Man with a Gramophone – Marek Włodarski
Marek Włodarski’s (a.k.a. Henryk Streng) 1926 painting Man with a Gramophone was created by the Polish artist while he was under great influence of Fernand Léger. Since 1925, he studied painting under him in Académie Moderne in Paris. Until late 1920s, he stayed in the French capital, which allowed him to get acquainted with other avant-garde artists, including the surrealists André Breton and André Masson.
Man with a Gramophone first appeared at a 1928 exhibition in Lviv, preceding the formation of the Artes Group – the first Lviv-based surrealist group, which, besides Włodarski, also included Otto Hahn, Ludwik Lille and Jerzy Janisch among others.
Włodarski’s painting depicts an unshapely mannequin-man. He sits on a chair by the table on which a cone-shaped gramophone is placed. The character turns on the gramophone with a hand motion, and the vertically-composed scene is essentially a bar scene, as indicated by the beer mug next to the audio equipment and the background resemblant of an outlandish pub interior.
The titular Man with a Gramophone is a mannequin, lacking left arm and left leg, whose shape is composed of geometrical cubes: interconnected circles and cylinders. His silhouette, in a way characteristic of Léger’s, Włodarski’s tutor’s, paintings, seems to seamlessly connect with a machine, in this case a playing gramophone. The painted mannequin’s clothing and face are incongruent. Alongside a suit too flamboyant for its time, he is also wearing elegant shoes and a black derby hat. With a glued moustache, he resembles a character from the old times, echoing a figure mocked by Charlie Chaplin in his films, leeching of a vagrant garb’s comic quality and its unadjustedness to the new era. The gramophone next to him symbolises modernity. It shaped the new, crazy entertainment culture of the 1920’s, popularised jazz and other musical forms and also brought around the power of reproduced sounds, which could be played anywhere and at any time, without the music bands’ participation and the need to organise live concerts. The gramophone was appearing more and more often in various bars and venues, adding to their charm.
The gramophone was invented by Emil Berliner in 1897 and was an improvement over Thomas Edison’s phonograph (1877). This ‘talking machine’ differed from its predecessor in two important aspects: first, the sound vibrations were not registered on wax cylinders, but on discs; second, the gramophone’s appearance initiated the record industry’s birth. The first sound recordings, which could be played on a gramophone, are dated 1899.
Until mid 1920s, when the Man with a Gramophone was finished, the music industry developed at a tremendous pace and the famous 1925 Paris Exhibition popularised music entertainment culture in the French capital. At that time, Paris aspired to become the new era’s metropolis, a multicultural centre of modernity: fashion, dancing and jazz. Włodarski, living in the French capital at the time, must have encountered the roaring twenties aesthetic, but his Man with a Gramophone expresses a sense of nostalgia more than wonderment over the modern, fun-loving life’s aesthetics. The Man with a Gramophone is a character frozen in movement, petrified, as if he was looking beyond the world portrayed on the canvas.
A closer inspection of the gramophone’s image’s presence in fine arts reveals the machine as the main theme of one of the best-known paintings on the aesthetics of listening – Francis Barraud’s His Master’s Voice (1898), depicting a fox terrier listening intently to his deceased master’s voice emitted by the device. At the 20th century’s forefront, the gramophone was considered proof of human voice’s immortality and called the ‘talking machine’. Regarding the second aspect, the device not accidentally became central to works by Man Ray and René Magritte. They recognized the everyday objects’ hidden meaning, often attributing them with human qualities and leeching of their oddness in their environment. An example of the latter was Magritte’s famous painting L'Assassin menacé (1927), in which the gramophone plays a pivotal role.
In spite of Włodarski’s attempted search of a surrealist aesthetic, his Man with a Gramophone was lodged in a space characteristic of Léger and surrealism. More so, Léger’s works often portrayed objects such as a beer mug (Still Life with a Beer Mug, 1921) or a derby hat (Umbrella and a Derby Hat, 1926), while the surrealists depicted mannequins. Włodarski adds the gramophone’s image, absent from his French master’s works, to this list of distinctive items. In effect, he provokes additional questions concerning the place of human-like creations in the world of reproduced sounds, entertainment and café culture, and in the perspective of the coexistence of humans, machines and inanimate objects in the bizarre reality of modern times.
Originally written in Polish by Przemysław Strożek, October 2017. translated by Patryk Grabowski, November 2017.Culture.pl