Annette Schemmel

Man Ray (on display at the Museum Fünf Kontinente, Munich), 1926, gelatin silver print, various dimensions, Paris. © Ernst Wagner

A Tool to Build Postcolonial Criticality at School


The picture “Noire et Blanche“ is well known in the history of photography, even if not the most famous work by Man Ray (1890 - 1976). This American photographer was friends with Marcel Duchamp and with further artistic heroes of his time and he was one of few photographers to be accepted in the exclusive ranks of 20th century art history early on.1 Man Ray also has a place in the German canon for art teaching and is featured in certain German schoolbooks for art.2 As a contribution to the effort at critically examining our canon of images for schooling, this text argues that “Noire et Blanche” is a suitable choice to inspire 17 to 19-years-olds (pupils of Oberstufe), provided that learners get to read Man Ray’s picture in its historical context and that teachers encourage them to take a closer look at the role of the mask in this mise-en-scène.



  • Annette Schemmel
    Annette Schemmel


    The photo at hand was shot in Paris in the 1920s. We are looking at a beautiful young woman with very fair skin who seems to have sunken her head on a table as if for a rest, while her left hand is carefully exposing a polished mask made from dark wood. The woman is Kiki de Montparnasse alias Alice Prin (1901 – 1953), Man Ray’s lover, a model for many painters and herself a successful artist. Supposedly, Kiki was central for the myth of the Montparnasse as an artistic enclave in Paris.3 The mask is simply “African” in the eyes of my pupils at first. I want them to learn that we are looking at a portrait mask4 of the Baule people in Ivory Coast. Pupils should also understand that such carved portraits served to honor an important member of a Baule society, a woman in this case. A dancer wearing a similar mask would incorporate the portrayed notable at the occasion of ritual dances, thus celebrating her achievements.5 This specific mask’s features are balanced and dignified, harmonious but not realistic, a point to which I will come back later.


    Meanwhile I shall argue that Man Ray’s picture thrives on carefully staged contrasts. The title that has come to stick with this photograph hints not only at black-and-white photography itself, but also at the most obvious contrast, at the White and Black6 skin or surface of the picture’s protagonists. Yet there are further opposites linking the lady and the mask in the picture, namely the opposites of young, ultra-modern and lively versus ageless, “primitive” and inanimate, matt versus shiny, skin versus wood, a seemingly passive woman versus the upright face of the mask, holding versus being kept. The photo historian Wendy Grossman has described how these opposites relate: “Almost as if it were a direct cast, the vertical mask, with its shiny black patina, is a negative mirror image of the reclining model’s ovoid face, echoing her pursed lips, closed eyes, and tautly styled coiffure. Parallel symmetrical shadows extend beneath the two perpendicular forms, coupling face and mask in a shallow and austere space.”7


    Clearly, Man Ray has smartly staged the Black and the White. By the time he shot this picture, Man Ray was making a living of object photography in Paris, then the world capital of fashion. It might therefore come as no surprise that this picture made its first appearance in an early print medium dedicated to beauty and fashion, the Vogue magazine. When the issue came out in 1926, everything “exotic” was fashionable in Paris, especially arts from (indirect) African origin, such as Jazz, Josephine Baker or, well, the mask in Man Ray’s photograph.8


    Beyond its uncontested fashionable appeal “Noire et Blanche” unveils some deeper, more unsettling meanings, some of which I intend to unfold here. A simple reading is ready at hand if one places this artwork in the historical context of the colonial era. In 1926, the mask’s country of origin belonged to Afrique Occidentale Française. On this backdrop, the dreamy woman holding the mask in Man Ray’s picture appears to be a Freudian slip in the form of a photograph, an unconscious idealization of colonial domination. Are we looking at a personification of the imperial power of France carefully embracing its colony Ivory Coast?9

    Next, we could follow a feminist lead towards interpretation. This photograph stages two females, whilst an important third actor of this mise-en-scène is invisible, the male photographer. Through his camera, the male artist is looking at the passive naked woman und at the artefact of a culture that is foreign to him. Obviously, the mask has become passive, too, once removed from its original context. In this reading, Man Ray’s photograph appears as a staging of the desire for submission – the submission of the idealized female and that of the cultural “other”. As viewers, we are lured into this voyeuristic pleasure, unless we take some critical distance.


