the chance meeting on a dissecting table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella’

[3] Published in The Quarter, vol 5 no 1, September 1932; reprinted in Lucy Lippard (ed) Surrealists on art, Prentice-Hall Inc., Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1970, pp 87–96

[4] Oil on canvas, 77.5 x 59.7 cm, Kunsthalle, Bielefeld, on permanent loan from Staff Stiftung, Lemgo.

Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: National Gallery of Australia exhibition SoftSculpture (reference )

Man Ray's Dada objects, made in New York before he left for Paris in 1921, are more fantastic than Marcel Duchamp's (1887-1968) assisted ready-mades, although obviously related. Man Ray first me Duchamp in 1915, but they only began to work closely together after the First World War.

The enigma of Isidore Ducasse was assembled in New York in1920. Man Ray wrapped a sewing machine in an army blanket and tied it up with string. Like most of the objects which he made up to the late 1940s it was assembled primarily to provide an unusual subject for a photograph and then discarded.1

The inspiration and the title of this object derive from a famous line in the book Les Chants de Maldoror (1869) by Comte de Lautréamont, the pseudonym adopted by the French poet Isidore Ducasse (1846-70): 'He is fair … as the chance meeting on a dissecting-table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella!'.2 The strange juxtaposition of images in Lautréamont's writings, and especially this image of the sewing-machine, was to become almost a maxim for the Surrealists, who welcomed Man Ray when he arrived in Paris in 1921. His photograph of The Enigma of Isidore Ducasse was reproduced in the preface to the first issue of La Revolution Surréaliste (December 1924), the Surrealists' first major periodical.

In 1971 Galleria Schwarz, Milan, reconstructed The enigma of Isidore Ducasse in an edition of ten under Man Ray's supervision.3 The example in the Australian National Gallery's collection is no. 8 from this edition.

Michael Lloyd & Michael Desmond European and American Paintings and Sculptures 1870-1970 in the Australian National Gallery 1992 p.140.

  1. See Arturo Schwarz, Man Ray: The Rigour of Imagination, London: Thames and Hudson, 1977, p.233.
  2. Comte de Lautréamont, Lautréamont's Maldoror, trans. by Alexis Lykiard, New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1972, p.177.
  3. In the 1960s and 1970s Man Ray re-issued many vintage works in editions, undisturbed by notions of uniqueness: 'Fortunately, upon demand, it was simple enough to reconstruct these objects despite the disapproval of those who valued only originals. Is a book or a bronze an original? I leave such considerations to well intentioned collectors and amateurs of the rare … I have never painted a recent picture', Man Ray, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1966 (exhibition catalogue), pp.28-31, p.28.

Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra