At first glance, the influence of African art on 20th-century modernism might seem boringly obvious. One glance at an Asante statuette and you can see Giacometti: the dark tones, the skeleton-thin figure, the high forehead with all the features huddled in the middle of the face. A Bamana female figure with stick-neck and bullet-breasts presages cubism, with its angular planes and aggressive abstraction.
But Washington's Phillips Collection has put together a sharp, broad-ranging show which focuses on Man Ray-the show's title is "Man Ray, African Art, and the Modernist Lens"-but explores many of the central questions of modern art. Does industrialization change human nature? Can premodern religion be reinterpreted or merely cannibalized? What counts as "realism," and who decides?
The very first of the exhibit's many juxtapositions sets the theme: A statue of a male figure, with oil burnishing its helmet-like forehead, stands alone in a glass case. On the wall beside him hang high-contrast photographs in which he's made even glossier, even stranger, and even more alone. In Africa this statue was a part of tribal ritual, a means of communal access to the -transcendent. Under the lens of the modernist, the statue becomes a staunch, mysterious symbol of human alienation.
The modernists varied in how their photographs presented the African religious objects. This show highlights the variation by including works from American, French, Russian, and Czech artists. Some, like Man Ray, chose high stylization: artificial darkness and heightened contrast. Others, like Walker Evans, often shot the same objects in soft grays, gentle angles, and unthreatening poses. Ray's pictures of a Bamileke figure known as the "Bangwa queen" show her presiding in a nightscape lit as if by lightning; one photo seems to show her laughing. Evans's portrayals show the queen in artificial daylight, her face unreadable.
The Phillips Collection has done a terrific job not only of contrasting these approaches but showing how neither approach is really placing the objects in their local context. Evans's naturalism is simply another Western genre, no more realistic than noir. The more obviously stylized artists tended to give the African objects a greater sense of transcendent inaccessibility. This is neither true-the objects would have been familiar, not alienating, to their makers-nor false, since the "anthropological" naturalist lens assumes that the objects and the religion they serve can be understood by Western audiences outside of their habitual ritual contexts.
The modernists in some ways treated African art like industrial detritus. There are surprising parallels between a Raoul Ubac solarized photograph of Nancy Cunard's collection of ivory bracelets and the many modernist photographs of rubber hoses or spiral metalwork in which industrial products were made to look like cast-off snakeskins or abandoned nautilus shells. In both the premodern and industrial cases, the objects are photographed so that their cultural meaning almost dissolves into a purely aesthetic experience: Big circles pile up and spill across the frame, and it doesn't necessarily matter whether the circles are African bracelets or Michelin tires. The strangeness of man-made objects remains the same.
Many photographs suggest a complicity between Westerners and the African objects. The image which advertises the exhibit, Ray's portrait of Simone Kahn, trades on the era's racial fears: A white woman, supine on a bed, gazes upside-down at the camera while a dark wooden figure of a naked man stands on her belly, seeming to look down at her and consider what it might do with her. And yet her gaze is cool and challenging. She wants you to see this. Similarly, a terrific photograph taken by Cecil Beaton of Edward James shows James with arms folded, watching the camera lens, with a big black Ekoi mask, all curving horns and chaos on the wall behind him. The photo has an air of wry menace, but the mask isn't confronting James: Both James and the mask are confronting you.
Some of the exhibit's most famous photographs, Ray's variant versions of noire et blanche, show a reclining white lady with closed eyelids and aggressive vamp lipstick, holding up a gleaming black mask whose oval shape resembles her head. The atmosphere is quiet, and the easy contrasts make the piece look like a cosmetics ad. (Modernists shifted readily from high-art to commercial applications, as a section of the exhibit devoted to fashion photography demonstrates.) A more complex interaction occurs between the "Bangwa queen" statue and a pale woman who sits at her feet, gazing up at her as the statue looks past her. The woman's arm rests between the statue's ankles, suggesting a connection between them; the Hitchcock shadows behind her suggest danger, but her expression seems admiring.
Two photographs cleverly juxtaposed make the same case that superficially similar uses of African objects can lead to deeply divergent images. First, there's a funny photo by Roland Penrose in which two white men sit on a couch, apparently in animated discussion-their features obscured by the outsized African and Oceanic masks over their faces. In a haunting Curtis Moffat photo, by contrast, the two white subjects in African masks are filmed with a gauzy, otherworldly glow. The masks make them dream figures, not parodies.
Yet perhaps the most interesting implication of this fascinating exhibit is that dream and parody are not so far removed. If exaggeration is the hallmark of both deracinated modernity and tribal religion, might this imply that humans in general live in, and long for, something beyond everyday reality? Neither the Westerners nor the Africans here believed that human nature could be represented solely through naturalistic depictions. This show suggests that Western readings of African art required an insouciant disregard for the specificity of African religious cultures. Man Ray and his colleagues rearranged African religious objects into a new symbolic alphabet, a kind of godless syncretism whose high priest is the artist himself. The results are as beautiful and challenging as Simone Kahn.
Eve Tushnet, a writer in Washington, blogs at eve-tushnet.blogspot.com.