    Following a suggestion of some South African colleagues, we shall now look at this photograph through the lens of the Martinican author Franz Fanon. In his famous psychoanalytical text “Peau noire, masques blancs”, Fanon is pointing at the phenomenon of the essentializing construction of a Black soul (“l’âme noir”).10 Following Fanon, Man Ray’s photograph can be considered one of those efforts by European (and certain African) artists of the classic Modern era to catch hold of an imagined essence of Black culture. This effort needed to objectify Blackness in order to make this construct palpable and acceptable. Arguably, in “Noire et Blanche” the ’black soul’ lies in the hand of a white person and is reduced to an object, the sculpted mask. Furthermore, it could be argued with Fanon that Man Ray used the Blackness of the wooden object, the “noir” that is readily associated with the ‘continent of darkness’ in the collective imagination of Westerners,11 in order to highlight his girl-friend’s Whiteness. We know that contrasts help at intensifying and it is no secret that White is a color (of skin) that Europeans tend to associate with innocence and purity.12 Arguably, this racialized contrast of the “Noire” and the “Blanche” served to celebrate qualities that Man Ray projected onto Kiki de Montparnasse, his partner.


    So far, I have tried to make clear that the artwork “Noire et Blanche” is not only a showcase of female attractivity, but that this photo also has a violent dimension to it because it relies on certain colonial mechanisms of distinction. As an art teacher, it is my ambition to make this picture’s ambivalence understandable for my pupils. I know that pupils are more likely to learn if they are allowed to make their own discoveries,13 for instance by exploring ‘real’ scientific data through the Internet. From our classroom, we can access the Metropolitan Museum’s online collections, which include a comparable portrait mask.


    noire et blanche screenshot


    Website of the Metropolitan Museum, New York


    Other than the black-and-white photograph by Man Ray, the museum’s more recent color picture unveils the fine shades of brown and red tones that are characteristic of the tropical wood used for Baule masks. Obviously, such masks are not Black in reality. Furthermore, pupils can learn from the provenance info that the Baule mask in the Met’s collection was famous amongst art lovers and artists in Paris and Berlin already before WW1.14 This insight helps to understand why Man Ray might have chosen a similar object for his photograph: artists tend to learn from each other.


    As a continuation, I like to encourage my pupils to sum up the museum’s text about the characteristics of portrait masks by the Baule by means of notes in German language. In doing so, the learners realize that these masks are carved according to a complex canon of beauty, that the forehead is high for a reason, namely in order to represent intelligence, that the polished surface signifies good health and that a representation of a person can convey dignity even if the proportions of its face have been exacerbated. This is new to many youngsters, whose frustration with their own efforts at realistic drawing has shaped their preference for artists’ realistic skills. Pupils also learn from the online information that this mask can only be brought to live as part of a performance, thus discovering a problematic aspect of its preservation in a museum.


    Coming back to “Noire et Blanche” with this new knowledge, my pupils realize that Man Ray’s photograph is concealing much of the knowledge that is available today. They understand that it is worthwhile to research background information for non-European art, even if this requires leaving their textbooks behind and going an extra mile with their foreign language skills. In the course of the classroom discussion that follows we are wondering why a Baule community would have let go of their precious mask, a question leading to recent restitution debates.15 Furthermore, the teenagers understand that the coquettish presentation of the mask in the hands of a naked European woman might be read as a sign of lacking respect by members of its culture of origin. At this point of the discussion some pupils have experienced a change of perspectives. This experience of assuming a position previously perceived as ‘other’ in the course of a lesson is the very purpose of our engagement with this artwork at school, arguably it is also the purpose of looking at art altogether.


