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

Man Ray Set To Music

Local songwriter Andrew Trotter recently visited Man Ray–Human Equations while taking part in a songwriting challenge. “When I walked in, I knew there had to be a song there. After I wrote the lyrics for the challenge, trying to capture some of the qualities of Man Ray’s art, my musical collaborator from Canada, Natalie Edelson, put it to appropriately surreal music and made a demo,” says Trotter. He was kind enough to share the final product with us; check out the demo and an excerpt of the lyrics below.

[soundcloud url=”https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/193830313″ params=”auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false&visual=true” width=”100%” height=”450″ iframe=”true” /]

Man Ray
White skull, pale breast
Kitchen implement,
Object, soft flesh
Is that what you meant?

Man Ray,
Won’t you come down to play,
The artists at the cafe
Are making their moves
On lovely young things today.

Man Ray
You pictured a derriere,
Each part of her is fair,
But this butterfly you’ll never get,
Slipped out of your camera’s net.

(Chorus)
Man Ray,
What is this game you play,
Why don’t you let things stay
As they are—you’re pushing it way too far.

Man Ray’s Shakespearean Equations: Merry Wives of Windsor

Merry Wives of Windsor_mathematical model pairing

(left) Man Ray, Shakespearean Equation, Merry Wives of Windsor, 1948. Oil on canvas, 24 x 18 1/8 in. Private Collection, Courtesy Fondazione Marconi, Milan. © Man Ray Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY / ADAGP, Paris 2015 (right) Mathematical Object: Imaginary and Real Part of the Derivative of the Weierstrass ℘–Function, c. 1900. Plaster, 6 1/2 × 8 × 5 7/8 in. Brill-Schilling Collection. Institut Henri Poincaré, Paris. Photo: Elie Posner

Man Ray explained that the mathematical model of an elliptical function in this Shakespearean Equation reminded him of “the group of merry wives of Windsor getting together to gossip and laugh.” A former Phillips intern remarked that the artist’s dash of color in his interpretation of this mathematical model really does make it merrier.