L’Enigme d’Isidore Ducasse consists of a sewing machine, wrapped in a blanket and tied with string. This enigmatic sculpture dramatically stages a concealed object, whose cloaking is suggestive of an unreal and potentially disturbing presence. Man Ray was inspired by a metaphor used by the French writer, Isidore Ducasse (1809–87), better known as the Comte de Lautréamont: ‘Beautiful as the accidental encounter, on a dissecting table, of a sewing machine and an umbrella.’ This phrase was greatly admired by the writers inParis with whom Man Ray was close friends and who formed the nucleus of theParis dada and later surrealist groups. They saw it as exemplifying a new kind of startling and non-rational imagery, as well as being replete with disguised sexual symbolism. (The umbrella was interpreted as a male element, the sewing machine as a female element, and the dissecting table as a bed.)
The original artwork, now lost, was exhibited in the Exposition surréaliste d’objets at the Galerie Charles Ratton, Paris, in 1936. This work encapsulates the surrealists’ vision of what lay beyond rational understanding and the norms of daily reality. The wider constellation demonstrates the powerful impact of the sculptural lexicon of dada and surrealism across the twentieth century, in particular its complex legacies of the readymade and the fetish object.