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  • A Cinematic Artist: The Films of Man Ray
  • Christopher Townsend
A Cinematic Artist: The Films of Man Ray. By Kim Knowles. (Cultural Interactions: Studies in the Relationship between the Arts, 16). Bern: Peter Lang, 2009. vii + 312 pp., pls. Pb €47.80; £43.00; $71.95.

Of the modernist artists experimenting with film in the 1920s, Man Ray is perhaps the one with least to say about his practice. Yet it is he who makes the most films and sustains, beside them, an extensive photographic œuvre. Knowles does much to rescue these films from undeserved neglect: too often they are marginalized or simply dismissed as Dadaist nihilism by authors who know little of the subtleties of Dada. Apart from Bouhours and de Haas’s 1997 catalogue, this is the first monograph, and Knowles is the first to contextualize the films within Ray’s wider œuvre — stressing relationships between photograms, objects, and filmmaking in Retour à la raison, for example — and to locate the artist within competing avant-garde tendencies. In making this otherwise excellent reading, however, and disposing in part of Ray’s claims [End Page 548] for the immediacy of its production, Knowles sometimes overlooks the degree to which the film fits into the artist’s wider interests. She remarks on ‘an arrangement of black lines resembling the layout of a poem moving frantically from side to side’ (p. 34): this ‘poem’ actually anticipates a similar text published in 391 in June 1924 (see the recent discussion by Kenneth Allan in terms of cryptography and collaboration between Picabia, Satie, and Man Ray in ‘Metamorphosis in 391’, Art History, 34 (2011), 102–25). Far from being a ‘typically Dadaist’ (sic) negation, the black lines are a cryptographic alternative to text — Morse Code — that can be understood as belonging to the early Dada tradition of experimental poetry, and especially the Russian genre of ‘zaum poetry’, which Ray had first encountered at the Café Caméléon in October 1921. One of the readers that night, Ilya Zdanevich, also performed at the ‘Soirée du Cœur à barbe’ (1923), the occasion of Retour à la raison’s first screening. Such failure to dig deep into the historical and thematic relations of Ray’s work is the more surprising and frustrating given Knowles’s attention elsewhere to the artist’s literary collaborations. An excellent chapter on L’Étoile de mer, for example, illuminates Ray’s working relationship with Robert Desnos, and offers scope for future reflections on the correspondence between word and image in Surrealist practice. Along with frustrating lacunae — a failure to cite Harriet Watts’s seminal work on chance in Dada when dealing with the ludic elements of Ray’s practice, for instance — what is irritating about this otherwise compelling volume is Knowles’s unwillingness, or failure, to give a name to Man Ray’s, and his peers’, provocation to ‘cinema’. The insertion of film into performance, in the ‘Cœur à barbe’, seems like a corrosion of media boundaries that we might call ‘intermedial’; so too does the play between poetry and image in L’Étoile de mer and Les Mystères du château du dé seem more than simple intertextuality. Ray’s films are ‘intermedial’ in terms both of context and thematization of their material — indeed Knowles argues this distinctiveness — and the refusal of medium specificity demands a more analytical address as its conclusion than the book contains.

Christopher Townsend
Royal Holloway, University of London


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pp. 548-549
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