Author Marijke Peyser
In the autumn of 1971 Renilde Hammacher-Van den Brande, then senior curator of modern art at Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, staged the first retrospective of Man Ray’s work in the Netherlands. In total 287 works were shown, ranging from paintings, collages, drawings, watercolours, gouaches, objects and rayographs to cliché verres, books and prints. The exhibition gave an impression of the eclecticism of the oeuvre. In the catalogue published to accompany the exhibition, Hammacher described the artist thus: ‘Man Ray is one of the most audacious pioneers of the art of our time’.
In the museum’s archives there is an extensive exchange of letters about the exhibition between the curator and the artist. Back and forth they corresponded in French about loans, transporting art and financial matters. When the exhibition closed, Hammacher wrote to Man Ray: ‘I told my director (J.C. Ebbinge Wubben) that you were minded to give your large canvas “Mon Premier Amour” to the museum. He was very moved by your intention. Your gift is accepted with thanks. This important work will receive a place of honour in the new wing of the museum which will open next year.’
Mon premier amour is a rare geometric abstract canvas in the artist’s oeuvre, with colourful surfaces overlapping like a collage. The title refers to a statement by Man Ray: ‘Having tried a dozen jobs, I have returned to my first love, painting, and I have remained faithful to her ever since.’ In this work the artist used collage and aerography, two techniques in which he was already very experienced. Man Ray had already employed the collage technique in his earliest works. One good example is the series Revolving Doors (1916-17) which is made up of pieces of paper attached to a paper base. In the same period he experimented with aerography: spraying on colour to achieve a soft photographic effect (see also The Rope Dancer Accompanies Herself with Her Shadows). In the oil painting Mon premier amour the colour was applied with a spray usually used for insecticide, after which Man Ray smoothed out the paint with a palette knife.
The work on paper in the museum’s collection is a preliminary study for the oil painting. Immediately after Man Ray’s generous gift, Hammacher wrote to the artist that ‘the museum would be delighted to purchase more work, in particular the collage “Mon premier amour” [sic], which would go together so splendidly with the large painting’. Man Ray agreed, and the purchase was made in the same year, 1972.