A l’Heure de l’Observatoire: Les Amoureux

A l’Heure de l’Observatoire: Les Amoureux, 1967
(Observatory Hours: The Lover)
Image: 35.6 x 89.9 cm
Lithograph printed in colour on wove paper
Signed in pencil and numbered 64/150

“It is seven o’ clock in the morning, before the hunger of imagination is satisfied. The sun has not yet decided to rise or set – but your mouth comes… It becomes two bodies itself, separated by a horizon, slim, undulating.  Like the earth and sky, like you and me, and thus like all microscopic objects, invisible to the eye… Lips of the sun, you draw me endlessly nearer, and in this instant before awakening, when I cast loose from my body – I am weightless – I meet you in the even light and empty space, and, my only reality, kiss you with all that is left of me: my own lips.” [1]

      Man Ray

Ray dedicated these passionate words to his lover Lee Miller. But by the time he wrote them, the two were no longer a pair. The above passage is not cited from a love letter to Miller but form an article Ray wrote for the French journal Cahiers d’Art, commenting on the above work of art. It is without doubt one of the most recognizable objects of Man Ray’s career.

Man Ray had met the strikingly beautiful Lee Miller in Paris in 1929. At 22, Miller – a tall, slender blonde with tightly cropped hair and flawless features – had just left her career as a fashion model in New York behind, where she had been a regular on the cover of Vogue magazine. She had come to Paris with the intent to study photography and soon started a passionate relationship with Ray. Their love affair lasted three years, during which Lee Miller developed from apprentice to equal professional partner. Together Ray and Miller discovered and explored the technique of “solarisation”, which produced an outer worldly silvery effect on their photographs.
By 1931, as Miller’s own artistic career started to flourish, Ray, who was 17 years her senior, increasingly resented her professional and personal independence. ‘Free love’, as promoted by the Surrealists, seemed only to apply to men but not women. The couple eventually split up in 1932.
In the aftermath of their separation, Ray produced two of his most famous works of art, literally segmenting his ex-lover into body parts: Object to be Destoyed (later: Indestructible Object), a metronome with a photograph of one Lee Miller’s eyes attached to the pendulum, and A l’Heure de l’Observatoire: Les Amoureux.

Man Ray, Indestructible Object, Objet indestructible 1923, remade 1933 (attaching a photo of  Lee Miller’s eye)
editioned replica 1965, Wooden metronome and photograph on paper, 21,5 x 11 x 11,5 cm, Tate Gallery, London

The latter was first executed as a monumental oil painting on canvas (c.1931), depicting Miller’s gigantic signal red lips floating in a lightly clouded, pre-dawn sky over a dark wooded landscape. The twin domes of an observatory, resembling breasts, can be seen on the horizon – probably inspired of the Montsouris observatory, a structure built in Moorish style, situated only a short walk away from Ray’s studio in Montmartre.

Ray claimed that for two years, he spent two hours every morning working on the canvas, which he had hung over his bed.[2] The title L’Heure de l’Observatoire refers to the official time announcements, given by meteorological stations on the radio at the break of dawn. The motif of Lee Miller’s over-sized lips is probably taken from the artist`s memory, however, they also appear as central motif on a black and white photograph Ray took of Lee’s lips in 1929.

Man Ray, Untitled (Lips), 1929, Gelatin silver Print, 8.4 x21 cm, MOMA, New York

The original oil painting, which is now owned by an anonymous private collector, later became subject of several of Man Ray’s photographic works. It can be seen in the background of the 1936 series Still Life. Composition with Chess Set, Plaster Casts and A l’Heure de l’Observatoire – Les Amoureux.

Man Ray, Still Life. Composition with Chess Set, Plaster Casts and A l’Heure de l’Observatoire – Les Amoureux (one of a series of four), 1936

The present work, a colour lithograph printed on paper in an edition of 150, was executed by Ray based on the motif of the oil painting in the 1960s.  By this time Ray and Miller, who had become a celebrated photographer in her own right, had long reconciled. Their tumultuous relationship had eventually grown into a true, life-long friendship. Ray’s change of heart towards Lee Miller is best documented by one of his later objects: her iconic lips cast in gold.

 Man Ray, Untitled (Gold Lips), undated, Gold, 2.5 x 10.1 cm, Man Ray Trust

[1] Man Ray: “A ‘heure de l’observatoire – les amoureux” Cahiers d’Art, 10: 5-6

[2] Man Ray, Self Portrait, New York 1988, p.206