322. Man Ray

A l’Heure de l’Observatoire – les Amoureux
Size: Image: 35.5 × 89.8 cm, Sheet: 60.5 × 105.3 cm
Lithograph printed in colours, 1970, initialled in pencil, inscribed ‘essay’,
one of two trial proofs in a unique combination of colours
(aside from the edition of 150), on wove paper

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Lee Miller came to live with Man Ray in Paris in 1929, and left him in 1932, returning to New York to pursue her own career as a photographer. She was extraordinarily beautiful, stylish, artistic, lively and intelligent, and her loss to Man Ray was almost more than he could bear. This famous image of her lips, floating over the Paris Observatory against the morning sky, remains one of the most haunting expressions of his nostalgic despair, and the enduring scar that she inflicted on him.

Man Ray explained the image as follows: ‘It is 7 o’clock in the morning on the clock, before the imagination’s hunger is satisfied. The sun has not yet decided if he is going to rise, or remain set – but your mouth appears… She becomes like two bodies, separated by the horizon line, thin, undulating. Like the Earth and the Sky, like you and me, and so like all microscopic bodies, invisible to the naked eye… The lips of the Sun, you draw me ceaselessly nearer and nearer, and, in the moment before waking, when I leave my body – in a state of weightlessness – I rejoin you in the bright light of day and the same empty space, and, my unique reality, I kiss you with the only thing of mine that remains: my lips.’

Reading this scalding tribute to Lee Miller suggests that he reached a point in his relationship with her where he accepted that the most important element was the experience itself, not whether it could or should last forever, whatever pain that entailed. Willingly burned like the moth in the flame, he was also liberated and enhanced.

This trial proof is not unique. Another impression in this colour combination, bearing the dedication, ‘For Juliet’, remained part of the artist’s estate prior to being offered at auction at Sotheby’s, London, in the Man Ray Sale in 1995. The image had many progeny: Salvador Dalí’s May West Lips Sofa of 1937 (see overleaf); the logos for the Rocky Horror Show and the Rolling Stones in the 1960s. The original painting features in an iconic photograph by Man Ray, which includes a reclining nude and a game of chess.