Man Ray - Evening & Day Editions London Thursday, June 6, 2024 | Phillips
  • “The object is intended to amuse, bewilder, annoy or inspire reflection”
    —Man Ray

    Readymades, such as Man Ray’s Proverb, were one of the most significant developments of twentieth-century art, revolutionising artistic approach and igniting the birth of Conceptual Art. This was initiated by Man Ray’s friend Marcel Duchamp, who declared in 1913 that any object could be transformed into an artwork if an artist selected, altered and displayed it, thereby elevating it and giving it new significance. Picasso and Braque anticipated this use of commonplace items in their Cubist collages; however, Duchamp pushed the concept much further, exemplified by his submission of Fountain, a porcelain urinal placed on its side and signed "R. Mutt," to the Society of Independent Artists in 1917. Man Ray, Duchamp, and other artists including Francis Picabia and Lee Miller, emigrated to Paris in the early 1920s. In 1921, on the eve of his debut Parisian exhibition, Man Ray spontaneously created his first readymade: he rushed to a hardware shop to buy an iron and nails, creating Cadeau, which has since become an iconic Surrealist object. By adding a single row of fourteen nails to this domestic item, Man Ray crafted a bizarre, unnameable object with unsettling connotations. This piece exemplified the Dada and Surrealist power to defy logic and conventional associations between words and objects.


    Portrait of Man Ray. Image: Robert Bruce Inverarity papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution 

    Man Ray’s Proverb is elegant in its simplicity, comprised of an obelisk-shaped structure on a tiered base, with a thin silver knitting needle embedded on one side. This juxtaposition of materials and forms is characteristic of Man Ray's work, blending classical influences with avant-garde elements to invent original, thought-provoking constructions. The geometric simplicity of the pyramidal structure evokes timelessness and endurance, while the knitting needle evokes a domestic act, thus injecting the unexpected and transforming the object. Proverb also echoes Man Ray’s earlier work Object to be Destroyed (1923), a metronome with a photograph of an eye attached to its swinging arm, in its triangular form and linear element. Man Ray noted that the needle in Proverb is "like a thermometer," however, in line with the Surrealist manifesto, the object bears minimal resemblance to one. This distortion of meaning and reclassification of objects exemplifies André Breton's call for "a total revolution of the object" in his 1936 text The Crisis of the Object. Breton continued, "Perturbation and distortion are sought for their own sake… The objects brought together in this way have one thing in common: they derive from the objects which surround us but succeed in achieving a separate identity simply through a change of role." Man Ray, Breton, and the Surrealists alike, undermined the rigidity of language and meaning by diverting the original purpose of objects and titles, seeking to confuse and create new meaning.

     “On a wooden model of an obelisk, a knitting needle is attached like a thermometer.”
    —Man Ray

    Man Ray and the Surrealists placed great emphasis on the titles of their readymades, using them to further distort and confuse meaning. These titles were frequently playful, incorporating jokes, homophones, or proverbial references, thereby enhancing the surreal and enigmatic nature of the works. As Rosalind Krauss has described, they used titles to spark "verbal puns", creating "a play of language that acts on the physical object to change it by rebaptizing it". This interplay between object and title was crucial for Man Ray, who believed the title was as significant as the object itself, serving as its indispensable, irrational fourth dimension. For Proverb, Man Ray never clarified the meaning of the title. It is most likely that this was intentionally ambiguous, an essential part of Man Ray’s process of blurring the lines between visual and verbal, literal and metaphorical. As viewers, we are prompted to question the objects, language and supposedly simple connotations of meaning that we encounter on a daily basis. In this way, Proverb and Man Ray’s other striking readymades are poignant reminders that all is not always what it seems.

    • Provenance

      Charles Sonnabend, London
      Sotheby's, London, Impressionist, Modern and Contemporary Paintings, Drawings and Watercolours, 17 May 1978, lot 108
      Acquired at the above sale by the present owner

    • Literature

      Jean-Hubert Martin, ed., Man Ray, Objets de Mon Affection, Paris, 1983, no. 86, p. 82 (another example illustrated)
      Andrea Inselmann, A Private Eye: Dada, Surrealism and More from the Brandt Collection, Cornell University, N.Y., 2006, p. 103 (another example illustrated)
      Noriko Fuku, John P. Jacob, Man Ray: Unconcerned But Not Indifferent, SilvanaEditoriale, Milano, 2009, p. 244 (another example illustrated)

    • Catalogue Essay

      Andrew Strauss and Timothy Baum of the Man Ray Expertise Committee have confirmed the authenticity of this work, and that the edition of this work will be included in the Catalogue of Objects & Sculpture of Man Ray, currently in preparation.

Property from a Private European Collection



Bronze multiple with silver rod, mounted on wooden base.
32.5 x 15.3 x 15 cm (12 3/4 x 6 x 5 7/8 in.)
With incised signature and numbering 6/9 on the reverse (there were also 3 artist's proofs), bearing two silver hallmarks, published by Richard Binder, Brussels, after the original object of 1944.

Andrew Strauss and Timothy Baum of the Man Ray Expertise Committee have confirmed the authenticity of this work, and that the edition of this work will be included in the Catalogue of Objects & Sculpture of Man Ray, currently in preparation.

Full Cataloguing

£10,000 - 15,000 Ω

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Evening & Day Editions

London Auction 6 - 7 June 2024