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“Torso” by Man Ray, gelatin silver print, 7 1/8 x 5 11/16" (18.1 x 14.4 cm), 1923. Gift of James Thrall Soby. © Man Ray Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris

The Museum of Modern Art: “Torso” by Man Ray, gelatin silver print, 7 1/8 x 5 11/16″ (18.1 x 14.4 cm), 1923. Gift of James Thrall Soby. © 2012 Man Ray Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris. Source of hi-res reproduction: PHOTO/arts Magazine.

This famous image by Man Ray is actually a photo reproduction of a movie still from the very end of his film Retour à la raison (1923). It shows the nude torso of Kiki de Montparnasse (Alice Prin), a famous artist model and painter who happened to be Man Ray’s mistress for most of the 1920’s. The photo was published in the very first issue of La Révolution surréaliste in 1924, on page 4 (see below).

Here’s how the Art Institute of Chicago presents Man Ray’s “Torso”:

In the 1923 silent short of the same title [Retour à la Raison], Man Ray filmed barely discernible scenes of Paris at night along with his own enigmatic photograms and conglomerations of spiraling or gyrating objects. The resulting sequence of near-total abstractions seems devoid of sense or purpose. The “return to reason” in the film comes finally in the form of a woman’s torso–modeled by cabaret personality Kiki de Montparnasse–turning to and fro beside a rain-covered windowpane. Man Ray reproduced the seductive finale, as well as other moments from the film, as photographs, singly and in strips.

In his article “Darkened Rooms: A Genealogy of Avant-Garde Filmstrips from Man Ray to the London Film-Makers’ Co-op and Back Again” Noam M. Elcott provides a much more detailed explanation of the specific origin and history of Man Ray’s “Torso”. He also explains why the same photo can be found under two different titles (the MoMA filed it as “Torso” while the Art Institute of Chicago has it archived under “Retour à la Raison”):

Although the film Retour à la raison quickly faded from memory, a photograph of the same name was an instant classic. As with a number of Man Ray’s cinematic images (and increasingly more often as the decade progressed), a still from Retour’s final sequences—Kiki’s nude torso undulating in raking light—was reproduced as a photograph in the pages of La révolution surréaliste (no. 1, 1924). From the inaugural issue of this first full-fledged surrealist mainstay, the image became an icon of the movement in the pages of Das Kunstblatt (1926), L’art vivant (1929), and as the introductory nude in the summation of Man Ray’s 1920s photographic work, Photographs by Man Ray, Paris, 1920–1934 (1934), produced by James Soby. The title Retour à la raison quickly came to denote this “photograph” of Kiki rather than the film from which it was culled—a tendency that has been reinforced through brilliant recent scholarship that, however, pays little attention to the film. (Grey Room, no. 30, Winter 2008, pp. 22-23, subscription may be required)

More resources online about “Torso” by Man Ray:

  • Below is a reproduction of page 4 from the inaugural issue of La Révolution Surréaliste (1924) where Man Ray’s photo was first published. The whole issue is available online as a PDF file (9.5MB). The complete text from this issue is also available online over at the Centre de recherches sur le surréalisme.

    La Révolution Surréaliste, issue no. 1, 1924, p. 4
    La Révolution Surréaliste, issue no. 1, 1924, p. 4
  • The book Man Ray: Photographs from the J. Paul Getty Museum has more details about the relationship between Man Ray and Kiki de Montparnasse:

    At about the same time he was establishing himself as a photographer in Paris, Man Ray met Kiki (Alice Prin), the most celebrated woman in Montparnasse, the city’s bohemian quarter. Kiki was a country girl who became a nightclub star in the 1920s by singing risqué songs with an innocent demeanor. Although she had worked as a model for many painters, she was reluctant to pose for the camera, considering the photographic image too clinical. Man Ray convinced her of his prowess as both an artist and a man, and she soon became a frequent subject of his workas well as his lover. (Getty Publications, 1998, p. 32)

  • The blog where I found the hi-res version of “Torso” has an interesting post about “coincidence, influence and originality in artistic creative practice”. Reviewing the book Double Take: A Comparative Look at Photographs by Richard Whelan (C.N. Potter, 1981) the author found a strikingly similar photo to Man Ray’s “Torso” taken by American photographer Edward Weston three years before, in 1920. See “Thoughts on Influence & Originality in Photography” by Christopher H. Paquette, July 2011.

  • Man Ray’s short film Retour à la Raison can easily be found on YouTube. It is embedded below (2’55”). One can also download a copy of it from the always resourceful UbuWeb.

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