    Let me summarize this approach. Comparing Man Ray’s photograph “Noire et Blanche” with the mask from the Metropolitan museum’s collection is a way to scrutinize a canonical picture from a critical perspective without denying the aesthetic appeal of the historic photograph. By way of this lesson I hope to enable changes of perspective and to build sensibility for post-colonial readings of pictures amongst pupils. Taking a bold stance, I shall claim that such lessons are conducive to a more general type of visual competence because I like to think that my pupils’ experience with the implications of this attractive historic picture might encourage them to also critically scrutinize any other picture in the future.






    [1] For a thorough photo-historical analysis read Wendy A. Grossmans insightful article “Unmasking Man Ray’s Noire et blanche”, American Art, Vol. 20, No. 2 (Summer 2006), pp. 134-47.

    [2] For instance, Man Ray is mentioned in the widely used text-book Epochen der Kunst. Von der Moderne zu aktuellen Tendenzen (Hsg: Robert Hahne, Oldenburg Schulbuchverlag GmbH, 2013, S. 150/51). In this book, information about him and the photo “L’Enigne d’Isidore Ducasse” (1920) are featured under the header of „Fotografie und Film im Surrealismus“. It can be argued that „Noir et Blanche“ is surrealistic as well, since it seems to be illustrating Lautréamonts famous phrase “beautiful as the chance meeting on a dissecting table of a sewing machine and an umbrella” (Lautréamont alias Isidore Lucien Ducasse, „Die Gesänge des Maldoror“, 1874.), with Man Ray’s “chance meeting” bringing together a white woman and a wooden mask.

    [3] en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alice_Prin (last accessed on August 26, 2019).

    [4] Wendy A. Grossman’s article “Unmasking Man Ray’s Noire et blanche leaves no doubt that the mask in the picture is actually an airport art version of a Baulé mask, by the way (p. 136).

    [5] Collection Records of the Metropolitan Museums (Baulé Masken), www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/317834 ((last accessed on May 3rd, 2017), also https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/319512 (last accessed on August 26, 2019)

    [6] In this text, I will spell Black and White with capitals in order to highlight the cultural construct of Race.

    [7] For the complex history of the title see Wendy A. Grossman, “Unmasking Man Ray’s Noire et blanche”, pp.140.

    [8] More about this fashion in en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Josephine_Baker (last accessed on August 26, 2019).

    [9] Research on Man Ray does not support this easy hypothesis however. In Wendy A. Grossman’s article from 2006, the origin of the photograph is described as an open-ended artistic process partly sparked by commercial interest, partly by a collaborator, but not by political intention. However, I would like to argue that art works tend to transmit more or less unconscious convictions of their authors and their peers, which makes of  artworks valuable witnesses of their times.

    [10] Frantz Fanon, “Schwarze Haut, weiße Masken”, translated by Eva Moldenhauer, Wien: Turia + Kant, 2013, p. 14, 147.

    [11] Fanon makes this point in “Schwarze Haut, weiße Masken” (2013), p. 158.

    [12] “Symbolik der Farben, Formen, Zahlen” in Lexikon der Kunst, Bd. VII. S. 153-154, E.A. Szeemann Verlag, Leipzig 1994.

    [13] I am here referring to pupils from eleventh grade of the Bavarian Gymnasium, whom the syllabus obliges to explore aspects of the body in art during half a year.

    [14] Collection Records of the Metropolitan Museums (Baule masks), www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/317834 ((last accessed on May 3rd, 2017), also https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/319512 (last accessed on August 26, 2019)

    [15] For a thorough introduction to this question read Felwine Sarr’s and Bénédicte Savoy’s “restitution report” commissioned by the French state. http://restitutionreport2018.com/ (last accessed on April 1, 2020).



    published April 2020