Man Ray – L’etoile de Mer (1928)

Man Ray, in the documentary [1] by Jean-Paul Fargier (1998) says he hates all work, even good work. He explains that he is really all about ideas. Man Ray always referred to himself as a painter first and foremost, despite probably being known best for his photography, and the fact that his long-standing friend Duchamp repeatedly advised him to abandon painting altogether.

His films are typically surrealist in that they do not follow traditional story patterns, as described by James Magrini in his essay, L’etoile de Mer: A Philosophical Reading:

“The Surreal cinematic experience was unique in cultivating the spectator’s involvement, yet allowing the “consciousness of fiction” to remain operative; this is a belief in the authenticity of the images and the simultaneous realisation of their status as illusionary. This produces within the viewer a phenomenon of what may be termed the condition of “dreamlike wakefulness.” Within this semi-hypnotic psychic state the associative processes of the mind function without the traditional structures of symbolisation.”[2]

For me, Man Ray’s work L’etoile de Mer is more successfully dreamlike and perhaps seem less contrived than Dali’s in Le Chien Andelou, which albeit lighter and humorous in parts, seems rather more clunky. I like the comedy in the latter but the somewhat more robust strangeness in Man Ray’s work is bolder and richer for me.

The film is a short exploration into subjective sensations relating to sex, war and death. The starfish is symbolic of a hybrid of non-specific sexuality and the narrative appears to be about a dichotomy between the human animal’s urge to procreate or destroy each other, or rather to procreate in order to destroy.

The filtered scenes (which look to be shot with lenses covered in a great deal of Vaseline) are in Magrini’s reading representative of “phenomenal reality from which the artists sought to disassociate themselves”.[3] But I have to say the unfiltered scenes are no less easy to pin down into anything resembling “traditional or commercial cinema, which was modelled on the great Aristotelian “triangle” of the Western literary arts”[4].

These films are about pre-conscious sensation and recognition. L’etoile de Mer expresses something almost pre-language, as I suppose all imagery does to a point but unlike so much earlier western visual art, it abandons literary constructs and narratives.

One thing I must say is that even though great effort was made to overcome “logical constructs of oral or written communication”[5], male and female roles seem exactly as they might have been within that era. Kiki of Montparnasse couldn’t be more of a symbol of objectified women, i.e. a sex thing.

I can see Man Ray’s influence everywhere and in particular in Mapplethorpe’s erotic flower photographs.

Hannah Hoch  – Various

Hannah Hoch’s collage work is a direct response to the technological advances in print that allowed for mass production of images and a proliferation of the visual. The Whitechapel’s accompanying book introduces the Dadaists as a group who “set out to embrace the noise of the city, the turmoil of the vast political change of their time, and the huge increase in imagery which photography in the age of mass production was prompting.”[6] According to Daniel F Herman, who wrote the introduction, the Dadaists “would take up ‘scissors and cut out all that we require from paintings and photographic representations’”[7] – a direct challenge to the old way of doing things.

I very much like Hoch’s statement, “that the purpose of art is not to ‘decorate’ or to replicate reality through ‘naturalistic little flowers, a still life or a nude, but to act as a document of the ‘spirit’ and the changing value of a generation.”[8]

I am, of course, particularly interested in the process of alienation that Hoch works with. She challenges notions of female sexuality, sometimes, as Herman suggests, using humour[9] in collages where ludicrous female representation, common in magazines still today, is satirised as in Auf dem Weg zum siebenden Himmel (On the Way to Seventh Heaven) 1934 or Marlene 1930. Or she chooses to leave the alienation unresolved, and that in Herman’s words is more unsettling. Her Ethnographic Museum series is a case in point.   For example, Mutter (Aus einem ethnographischen Museum) (Mother from an Enthographic Museum) 1925-26 is a difficult and upsetting picture that communicates a variety of unsettling feelings about the role of Mother; depression, ennui, hidden sense of self. Physical difference, which when considering the social preoccupation with perfection immortalised later by the Nazi’s in their Eugenics programme, is daring and subversive. I am interested in the Ethnographic Museum series as it explores some of the questions I have been asking myself about the relationship between the rich West (with histories that include Empire, slave trade, land acquisition etc.) and peoples from other parts of the world. Hoch explores and pokes fun at our fears and suppositions; she evokes our horrors and ridicules them, as in Ohne Titel, aus der Serie: aus einem ethonograpishen Musem (untitled from the series: From an Ethnographic Museum) 1929

The misogyny that existed so casually in the early part of last century did not escape Dadaism and Hoch’s work was pushed aside in our collective history in favour of louder male egos. But as Mark Hudson in The Telegraph tells us, “A pioneer of photomontage, whose images of women presaged the ideas of Simone de Beauvoir and Second Wave Feminism half a century later, Hoch was a pivotal figure in Dada,”[10].

Martha Rosler – Semiotics of the Kitchen 1975

Video is an excellent medium for women artists because, especially in the 70s, it was relatively new, and is according to Vanalyne Green in her essay, Vertical hold: A History of Women’s Video Art[11], “as close to a ‘master-free’ zone as one could get”.

 Semiotics of the Kitchen is a six-minute video shot in black and white, with relatively low-production standards (deliberate I would say); a pastiche referring to contemporary cooking shows, in particular Julia Childs’ which was well known in the States at the time. Rosler stands behind a recognisable kitchen set blurting out words in alphabetical order as she picks up the objects she mentions. The objects are all kitchen utensils but here they become weapons, perhaps instruments of torture, as her body-movements jerk about and her passive face hardly changes at all, until the very end when she shrugs. The work investigates signs and signifiers common to female representation and suggests that all is not as rosy in the kitchen as the usual programme the video is based on might suggest. As Rosler says, “Feminism is a world view, or a great factor in such a perspective. It is a viewpoint that demands a rethinking of questions of power in society and thus has undeniable potency. Semiotics of the Kitchen, a sort of bizarrely humorous six-minute black-and-white video from December 1974 (dated 1975), was one part of a large body of work in several media that I had been doing taking on questions of women, society, and art through the medium of food and the culture of food preparation and consumption. The video is ‘a lexicon of rage and frustration’ produced through a noisy and slightly unruly alphabetic demonstration of some hand tools in the traditional kitchen”[12].

