Some of the best-known works by Surrealist artists like Salvador Dali and Rene Magritte are set to go on sale at Christie’s next week, alongside lesser-known but equally intriguing examples of wearable art jewelry by artists and jewelers including Man Ray, Noma Copley and Max Ernst. The top lot in the sale of works from the Jacobs Collection, is Man Ray’s famous 1924 photograph Le Violon d’Ingres, above, which was retained by the artist until 1962 when the Jacobs acquired it, and is expected to sell for up to $7 million. It’s the highest estimate in history for a single photograph.
The collection grew out of Rosalind Gersten Jacobs and Melvin Jacobs’ friendships with the artists in question – its starting point was a gouache by Magritte, Eloge de la dialectique ($2.5 million – $4.5 million), which was given to Rosalind Gersten Jacobs by William and Noma Copley. “Every single work has a unique story and personal significance,” says Allegra Bettini, Associate Vice President, Specialist and Head of Works on Paper, at Christie’s.
“The couple was in the fashion retail industry and in the collection, you see nods to the world of fashion in the wearable art by Noma Copley and Man Ray,” she continues. Man Ray’s Pendantif-pendant earrings ($20,000 – $30,000) are fluid spirals of gold based upon his 1919 Lampshade sculpture, while Copley’s Gold Button Ring with Four Round Emeralds ($1,200 – $1,800) reflects the artist’s drive to “transform the everyday into poetry to wear”, an eloquent endorsement of art jewelry at a time when sculpture and works on paper commanded the highest prices.
The Jacobs were not motivated by investment value and most of their works were acquired from friends: “the artists were mentors who not only inspired and guided my parents but also, essentially, were instrumental in curating the collection,” says Peggy Jacobs Bader, daughter of Rosalind Gersten Jacobs and Melvin Jacobs. “The joyful spirit of my parents’ relationship with the artists is reflected… one gets a visceral sense of their love of Surrealism, their discerning eye for great art, their playfulness and, at times, their mischievousness.”
Allegra Bettini told me more about the sale of a highly personal collection of works that not only tells the story of the life and times of one American couple, but also charts the history of one of the best-known artistic movements of the 20th century.
To what extent does the collection tell the story of the Surrealist movement?
The Jacobs collection largely covers the Dada and Surrealist movements. The works by Marcel Duchamp include the cheeky, erotic sculpture Feuille de vigne femelle and the artist’s box of miniatures De ou par Marcel Duchamp ou Rrose Sélavy (La Boîte)—both of which are dedicated to the couple by the artist. René Magritte is very present in the collection through paintings, gouaches, drawings and even photographs; including one of the finest drawings to appear at auction; Le modèle rouge. Perhaps the best-represented artist in the collection is Man Ray, his emblematic photograph Le Violon d’Ingres is a true masterpiece of the category. The Jacobses also acquired ten of his experimental Rayographs, several paintings, works on paper, playful readymades and jewelry.
What do you think drew the couple to Surrealism in particular?
The people! Rosalind Gersten Jacobs (‘Roz’) often said that she fell in love with the people, and then the art. Through a chance meeting with Bill and Noma Copley in 1954, the young Roz gained access to the world of Dada and Surrealist artists. The Copleys introduced Roz to Man Ray and his wife Juliet. When Roz met Melvin (‘Mel’) Jacobs, the community embraced him too—supporting their whirlwind romance and bringing Mel into their close-knit group. These were friendships first and foremost; the collection grew out of these relationships.
What are the common themes running through the collection?
Along with friendship and direct connection to the artists, another key theme is playful subversion. Roz said that “the surrealists were fun people to be with” and that “life was the butt of the joke,” this tongue-in-cheek view can be traced throughout the collection, in Copley’s eroticized tableau of interlocking figures in Capella Sextina, or Dalí’s chess set cast from fingers. The Surrealists also enjoyed word play; for example, Man Ray’s Le Violon d’Ingres translates literally to “Ingres’s violin” and is also a French idiom for a hobby (because the artist was such a good painter his other engagements were mere pastimes); the independent scholar Francis Naumann suggested that this would have had resonance for Man Ray and how he viewed his photographic practice.
To what extent does the collection blur the boundaries between wearable art and fine art?
The Jacobs collection does indeed blur the boundaries between wearable and fine art—the wearable art (or art jewelry) is really an extension of the fine art. With her strong interest in surrealism and supporting artists in general, Roz wore the jewelry as an outward representation of the collection showcasing necklaces, bracelets, rings and brooches made by her talented friends and the wider artistic community.
Tell me a little about how Man Ray’s creativity is expressed through jewelry. What are the similarities and differences with his better-known photography, for example?
As a Surrealist and Dadaist, Man Ray enjoyed pushing the boundaries of each medium whether it was photography, painting, printmaking or jewelry. He was attracted to the possibility of creative opportunity, the imagery and inspiration were consistent across his work. He often said “to create was divine, to reproduce is human” and it was inherent to his work as an artist to reinvigorate themes and subjects over the course of his long career.
In the 1960s, Man Ray started a collaboration with the Italian goldsmith GianCarlo Montebello. Conceived as wearable art, the works applied earlier sculptural ideas to gold jewelry;The Occulist was originally created in 1944 out of a plank of wood, doweling, string and a broken pane of glass; Man Ray has applied the theme in gold and malachite to be worn as a brooch. To dive a little deeper here, Man Ray is playing with our ideas of sight and perception—he asks us to confront illusion and think about looking out and being looked at.
Which pieces of art and jewelry do you find most interesting?
For me, the Noma Copley pieces are an amazing discovery. She was such a crucial figure in the Jacobses lives — a confidant, friend and advisor. Noma was married to artist, patron, and former gallery owner William Copley. She was dedicated to the William and Noma Copley Foundation which supported artistic endeavors through grants and the publication of monographs. Later in her life, Noma began to design jewelry, creating everyday objects (like buttons or neckties) out of fine materials like gold, silver and incorporating precious stones. The resulting works are incredibly witty designs that integrate Surrealist influences.
I am also incredibly drawn to Dorothea Tanning’s Le mal oublié. The work is a seminal painting from her mature style, referred to as her kaleidoscopic or prismatic period. The dreamlike composition is evidence of Tanning pushing herself closer and closer to abstraction; she has eschewed earlier applications of surrealism in favor of this more gestural approach to the subconscious. The painting highlights another friendship – Tanning was a close friend of the Jacobses; the Jacobs’ archives include lots of heartfelt letters from the artist, including one, written in advance of her first major retrospective, in which she contacted the Jacobses to loan their picture and invited them to the opening; her “big moment” … “a kind of official consecration of a life of painting”.
The Jacobs Collection will be auctioned by Christie’s New York in The Surrealist World of Rosalind Gersten Jacobs & Melvin Jacobs, Rockefeller Center, May 14th, followed by an online sale. Lots are currently on view.