A surreal play on words

Gail Holloway Author
Man Ray's Violon D'Ingres
Gail Holloway at home with
Man Ray’s Violon D’Ingres (just a print!)

The original print of one of my favourite photographs has recently sold for a record amount. A thumping $US 12.4 million to be precise, around twice what was predicted. American photographer Man Ray’s image Le Violon d’Ingres was sold in May 2022 at a Christies, New York auction, with the unexpected price being attributed to a resurgent interest in Surrealism.

I love this photograph for a number of reasons (and it seems I’m not alone). It is, of course, a stunning and surreal image. The voluptuous female figure has been shot in a way to conjure a violin, with stringed instrument ‘f-holes’, making it both creative and evocative.

The photograph’s one other original print is held in the Getty Museum Collection, whose website suggests the picture maintains a tension between objectification and appreciation of the female form.

But what makes it even more fascinating is the story behind the title.

Wordplay, times three

The French have an expression ‘Violon d’Ingres’ (Ingre’s violin) which refers to a hobby. Artist Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres was a French 17thC neo-classical painter. When not painting, Ingres liked to play the violin, so the expression came to mean: a second skill beyond the one a person is known for.

Ingres violin
Valpinçon Bather by Ingres

One of Ingre’s best known works is La Grande Baigneuse (or Valpinçon Bather), housed in the Louvre since 1879. Man Ray admired Ingres’ style.

In 1921, Man Ray was based in Paris and met Alice Prin – otherwise known as Kiki de Montparnasse – a French model, chanteuse, actress and painter. It was the Jazz Age, Surrealism was in vogue and the two soon entered into an eight-year relationship. Kiki lived with Man, during which time he made hundreds of Surrealist portraits of her, including Le Violon d’Ingres. Kiki became his muse and, it seems, his hobby.

So, the play on words is three-fold: the photograph is a homage to the most famous painting of J-A-D Ingre, whose hobby was the violin; the image of Kiki evokes a violin; and  Kiki was Man’s ‘hobby’.  Surreal.