Again I am struck by Brechtien alienation here – by making us see those utensils as dangerous, painful and torturous, we are asked to question the relationship between men and women in our society, the way in which women are positioned and the at-best infuriating, at-worst destructive and damaging effects.   And subsequently, if true to Brecht’s intentions, prompted to do something about it.

In the years between Man Ray’s use of film to express his ideas and Rosler’s use of video much had changed for women in art. Kiki of Montparnasse played a passive role in his film, representing a male fantasy and with little agency over how she was represented. At a similar time Hoch was subverting those conceptions and looking at how broken and fragmented those roles could be. She questioned representation of both sexes as well as positions engendered by class, difference, history and place. She did the groundwork for later artists such as Martha Rosler who unlike Kiki were able to vocalise and challenge similar subjects, as society shifted and the role of women in it began to change substantially. All three artists made use of technology that was not available to earlier artists, taking advantage of opportunities they provided and doing away with some aspects of the old.

[1] A Film by Jean-Paul Fargier 1998

Coproduction by Le Centre Georges Pompidou – Paris Premiere – Les Films du Tambour de Soiewith the participation of La Cinquieme et France 3

[2] Man Ray’s L’etoile De Mer: A Philosophical Reading published on

[3] As above

[4] As above

[5] As above

[6] Page 9, Hannah Hoch, Published by Prestel for the Whitechapel Gallery 2014

[7] As above

[8] Page 11, as above

[9] Page 12, as above

[10] Mark Hudson, The Telegraph, 14th January 2014, 

[11] Vertical Hold : A History of women’s video art by Vanalyne Green, University of Leeds

[12] Interview of Martha Rosler in Art Pulse Magazine, by Paco Barragan, interview date not given

Image (c)SJField 2015

Background notes and further links to research 


Demonstration of subject knowledge: I think I have demonstrated a reasonably good grasp of the subject although I struggled to stay within the 1000 words and went over a little.  I would like to have said a great deal more but know I must learn to edit more effectively

Demonstration of research skills: I know I do a lot of research and really enjoy it.  I’d like to have the time to do far more though and research deeper.  I still feel it’s all pretty superficial really.  Saying that when I read my notes from TAOP I do see how much I have learned and appreciate that I have a growing repertoire of knowledge building up.

Demonstration of critical evaluation skills: I can hazard guesses based on other experience and knowledge.  I am looking forward to expanding my interpretive skills so that I can write more effectively and fluently.  I respond to things intuitively and transferring that into a succinct essay is challenging.  Sometimes my responses to people’s work is extremely visceral and breaking that down into language is challenging.

Communication:  I’m good at this although it is hard work and requires a lot of time and thought on my part.  I enjoy it but get frustrated when the thoughts aren’t able to flow out of my head onto the screen easily.  I think when that does happen though, my communication skills are at their best.



4 thoughts on “Assignment 1: The interaction of media

  1. Presumably “Marlene 1930” is referring to Marlene Dietrich, her famous legs and her role as a film star after she moved to the US.
    I think the Martha Rosler video is brilliant. I know this was in the US but it also reminded me of Fanny Craddock who did a cookery series in the UK, accompanied by her husband who bumbled about and appeared very subservient to her. There was always a hint of hidden aggression about her.
    Re “Seventh Heaven” – does this helpöch-on-the-way-to-seventh-heaven-1934


    1. Thanks so much for the link, Catherine. That’s great! Yes, to Marlene being Dietrich. I know of Fanny Craddock – although not of my generation plus I grew up in SA where TV was very late arriving. I shall add the link now. Thanks so much 🙂


  2. There has been talk elsewhere of differentiating the man from his art and in the cases of politics Wagner and Bowie, there are many others and in Bowie’s case I think the claim is weakened by his state of mind at the time. However Man Ray’s misogyny is something that I struggle with. The early days of surrealism – no women involved except to make the tea, Kiki’s abuse and Lee Miller’s contributions to his work still largely overlooked.
    I went to that Hannah Hoch show, not the study visit, and was blown away by the work, especially the early years, brilliant!


    1. The thing with Wagner is very difficult indeed – not an opera buff, but that famous piece of music from Tristan & Isolde is exquisitely beautiful and difficult to reject as something to listen to. With Man Ray I think perhaps one has to look at historical context. Women were universally dismissed and the history of art is testament to centuries of objectification. It’s such an ingrained aspect of Western society at that time and the process of collectively coming to consciousness, I think, was only just in its infancy. Even now I struggle to remember to teach my boys that I am not a domestic servant here for nothing more than picking up after them. Your acute awareness and sensitivity to how women are viewed is impressive but sadly rare even now. Things are changing though – here at any rate. Younger women, not my generation, but those below 35, are far less inlined to put up with it and younger men are confused as fuck by the strength, ability and capability they see. I had to edit myself in the assignment but I am pretty sure that L’etoile de Mer is filled with symbols pertaining to unconscious but abject terror in the man who made it (representative of men at the time) of female sexuality. Fear of literally being swallowed up whole by their desire. People can’t help who they are in the main. Poses all sorts of ethical questions that have no easy answers. But that’s a whole other story. Thanks for commenting.


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