Émile-Jacques Ruhlmann, French Art Deco furniture & interior designer, birthday 28 August 1879
Theo van Doesburg (Christian Emil Küpper), Dutch artist, birthday 30 August 1883
“Why? Who cares? Who doesn’t care?” These are the questions Man Ray posed as the only American artist who played a prominent role in launching both the Dada and Surrealist art movements. Raised in New York City, he was extremely influenced by the avant-garde pieces displayed at Alfred Stieglitz’s 291 gallery (see post our post from 9 July). As one to originate the “BoHo” lifestyle, Ray shunned college and began challenging the formal constraints of the visual arts. He taught himself photography and invented what would become known as the “rayograph” where he would take objects and expose them directly onto photosensitive paper, much like a sun print but in the studio environment. By 1921, he left the U.S. and his first wife to settle in Paris where he became entrenched with the cultural elite residing there and documented many such as Picasso, Hemmingway, Dali, Stein and Joyce in striking photographs. It is here where he met Kiki of Montparnasse whom would be his most famous subject.
Ray also worked closely with Marcel Duchamp where they developed Dada as an attempt to create work so absurd it confused the viewer’s sense of reality. This eventually would lead to surrealism where the subconscious or non-rational significance of imagery was explored in more depth. Briefly during WWII he relocated to Los Angeles but was frustrated as American audiences only considered him a fashion photographer and never took his film or other work as significantly as he desired. Therefore, he and Kiki returned to France in 1951 for the remainder of their lives in surrealist bliss that deliberately defied reason.
When Émile-Jacques Ruhlmann inherited his father’s painting and contracting business he quickly developed it into one of the most significant furniture & design company in Europe. He openly despised the clunkiness of the Arts & Crafts movement remarking that it was too common for the wealthy. Essentially, according to Ruhlmann, since the movement originated from the common people that the elite, from whom all fashion derives, would have no desire to own it. “Fashion’s real purpose is to display wealth,” and of course provencal style did just the opposite. His designs started out in the Art Nouveau and then morphed quite well into the Art Deco period inspired by classical elements. Ruhlmann sought out the rarest woods and inlayed his pieces with ivory. To protect the notoriety of his design, when he discovered he was terminally ill, Ruhlmann wrote in his will that his company was to be dissolved. Today, his pieces hold fast as the epitome of style and luxury.
It is no surprise when looking at their work that Theo van Doesburg and Piet Mondrian were contemporaries, friends and collaborators who developed the De Stijl movement. However, this relationship ended due to a heated debate over, of all things, diagonal lines: van Doesburg for, Mondrian against. As Mondrian stuck to his abstract guns, van Doesburg ventured into a variety of movements including neo-plasticism, constructivism, Dadaism and elementarism. His work and opinions were so polarizing that his theories nearly split the newly formed Bauhaus when he started his own architecture course in his Weimar studio.
It is unclear whether or not he actually was hired faculty but he lured students away from Gropius ultimately laying the philosophical foundations that would become the tenants of Bauhaus principles. What is most surprising is that for all van Doesburg’s aggressiveness and polarizing opinions, it is the reclusive, bleak and one-dimensional Mondrian who is more remembered by history. In addition to painting he also was a poet, art critic, designer, typographer, architect and performance artist. As the polar opposite of the De Stijl austere theories was his work in Dada “performances” where dialogue was intentionally and absurdly interrupted by a planted person in the audience who would bark like a dog. Van Doesburg was also witness to what would be called “the end of Dada” when a performance in Paris broke out into a riot where an actor’s arm was broken by a disgruntled rival and eventually the police were called to disband the melee.
The Man Ray Trust
Man Ray's work at MoMA, NYC
A brief documentary of Man Ray by Jean-Paul Fargier
Source for Ruhlmann reproductions
Article on van Doesburg by "The Guardian"
van Doesburg work at MoMA, NYC