Méret Oppenheim in Man Ray’s “Eroticism Veiled,” 1933
Méret Oppenheim in Man Ray’s “Eroticism Veiled,” 1933. From the catalog of “The Naked Eye: Surrealist Photography in the First Half of the 20th Century,” curated by Aya Lurie, Shpilman Institute.
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There is no such thing as sexual rapport (“Il n’y a pas de rapport sexuel”). The well-known axiom, momentarily confusing and perpetually brilliant, coined by Jacques Lacan, pounds like blood in the arteries at the sight of this photograph by Man Ray. Lacan did not mean that physical relations between men and women do not exist. They do, of course. All the time. Physical contact takes place, the mechanics of something that occurs and that happens in the blood, in the saliva, in the perspiration. There is no rapport between the sexes, because enjoyment of the pleasure (in the blood, the saliva and the perspiration) encompasses the awakening of the drive, and the movement that repeats itself again and again and again that arises in its wake, and the satisfaction, which is the goal of the pleasure-enjoyment, particularly in the presence of another, with which there is never rapport. Because pleasure-enjoyment (jouissance) − not instinct − is something that everyone foments, each person within himself, and is very much dependent on each person’s basic attitude toward his object (“I am now doing such-and-such to this one here”). The object splits into components, each of which stirs desire; together, they do not cohere, and the question of how to find satisfaction consolidates in the very early stages of one’s contact with life. That is the difference between breast-feeding for nourishment and sucking for satisfaction and relaxation.

Looking at this well-known 1933 photograph by Man Ray, one understands what is meant by it. Méret Oppenheim, the woman who three years later lined a cup, saucer and spoon with fur (perhaps the best-known surrealist object in the history of art), stands here opposite Man Ray, mouth shut, blue eyes downcast, behind a wheel, shadowed, blank, legs together, closed and at the same time open to every interpretation and every projection, a chain-hoop-pipe around her neck, and utterly exposed. We can only imagine the fraudulence posturing as joint creation between the man who was then 43 years old and a well-known artist, and the 20-year-old Swiss woman who was influenced by Jung’s ideas, who modeled for Ray, whose disturbed state, severity and depression are already apparent in this photograph, and who did not recover from the immediate acceptance of “Breakfast in Fur” into the pantheon of modern art until the end of her very long life.

In any event, she stands behind the wheel of a printing press. The wheel’s thick handle is a prosthetic organ for her. Her body hair is thick and black, whereas the hair on her head is smooth and combed.

Possibly, a certain aspect of
masculinity is augmented in this photograph, and is also connected to the pronounced hairline, which descends from her navel. The hair and the ink stains are black, her pliant body is fair. Her stained hand is open and held to her forehead in a peculiar gesture, perhaps momentarily amusing, still unsettling today, when the world around is replete with attempts to create thrilling images for the advertising industry. But is she passive because she is modeling? Not necessarily, because to see (activity), to see yourself (reflexivity) and to be seen (passivity, but needing a relation to someone else, who is looking) requires drive, action and enjoyment-pleasure.

This is a photograph that operates like words in an unsophisticated love letter, which one sometimes gets in life: “There is no limit to what we can do together. More than together − we are connected emotionally. But if we go public, I lose everything in one day. I know that I cannot hold back when I see you. I cannot ignore you.” Is it not a woman’s wish that the person she wants to be with (when there is dialogue, of course, and agreement) will not be able to ignore her? Lacan added vision (the eye) and voice (also the ear) to the sources of the drive. “I cannot hold back when I see you.” In other words, this manages me, activates me. Controls me.

What is it that one cannot hold back from when viewing this photograph? We see the modes of satisfaction (and the wheel with no end). It is something to look at − a multiple image of something both passive and active − something to look at and a reflection of an ongoing desire to reach pleasure-enjoyment, which cannot be completely attained. This is an “object” of desire and yet a depiction of a subject − a woman − trying to attain pleasure. This photograph, which is timeless, works on women and on men and on every preference or proclivity, including a proclivity to intellectualize all artistic drives. Even when it’s disgusting, it works.

On April 18, an exhibition that is important for every civilized city and every civilized person opened at the Shpilman Institute for Photography in Tel Aviv. Curated by Dr. Aya Lurie, the exhibition, which contains significant photographs from the surrealist movement of the first half of the 20th century, will be open until November 2014 . Important and fascinating photographs from the Shpilman Institute’s collection are on view, along with items on loan from the Israel Museum − though not this photograph by Man Ray. It appears in an article by Prof. Ruth Ronen in the catalog, which is as elegant as it is rigorously edited. In her article, Prof. Ronen attempts to explain why the cleavage or the alienation or the new image created by the surrealists’ cuts and joinings (here the hand, the ink, the wheel and the woman) are actually consistent not with the threatened, the different and the shocking, for which surrealism strives, but with its seeming opposite, namely the love of meaning of which Lacan speaks when he talks about love (between a man and a woman). For, after all, there is no sexual rapport, but there is love.

There is good reason to read the catalog (which is in Hebrew and English), whose narrow dimensions make for convenient page-turning. One reason is that Ronen’s article [in the Hebrew version] contains a breathtaking photograph of the smooth, narrow-hipped torso of Lee Miller, a true photographer-artist and stunningly beautiful woman, who was Ray’s partner for a few years. Miller had an unendurable childhood, marked in part by a nude photograph her father took of her when she was 21. After a career as the muse of the surrealist Man Ray, Lee did documentary work and later got to Buchenwald (as a war correspondent) and also to Hitler’s apartment in Munich, where, in an act of absolute protest, she had herself photographed in his bathtub. Every image in the catalog leads to a story: personal, historical, intellectual.

There is, of course, good reason to visit the exhibition itself, whose ambience of restraint, even coolness − mediated and held back − portrays a roiling artistic experience. The visitor can wander through the institute, whose exhibition areas are darkened while the workrooms are lit in neon, and think about Lacan’s library allegory, which likens fetishism to the choice of one book as representing the entire library. One can also stop in front of the self-portrait by Herbert Bayer, done in 1932, in which he is looking at a slice of his shoulder which has been rent from him, showing dubious astonishment, evoking overacting in a horror movie. And one can conjure up an answer to the letter of “I cannot hold back when I see you.” The answer is: “You can. Stay where you are. You write me letters, but do you know this photograph? Would you photograph me like this?”