Hamlet and Man Ray’s Painting
By Alexa Huang
In the opening scene of Hamlet, the Danish prince accuses his mother of not genuinely mourning her husband’s death and of marrying his uncle too quickly: “Seems, madam! nay it is; I know not ‘seems.’” Here he is alluding to “the trappings and the suits of woe,” or the gap between true feelings and the more superficial form of social representations of grief, between ceremonial behaviors and authenticity. The play as a whole is concerned with the tensions between reality and representation.
Reflecting this conflict, France-based American artist Man Ray’s painting Hamlet is both geometrically abstract and erotically concrete. It teases us. It provokes us to pause and contemplate the untold story and the overt visuals. Is the painting a representation of a mathematical model? Is the painting a symbol of womanhood? Is the painting supposed to evoke carnal pleasure or mathematical precision? Is the visual representation pointing toward some invisible reality or untold story?
As part of the manifestation of Hamlet’s anxiety he attacks the body politics of the court. Therefore, the play also dramatizes the effect of politicizing the body. Characters use a great deal of metaphors to connect the human body to its political context. “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark,” we are told. The prince, for example, wishes that “this too too solid flesh would melt,” when frustrated by the impossible choices he faces. He is disgusted by his mother who moves with “such dexterity to incestuous sheets.”
Man Ray captures in his composition the complex themes of objectification of the human body and eroticization of form. The geometric shape in the spotlight stands out against the dark background evocative of a backstage area. The staged effect highlights the process of humanizing the object.
But it is not what it seems. Suggesting a mutilated breast with the nipple pointing downward, the painting symbolizes the often objectified but silenced women characters in the play. The one breast on stage is a palpable representation of Gertrude and Ophelia who endure Hamlet’s personal attacks in the chamber scene and nunnery scene, respectively, because, as the prince would insist, they are weak and led by their passion rather than reason. The isolated single breast is geometrical and visceral at the same time. Indeed, Man Ray explained to Arturo Schwarz that it reminded him of “Ophelia’s breast. So I added a small pink dot at one of the three comers—a little erotical touch, if you will!”
In addition to “Ophelia’s breast,” Man Ray himself also associated the object with a white geometric skull, specifically Ophelia’s skull. His eroticization of this geometric form is connected to centuries of projections about women in Shakespeare as sexualized bodies and sources of empowerment. Both the painting and the play explore the issues of female agency and autonomy. With this emphasis on female roles in Shakespeare’s works in mind, it is then notable that Man Ray transformed the mathematical model in a manner that evoked a breast, and then chose to associate it with Hamlet. It is interesting that the shape does not evoke instead the mouth or other body parts. Ophelia is censored and cannot express herself in words until she goes mad and sings. Other characters in the play try to tell Ophelia’s stories by “botch[ing] [her] words up.”
But who is Ophelia? She remains one of the best-known yet elusive Shakespearean characters; her untimely death, her songs and their bawdy verses, and the association of her existence with flowers have received a great deal of attention from artists, critics, and—not surprisingly—censors at different times. Ophelia’s death and reports of drowned girls have fascinated generations of historians, artists, and audiences.
Numerous artists before Man Ray have explored the eroticism associated with the figure of Ophelia. A seemingly demure young woman, Ophelia has been viewed alternately in different times and cultures as a representation of ideal femininity and a symbol of a victim of abuse. At once undermined and empowered by her femininity, she has difficulty expressing her own thoughts partly because of the patriarchal structure in which she finds herself, yet deploys various strategies to enable herself to be heard. The Ophelia Project (2010), a stage work directed by Rhiannon Brace in London, drew upon John Everett Millais’s romantic painting of Ophelia to celebrate women. Japanese novelist Natsume Sōseki created a painter who is obsessed by Millais’s Ophelia in his Kusamakura (1906), and the likeness of Ophelia herself in a portrait in Kojin, A Wanderer (1912–13).
Painted along the banks of the idyllic Hogsmill River in Surrey, Millais’s Ophelia (1851, Tate, London) has come to define Ophelia’s iconic image: a young woman crowned by a floral wreath and floating in the river in the moment before she is drowned. The painting focuses thematically on the cycle of growth and decay, reflecting the Victorian fascination with the relationship between nature and art. Buoyed temporarily by the stream, the dying Ophelia is half sunk but her head is still above the water. Expressed by Ophelia’s transitional state, the eroding riverbank, rotting flowers, and flourishing plants, the “cyclical quality of existence” not only echoes Hamlet’s ontological question of to be or not to be but also serves as a catalyst for narratives about Ophelia.
While more abstract than these works, Man Ray’s painting echoes these dialogues. In the tradition of visual representation associated with this literary figure, Man Ray’s work demonstrates that Ophelia has been turned into a blank canvas onto which others project their anxieties and desires.
Note: Adapted from Alexa Huang, “Meditation on Hamlet.” Man Ray-Human Equations: A Journey from Mathematics to Shakespeare, ed. Wendy Grossman and Edouard Sebline. Ostfildern, Germany: Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2015. pp. 174-175.
 William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 4, line 89.
 Ibid., Act 1, Scene 2, line 129.
 Ibid., Act 1, Scene 2, line 157.
 Schwarz, Rigour of Imagination, 79.
 Ibid., Act 4, Scene 5, line 10.
The views expressed in this post are the author’s own.