Meaning in Man Ray’s Hamlet

The Man Ray–Human Equations: A Journey from Mathematics to Shakespeare exhibition at the Phillips features mathematical models that the artist took photographs of, and which later served as inspiration for a series of paintings. Once this group of paintings began to expand, Man Ray titled them after Shakespearean plays, including the work below, Hamlet.

Man Ray, Shakespearean Equation, Hamlet, 1949. Oil on canvas, 16 x 20 1/8 in. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Bequest of Lockwood Thompson 1992.301. © Man Ray Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY / ADAGP, Paris 2015

Man Ray, Shakespearean Equation, Hamlet, 1949. Oil on canvas, 16 x 20 1/8 in. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Bequest of Lockwood Thompson 1992.301. © Man Ray Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY / ADAGP, Paris 2015

The mathematical model that inspired this painting is called a Meissner tetrahedron. What’s special about this shape is that it’s movable in every direction without leaving its “nest,” or the two parallel supports that keep it in place. Its curves inspired Man Ray to re-create the shape in a way that explores its connection to the appearance of the human form. The photograph he produced in 1934-35 was altered in such a way that it resembles a female breast.

So how does this connect to the play Hamlet? Shakespeare’s lead character in the production, the fictional Prince of Denmark, has a very strange relationship with the two main female characters—his mother Gertrude and his “girlfriend,” Ophelia. Could this breast be one of Ophelia’s, or is it a reference to the slight Oedipal complex Hamlet has for his mother? It’s up to the viewer to decide!

Sara Swift, Graduate Intern for Programs and Lectures

See D.C. Danish-Style

Above: Copenhagen’s Nyhavn, thriving cyclist community, and fresh food markets. Below: D.C.’s got it all! Especially in the Phillips’s Dupont Circle neighborhood where FRESHFARM Market, green space, and cycling are big.

Ever since you heard about cycling superhighways, food foragers, and the new Nordic cuisine, you’ve been scheming a move to Copenhagen, but don’t give up on D.C. just yet. In honor of Per Kirkeby: Paintings and Sculpture, we invite you to embrace the Danish lifestyle right here in D.C. Check out this map complete with bike routes, and download the itinerary to carry along.

  • Start with a pilgrimage to Per Kirkeby: Paintings and Sculpture, and discover the acclaimed artist’s sensuous paintings and striking bronzes. Tweet a photo of your bike in front of @PhillipsMuseum for $2-off admission, or show your Washington Area Bicyclist Association (WABA) membership card for 2-for-1 tickets. Enter to win a trip to Copenhagen in the lobby (courtesy of VisitDenmark, Scandinavian Airlines (SAS), and the Arp-Hansen Hotel Group), and step into the museum shop to admire Danish designer Arne Jacobsen’s iconic tea service and a beautiful handcrafted bamboo bicycle by ThreePenny Bikes, WABA’s 2012 “BikeBuilder of the Year.” Pick up a Washington, D.C., bicycle map in the admissions lobby to chart safe routes as you see the city Danish-style.
  • Tune-up at neighborhood shop The Bike Rack before you set out about town.
  • No bike of your own? No problem. It’s especially Danish to borrow one (Copenhagen launched the world’s first large-scale urban bike-sharing scheme in 1995). Visit one of 190 Capital Bikeshare stations in D.C., Arlington, and Alexandria, and park at one of two Dupont Circle area docking stations while you’re at the Phillips.
  • See D.C.’s downtown museums and sites with help from Bike and Roll, a bicycle tour and rental company. Mention PHILLIPS when booking through Dec. 9, 2012, for 50%-off your rental. UPDATE: booking deadline has been corrected. Bike and Roll closes for the winter Dec. 10, 2012, and reopens March 10, 2013.
  • Visit FRESHFARM Market in Dupont Circle on Sunday mornings, and pick up fresh and local treats to inspire your own take on new and traditional Nordic cuisine like smørrebrød, the famous open-faced sandwich on dark rye. Save the date for December 2 when your Kirkeby exhibition ticket stub is good for a $5 market coupon.
  • Ride through Montrose Park and Dumbarton Oaks Gardens to the Embassy of Denmark for an awe-inspiring look at D.C.’s first modern embassy designed by acclaimed Danish architect Vilhelm Lauritzen.
  • Furniture from Scandinavia by Annette Rachlin is D.C.’s destination for classic Danish furniture, a modernist oasis in the heart of old Georgetown. Take a seat in Arne Jacobsen’s Egg chair or snuggle up in Finn Juhl’s Pelican. Browse through literature on the best of Danish modernism, while you take a midday break on a Kjaerholm daybed or Hans J. Wegner’s “The Chair” made famous by JFK.
  • Folger Shakespeare Library‘s current exhibition of photographs by Rosamond Purcell, Very Like a Whale (through Jan. 6, 2013), draws its name from Shakespeare’s Danish tragedy. Find three images that respond to Hamlet, then visit the Elizabethan Garden to discover how sculptor Greg Wyatt imagined the play. As you exit, look up at the building’s façade and John Gregory’s 1932 Hamlet bas relief.
  • Round out your day with Scandinavian comfort food (and refreshing aquavit) at Petworth’s Domku Bar and Café.
  • Coming in February, Nordic Cool 2013 at the Kennedy Center is an international festival of theater, dance, music, visual arts, literature, design, and film that highlights the diverse cultures of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden, as well as the territories of Greenland and the Faroe and Åland Islands. Tickets go on sale October 24, 2012. Preview what’s in store at Phillips after 5: Arctic Expedition on January 3, 2013.

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