The fair weather has arrived.
Temperatures 25 and 35 degrees below the heat of summer.
This painting, Fair Weather of Man Ray, which the artist said was the culmination of his Surrealist work, is said by the Philadelphia Museum of Art to contain, as a possibility, a self-portrait in the central figure. The fragility and poise and the gender-ambiguity of the figure dressed in harlequin is lovely.
It makes me glad to be alive at a time and in a civilization in which the understanding that our gender itself is fluid is spreading beyond the community of artists and creatives. Because some people will not achieve their full human potential without widespread acceptance of this reality.
The single candle at Harlequin’s apex protected by glass is also lovely for its fragility. All the more so for this being 1940 and the artist having been born a Jew.
You think of the splinters of the smashed Large Glass of Marcel Duchamp which I am sure this artist, a friend for all their creative lives, knew well. Man Ray was a guest at Marcel Duchamp’s last supper in Paris.
I don’t know why the tridents which may be Neptune’s for the ocean Man Ray was about to re-cross in 1940 to leave France for his native shores.
The tridents may also evoke the trident (trishul) of Shiva because the Surrealists were master appropriators of any cultural symbol they found useful or beautiful. Shiva: he who creates, transforms and protects the universe. Something which the Surrealists tried also to do in pale, human imitation.
But why go to India? There is also this: a very North American portrait from imagined foundational history painted by an artist from heartland Iowa.
The great fame and notoriety of this painting may have been known to Man Ray as early as 1940. Man Ray may be evoking simply his return to his native country.
American Gothic, 1930, oil on beaverboard. Grant Wood, 1891-1941, American. Art Institute of Chicago
Fair Weather also contains elements depicting the destructive war which began in 1939 in Europe.
In fact Harlequin seems to be taking his leave.
The egg he has cracked is bleeding blood. His right arm seems to be pointing to the far beyond. The would-be weather vane behind his head has arms of unequal length: the longer are also pointing to the far beyond.
He seems to be leaving elements of his life. Perhaps, his amatory life.
Yellow is the first color the eye sees and it is primarily associated here with lovers and with Harlequin’s upper torso and head. And the door partitioning his life. The door is painted with a man with a harlequin hat, in apparent anguish, separated from a woman leaning upwards towards him. And there is a second and loving couple in the half in which Harlequin is not standing.
Above them, however, there are large, gorgeously coloured and amorous snarlers. The well known difficulties of love?
He is leaving behind the second figure also whose weather vane is perfectly balanced.
I like to think of this figure as the France which welcomed the artist in 1921 and again in 1951. The artist died and is buried in France.
Man Ray owed to France his artistic evolution.
North American life is often surreal – witness the ascension of the grotesque, politically incompetent Donald Trump to the presidency of the country – but the notion of the surreal seems alien to the North American way of thinking: an insouciant European heresy. Much more here the Puritanical rigours of the Anglo-American tradition of empirical rationalism. Or, at least, its pretense.
A friend has pointed out to me that ‘fair’ in English has several meanings. One which may have had an influence on this painting is the carnival meaning of fair: a place for organized play with merry-go-round horses, target games, whirling wheels which take you up and whoosh you earthwards, animals in dark places to frighten you. And people dressed up as harlequins and clowns.
This double meaning has no parallel, however, in the French word ‘beau’ that I know of. Not that this would have stopped a Surrealist from including in this painting large elements of a fair which is a carnival playground. Perhaps he thought of his Surrealist life as a carnival.
Self-portrait, 1936, gelatin silver print. Man Ray, 1890-1976, American. Photo in Masterworks of French Photography, 1890-1950, at the Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia, Autumn 2016
The artist, returning from France to the United States in 1940, left this painting in France. He later reclaimed and kept this painting his whole life and somehow that does not surprise because this painting, somewhat enigmatic from our point of view, was probably heavily freighted with meaning for the artist.
I think , though, of how fortunate are the North Americans who have seen so little war and destruction on their own land and in their own skies in modern times. How fortunate their artists and artisans especially.
Fair Weather indeed.
Fair Weather, oil on canvas, 1940. Man Ray, 1890 – 1976, American worked in France. Philadelphia Museum of Art. On display 2016.