Cadeau (The Gift) Sculpture by Man Ray

What makes Man Ray’s sculpture Cadeau (The Gift) so special?

  • Mass production, war, and Dada
  • Poking at prevalent perspective
  • Multiple copies of a stolen masterpiece make its point

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Man Ray makes me laugh with Cadeau (The Gift). Like most great jokes, it’s all about the timing. At first glance there’s nothing funny about an old fashioned laundry iron with tacks glued to it. But taking the title into account forces viewers to pause. Man Ray uses a common surrealist technique with this name. Surrealism seeks to set us off kilter a bit. So, it often involves ponderous titles. Ray’s Cadeau (The Gift) presents us an apt example. What gift can a spiked iron give us?

When viewers think it through, the result seems a bit salacious. But they have to process the gift all the way to the end result – shredded clothing. In other words, nudity. Of course, we must mull this a bit to get to the joke. It’s worth the effort, though. I love art that makes me contemplate only to then pay off with a prize. So, Cadeau (The Gift) suits me well. Best part is, that even without the joke, it’s still a masterpiece.

Mass-produced objects fascinated many artists at the time of this work – 1921. Man Ray was a key tastemaker. He made a mighty impact on this trend. The artist also took it a step further. Ray loved to play with human perception. That’s why he poked at viewer psychology and point of view with provocative art pieces.

Man Ray’s found objects even prodded viewers with their mere presence at times. He displaced familiar items to stir unease in us. Cadeau (The Gift) sets a solid example. This laundry iron feels out of place in a museum behind glass. Of course, that’s less true today than it was in 1921. These days an old fashioned iron like this might make sense as a piece of captured history. But art? It’s odd on purpose. The tacks help us see the difference between a historical artifact and a work of art too. So, they are a gift, even if also malicious.

Cadeau (The Gift) by Man Ray

Binaries and Dadaism in Cadeau (The Gift)

The tacks distinguish this ordinary iron. So, it’s no longer a mere everyday object. In the spirit of Dada, this was a common goal among surrealists. Man Ray and his buddy Marcel Duchamp became surrealist icons for doing exactly this. They embraced Dadaism, which was an avant-garde movement that grew out of World War I. The horrors of war left a society battered by the establishment’s orders. People lost confidence in dogma, tradition, and authority. They developed disdain for the status quo. Postwar European sentiment thus created an opportunity for artists to shake up the situation.

It was a fertile field for a fresh perspective to spring forth. This is why many art historians talk about the surrealist art movement as inevitable. Society was ready for new ideas. Man Ray’s wicked take on a common household object created a stir in a numbed out world. He injected the piece with an element of sexy danger. The simple act of using it on your clothes would undress and expose you – naked for all to see.

Through a traditional point of view, Cadeau (The Gift) seems to express a binary. In old school terms, this iron might represent feminine duties like laundering. By the same measure, tacks are for carpentry; and, thus, may be perceived as masculine. Turning this same lens on Man Ray’s work gives it a yin yang feeling. For instance, a laundry iron could represent a constructive, helpful tool. Tacks may symbolize destruction or even pain (underfoot, for instance). No matter how we choose to represent them using this perspective, the pieces oppose each other in meaning.

I have a less binary view of Cadeau (The Gift). After all, ironing causes lots of burns. In fact, an iron can be a weapon just as easily without tacks. I wouldn’t want one upside my head in a cage match. Irons also often damage clothes quite a bit. It’s easy to wreck a garment with a scalding hot metal tool. So, with this perspective, Man Ray’s tacks are overkill.

They point straight out – a critique to the whole notion of commercial, mass produced objects. This concept works in sync with the surrealist and Dada ideals too. Can society trust factories to take care of us with machine-made items? They may be another type of arms dealer in disguise. Man Ray taps into the intrinsic and unifying post war paranoia with Cadeau (The Gift). He shaped the fears and preoccupations of his time into a masterpiece.

Cadeau (The Gift) – FAQs

Why was Man Ray an important artist?

Born as Emmanuel Radnitzy, Man Ray was an innovator in several art genres. Many of his pieces grace the world’s finest museums as surrealist icons. For example, Ray’s most recognizable work, Cadeau (The Gift), crowns the MOMA in Manhattan’s collection – a sculptural gem.

A contemporary and associate of Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray helped invigorate the avant garde of his time. After World War I a depleted Europe welcomed a young cadre off conceptual trixters – the surrealists. Man Ray stood out among them with fresh takes on photography, sculpture, paintings, and even movies.

What is Dadaism?

The avant garde before World War I inspired the Dadaist movement. At its essential core, Dada means anti war. In particular, it questions the establishment behind it. World War I’s devastation made people question the responsible entities. Before the trauma of war, most people trusted that authority would take care of them.

Dadaism touched people’s lives on many fronts, art, music, literature, and poetry. No matter the genre, Dadaist figures and leaders shared certain traits in their work. Most served as a protest against tradition and the status quo. They embraced avant garde ideals. It was common for Dadaists to proclaim these beliefs in a manifesto, even if it was an artistic rendition.

What’s the significance of Man Ray’s sculpture Cadeau (The Gift)?

Man Ray showed Cadeau (The Gift) in his first solo exhibition at Phillippe Soupault’s Galerie Six. That same first day it appeared, the sculpture was stolen and never reclaimed. Ray created several replicas. Two were limited editions, eleven collector’s pieces, and then 5,000 commercial scale replicas.

The later versions shine as coveted gallery gems at worldwide museums. These include New York’s MOMA, London’s Tate Modern, and the American Art Smithsonian in D.C.

It’s also an important piece because even though it exists in multiple, this sculpture remains an icon of Dadaism. In fact, Dadaists loved to comment on mass-produced everyday objects with their work. So, the presence of many replicas makes it even more epic.


Check out these other essays on Surrealism

Francis Naumann, Conversion to Modernism: The Early Work of Man Ray. Rutgers University Press

“Man Ray – Prophet of the Avant-Garde | American Masters”. PBS. September 17, 2005.

Man Ray, “Self Portrait”, Andre Deutsch, London, 1963, 

See Cadeau (The Gift) at the MOMA

Davies, Serena (November 29, 2005). “Under a grand: Man Ray’s Le Cadeau”. The Telegraph.

Herschthal, Eric (November 10, 2009), “Man Ray’s Jewish Identity: ‘Concealing And Revealing'”, The Jewish Week

Penrose, Roland. Man Ray. 1. Boston: New York Graphic Society, 1975.