Man Ray

Pisces

1938

Artist
Man Ray 1890–1976
Original title
La Femme et son Poisson
Medium
Oil paint on canvas
Dimensions
Support: 600 x 730 mm
frame: 775 x 905 x 110 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Presented by William N. Copley 1960
Reference
T00324

Not on display

Summary

Pisces (or La Femme et son Poisson) is a painting of a female nude lying next to a mackerel that is approximately the same length as her body. Seen from above and positioned diagonally across the canvas, the pair are reminiscent of the zodiac sign for Pisces, which is represented by two fish. The setting for the figures resembles a coastline, with the pair lying amid blue and grey wave-like shapes and with a yellow patchy area in the top left suggesting the strand. The nude’s pale pink body appears slightly elongated while minimal details, such as her facial features, are delineated by thin, dark lines. She lies with her arms behind her head, and her face, with its classically inspired features, appears in profile seen from the left. The woman’s eyes are closed and her hair is spread out behind her. Her upper half is turned to the right while her hips and legs twist to the left in an uninhibited pose. The mackerel is lying on its side with its eye open and is depicted in a more naturalistic and detailed manner than the nude, with its markings picked out in shimmering blue-greys and its lower fins in pink. It is separated from the woman by a strip of flesh-coloured paint, while its white underside contrasts with an area of bright blue over which it is set. The bottom right of the scene is painted in dark, earthy tones.

The work was painted in oil on canvas in 1938 during Man Ray’s first lengthy sojourn in France. He appears to have used a variety of techniques to achieve the different effects in the painting: broad expanses of flat colour to form the nude and parts of the landscape, carefully drawn lines for the details on the fish and nude, and stippled or gestural strokes and scraping to form the sand and parts of the rocky and sea-like areas.

Although the literal translation of the painting’s French title is The Woman and Her Fish, the artist preferred to call it Pisces in English. A version of the image had previously appeared as one of more than sixty pen and ink drawings produced by Man Ray to illustrate poems by the surrealist Paul Éluard for the book Les Mains Libres (Free Hands), which was published in Paris in 1937. The book’s title referred to surrealist techniques of automatic or spontaneous writing and drawing, and the artist commented in 1972 that many of the images within the book had been ‘drawings of dreams’, noting that ‘In these images my hands are dreaming’ (quoted in Schwarz 1977, p.62). Although he remains best known for his photography, the artist said in 1973, ‘I paint what I cannot photograph. My dreams, for instance. And I photograph what I cannot paint’ (Man Ray in Mundy 2016, p.435). The dreamlike nature of the painting Pisces might also be inferred from the nude’s closed eyes – a suggestion that she is sleeping and perhaps even dreaming the scene herself.

Man Ray identified Pisces as one of a number of surrealist paintings he produced during the 1930s, which was a period of great activity for the artist. In describing the painting to Tate in 1960, the artist stated that ‘There is no hidden theme to the painting’ and referred to the juxtaposition of the woman and the fish as ‘a contrast of similar and different forms at the same time; in this case aerodynamic’ (quoted in Alley 1981, pp.477–8). The same scene was given a third incarnation by Man Ray in 1971, when the Fratelli Barberis foundry in Turin produced a series of eight bronze reliefs based on this and other drawings from Les Mains Libres (all held in private collections).

Further reading
Arturo Schwarz, Man Ray: The Rigour of Imagination, London 1977.
Ronald Alley, Catalogue of the Tate Gallery’s Collection of Modern Art other than Works by British Artists, London 1981, pp.477–8, reproduced p.477.
Jennifer Mundy (ed.), Man Ray: Writings on Art, Los Angeles 2016.

Lucinda Towler
December 2016

Supported by the Terra Foundation for American Art.

Display caption

Pisces was based on an image from Les Mains libres (Free Hands), a suite of drawings that Man Ray published with poems by Paul Eluard in 1937. ‘In these drawings my hands are dreaming’, he later remarked. The woman lies alongside a fish to create what the artist described as ‘a contrasting of similar and different forms at the same time’. Man Ray strengthened the identification of woman and fish by choosing Pisces, the zodiac sign of paired fishes, as the English title.

Gallery label, July 2008

Catalogue entry

Man Ray 1890-1976

T00324 La Femme et son Poisson (Pisces) 1938

Inscribed 'Man Ray | 1938' b.r.
Oil on canvas, 23 5/8 x 28 (60 x 73)
Presented by William N. Copley 1960
Prov: William N. Copley, Longpont-sur-Orge (purchased from the artist for presentation)
Exh: Man Ray, ICA, London, March-April 1959 (31); Man Ray, Galerie Rive Droite, Paris, October 1959 (9); Man Ray, Los Angeles County Museum, October-December 1966 (44, repr.); Surrealism, National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, September-November 1975 (39, repr.); National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto, November 1975-January 1976 (39, repr.)
Lit: Man Ray, Self Portrait (London 1963), pp.227, 331-2, 335; Roland Penrose, Man Ray (London 1975), pp.134-41, repr. pl.87
Repr: Simon Wilson, The Surrealists (London 1974), pl.2; Simon Wilson, Surrealist Painting (London 1975), pl.12 in colour

This picture is based on a pen and ink drawing of 1936 reproduced in Man Ray, Les Mains Libres; Dessins illustrés par les Poèmes de Paul Eluard (Paris 1937), p.72, opposite a short poem by Paul Eluard entitled 'La Femme et son Poisson'. The book resulted from Man Ray showing this drawing and a number of other recent drawings of a similar kind to Eluard, who asked him to leave them with him. When he returned some weeks later, Man Ray was delighted to find that Eluard had 'illustrated' each drawing with a poem.

In letters of 9 and 17 June 1960 the artist stated that 'The titles were all my own which Eluard retained when he wrote the poems which were inspired by both the titles and the drawings ... There is no hidden theme to the painting. It is a contrasting of similar and different forms at the same time; in this case aerodynamic.' If an alternative title was to be used at all, he would prefer 'Pisces' rather than the literal English equivalent 'Woman and her Fish'. He added further: 'It is one of a half dozen paintings of my surrealist period in the 30s, but each one with different motives. A duplicate of Pisces was painted during the war, in the U.S., but I found the original on my return to Paris. This is the one you have.'

Later, in 1971, he made a further version of this composition in low-relief, which is being cast in bronze in an edition of eight (repr. Janus, Man Ray, Milan 1973, pl.148).

Published in:
Ronald Alley, Catalogue of the Tate Gallery's Collection of Modern Art other than Works by British Artists, Tate Gallery and Sotheby Parke-Bernet, London 1981, pp.477-8, reproduced p.477


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