Breton Sepik Mask - New Guinea Art Oceanic Tribal Art Tableaux de Man Ray et Objets des Iles at the Galerie Surréaliste (1926) By Wendy Grossman The surrealist adventure, at the outset, is inseparable from the seduction, the fascination [Oceanic objects] exerted over us. —André Breton, Oceanie (1948) The Galerie Surréaliste opened in Paris in March 1926 with an exhibition titled Tableaux de Man Ray et Objets des Iles. Preceded by his Dadaist credentials, Man Ray had arrived from New York five years earlier and was quickly welcomed into the avant-garde community and the embryonic Surrealist movement. The choice to feature the American artist alongside objects from the South Seas in the inaugural exhibition of the Galerie Surréaliste was notable. While the previous generation of vanguard artists had embraced African art as a vehicle to reinvigorate their creative activities and as an avenue to shock European sensibilities, the Surrealists turned to ritual objects from Oceania for their seemingly raw spiritual and vital essence. They perceived the qualities of these works to be akin to their own artistic aspirations and sought to channel their power. The importance the Surrealists accorded to dreams, the power of the unconscious mind—particularly the collective unconscious—and their interest in myth, animism, magic and the occult drew them to objects from the South Seas both for the challenge they posed to the hierarchies of Western tradition and for their magical allure. On display at the opening of the Galerie Surréaliste on rue Jacques Callot were more than sixty sculptures from Indonesia and the Pacific Islands. These objects were drawn from the collections of André Breton, Paul Éluard, Louis Aragon and other leading members of the Surrealist movement, exhibited alongside twenty-four canvases, works on paper, photographs and assemblages by Man Ray, presumably to suggest their affinity. Among the sculptures included in the exhibition was this mask from the Sepik River region of New Guinea, owned at the time by Breton. It is one of a handful of objects from the exhibition that Man Ray photographed for the accompanying catalogue, where it was reproduced on the back cover. As with the better-known composition that appeared on the front cover, La Lune Brille sur l’ile Nias, the photographer used light and shadow to create a dramatic image evoking a Surrealist sensibility in his image of the Sepik mask. Suspended on the back page within a blank frame, the photograph of the mask is dramatically lit in a manner evoking the same mysterious qualities as the ancestral Nias figure on the front cover. Indeed, the disembodied mask—mounted on a narrow panel—emerges from a black abyss, peering out from within an orb of light and emitting an eerie, moonlike glow, reminiscent of the composition in La Lune Brille sur l’ile Nias. The high-key lighting casts one eye into dark shadow, projecting an ominous yet whimsical character and animating the mask in the process. In his photographs on the catalogue’s front and back covers, Man Ray conveyed through compositional techniques not a documentary representation of the objects but rather an evocation of their spiritual, mystical qualities. The objects in these images are animated through photographic transfiguration, embodying the dislocations and defamiliarized forms characteristic of Surrealist modes of representation.