Rauschenberg has been a key transliterator of the zeitgeist since the early 1960s, maybe even before. I love his ‘expanded prints’ of the 1970s, especially this life-size self portrait in x-rays. Like April Greiman’s full-size body scan of 1987, Rauschenberg’s image is made of several individual images collaged together, with annotations, sketches and notes appended to the image. I remember seeing his set of illustrations/interpretations of Dante’s Inferno at the Tate (or was it the Whitechapel?) in the mid-1960s, and being bowled over by the poetry of his simple use of solvent to make rubbings from commercially printed magazine images.
With an art school training and a background in advertising and drafting, Man Ray learned of the European avant garde in New York from 1911, making friends with Duchamp, and visiting the Alfred Steiglitz Gallery, making collages and holding one-man shows of his work. He followed Duchamp to Europe in 1921, and quickly became a leading member of the Surrealists, while working as a fashion photographer for Paul Poiret. He exhibited work in the first Surrealist Exhibition in 1925, and during the 1920s and 1930s photographed many of the leading Parisian artists. During this time he experimented with photograms (direct-exposure photoprints) he called Ray-o-Graphs. In 1926 he produced a series of photographs of Kiki de Montparnasse (star of Leger’s Ballet Mecanique, and Man Ray’s lover), several of which feature the African mask in poetic contrast.
Why does this inspire?
It is in his portraits of the great beauties of the time (including Nancy Cunard, Marie-Laure de Noailles, Kiki de Montparnasse, Helen Tamiris, Berenice Abbott,Lee Miller, Dora Maar and many others) that, more than his portraits of artists, writers and philosophers, capture not just the physiognomy but the zeitgeist (the expression of the essence of the moment) as well. In a period and in an art movement dominated by ideas of the Unconscious, and primitive Ritual, and Art as Magic, the African mask signifies the Primitive for the Surrealist avant garde, and the image of Kiki juxtaposed with the Mask synthesises these ideas – Salon beauty and Primitivism, equally stylised faces…