Le Violon d’Ingres

Man Ray's Le Violon d'Ingres. Gelatin silver print (1924)

This is probably the single most recognizable “cello” images to be found anywhere.  I remember first studying Man Ray and the New York Dada in Art History Class and then later as I got into performing Dada and Fluxus works and doing performance art.  In fact, it was one of the inspirations for an experimental cello video I did as part of a video collage component of a multi-media Performance Art performance I did at DePauw University back in 2002.

The Getty Museum has a very nice and concise description of the work:

Man Ray
American, 1924
Gelatin silver print
11 5/8 x 8 15/16 in.

Man Ray was an admirer of the paintings of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres and made a series of photographs, inspired by Ingres’s languorous nudes, of the model Kiki in a turban. Painting the f-holes of a stringed instrument onto the photographic print and then rephotographing the print, Man Ray altered what was originally a classical nude. He also added the title Le Violon d’Ingres, a French idiom that means “hobby.” The transformation of Kiki’s body into a musical instrument with the crude addition of a few brushstrokes makes this a humorous image, but her armless form is also disturbing to contemplate. The title seems to suggest that, while playing the violin was Ingres’s hobby, toying with Kiki was a pastime of Man Ray. The picture maintains a tension between objectification and appreciation of the female form.

The video piece I did, titled le violoncelle de Silpayamanant, was simply a video of me ‘shaving’ one of my cellos.  The title of the video fading into view at the end of the act and before the fade out the word “rase” (shaved) appears onscreen in my attempt to invoke Marcel Duchamp‘s “shaved Mona Lisa” series.  Here’s a still from the video:

still from the video, le violoncelle de Silpayamanant (2002)


Apocalyptica invokes the image on the cover of their 2003 album, Reflections, and there are probably dozens of other variants of the work in image form out there.  I’ve known at least three or four bellydancers and/or women cellists that have the f-holes tattooed on their backs.

Apocalyptica - Reflections (2003)
Charlotte Moorman and Nam June Paik performing 26'1.499" for a String Player (1965)












But one of my favorite variants of this work is another Gelatin silver print of a live performance of one of my all-time favorite experimental cellists, Charlotte Moorman (who I mentioned in a previous post), and Nam June Paik playing John Cage’s  26’1.499″ for a String Player in 1965 (You can hear a live performance of Moorman performing the work at WBAI-FM Avant Garde Concert III. Originally broadcast December 12 & 17, 1964.).

This is a curious inversion of the objectification by Man Ray in that here, as you can see in the photo to the above-right, Charlotte Moorman is “performing” Nam June Paik as a “cello.”  If only Paik had painted f-holes on his back then the homage would have been explicitly complete.

So interestingly bizarre how a simple concept and modification of a previous work of art can inspire such a large and extended body (no pun intended) of works.  A whole book could probably be written about this Le Violon d’Ingres–maybe I should get to work on that, eh?  😉

4 thoughts on “Le Violon d’Ingres

  1. Every time I see that photo of Charlotte Moorman playing Nam June Paik it feels totally backwards to me. Or at least she should have picked a woman to play, not a man. I don’t know much about it, so maybe that was the point, but I just keep thinking “but he’s not shaped like a cello!” The image on the Apocalyptica album also keeps bugging me because those f-holes are too close together!


  2. Well, it’s because of their longstanding artistic relationship–the collaborated so intimately for so many years (if not decades) I think it would have been difficult for them to imagine doing that kind of work without each other. And I like the inversion of it–making the man the object, thereby objectifying him rather than a woman.

    Yes, they are too close together, but technically so is Man Ray’s photo.

    Glad to see the photo of me shaving my cello didn’t bother you!! 😉


    1. The f-holes just bug me so much on the Apocalyptica album because they’re practically touching. For me it creates tension that I don’t think was intended. At least in the other photo they are somewhat proportionate to her body, so I don’t mind so much. I suppose on the album cover they are proportional, but that girl is just ridiculously skinny. F-holes make more sense on someone shaped more like Christina Hendricks than on someone whose every bone can be seen through her skin. I love the model in Man Ray’s photo because she’s curvy and her skin is smooth with no bones or muscles distracting me from the idea of her as a cello. Perhaps that’s part of what bothers me about Nam June Paik as a cello — I can see his muscles and his spine so clearly that I just don’t believe that he’s a cello. It also bugs me that I can see his arms (yes, I know he’s holding a string.) The women not having arms in the other photos was part of what objectified them for me and by not containing that element, I didn’t perceive of him as an object as much as I do in Man Ray’s photo. That being said, I still like the piece. Unfortunately, it just leaves me imagining several other versions of it, all of which are generally more extreme and rather disturbing (what I like most about Man Ray’s piece is that it leaves me unnerved.)

      I’d seen the photo of you shaving your cello on your FB before (I think.) I know I’d definitely seen it before, so it wasn’t a surprise that you added it onto this post. I also know that it was done in the past and was assuming that this was your current cello (which is obviously just fine) or at least if you’d ruined the varnish you would have said something about that.


  3. I had forgotten the model’s name until I had written this post–and forgotten how often she was used in works by artists during the early half of the 20th century.

    Nam June Paik as a cello certainly isn’t as elegant as Charlotte Moorman would have been. I’m more interested in how it sounded–I’m not sure if that was amplified at all or not, but surely if not there would have been little to hear.

    That’s not my main cello–just a student one that I used before getting my main axe. At some point I might fiddle around with it again, but for now my performance art days are in the past–I just don’t have the time to develop the performances anymore despite still having tons of concepts I would love to realize. *sighs*


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