It is one of the most famous photographs in the history of modern photography. Taken in 1924 by Man Ray, Le Violon d'Ingres features the seductive Kiki de Montparnasse, a singer, dancer and cabaret manager who was also the surrealist artist's muse and lover, in an intimate setting. Captured in black and white against a grey backdrop, the seated young woman turned away from us reveals the small of her back decorated with two violin f-holes, added in Indian ink after the shot was taken. According to the French expression that gave its title to Man Ray's photograph, and inspired by the neo-classical painter Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres' passion for the string instrument, "le violon d'Ingres" is a passion to which one likes to devote oneself –embodied here by Kiki de Montparnasse as a human violin. This emblematic image of the Surrealist movement is now on its way to becoming the most expensive photograph in history, already estimated to fetch between $5 and $7 million at Christie's New York modern art auction this May. The sale will feature works by Marcel Duchamp, Vija Celmins and William N. Copley, alongside one of the original versions of this photograph, acquired directly from Man Ray in 1962 by the American fashion buyers Rosalind Gersten Jacobs and Melvin Jacobs, a couple with close ties to the Surrealists.
A major player in the Surrealist and Dada movements, Man Ray (1890 - 1976) was a painter, a photographer and a film-maker. The man who liked to declare that "everything is possible from nothing" was able to make his flair for the unexpected and the surprising shine from New York to Paris: after leaving the United States, for lack of success with the New York Dadaists, the man made a name for himself in the 1920s Parisian art scene as a photographer, pushing back the limits of the medium by, for example, combining it with painting. This led to the creation of Le Violon d'Ingres, one of which is now in the Museum of Modern Art in Paris. Previously owned by André Breton, the print has inspired many creative people for almost a century and is a powerful testimony to the spirit of Surrealism.
With these dizzying figures, Man Ray's photograph is already about to break a record, as the highest estimate for a photograph in auction history, according to Christie's New York. It is on the verge of beating the record held by German photographer Andreas Gursky, whose 1999 landscape Rhein II fetched $4.3 million at Christie's in 2011. Five years ago, Man Ray's photograph Noire et Blanche (1926) sold for €3 million, heralding a boost in the Surrealist artist's market value, to which Christie's Paris devoted an exceptional sale last March: 188 lots went under the hammer on that occasion, including L'Objet à détruire and the photograph La primauté de la matière sur la pensée.
Man Ray's Le Violon d'Ingres (1924) will be sold in May at Christie's New York.