Front / Recto

  • Title The Secret Gathering (Solarization) (Le Conciliabule [Solarisation])
  • Negative Date 1938
  • Print Date 1938–59
  • Medium Gelatin silver print
  • Dimensions Image 15 5/8 × 11 11/16" (39.7 × 29.7 cm)
    Mount 15 11/16 × 11 13/16" (39.8 × 30 cm)
  • Place Taken Paris
  • Credit Line Thomas Walther Collection. Abbott-Levy Collection funds, by exchange
  • MoMA Accession Number 1884.2001
  • Copyright © 2015 / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris
  • Description

    The image is from a series about Penthesilea, the mythic queen of the Amazons, as recounted by Heinrich von Kleist, a German Romantic writer whose work Raoul Ubac read in his youth. To represent the queen and her consort, Ubac carefully lit and posed his wife, Agi, with a friend, and he solarized the resulting images to partially annihilate their forms. Ubac was deft with his darkroom manipulations: to create this image he progressed through four steps of montage, repeating solarizations on each of them in turn. He pieced in additional nudes and objects—different images of Agi and her friend brandishing staves, coils of rope, and stones—with extra shots of Agi’s curly hair. The work was then rephotographed and solarized during processing, then combined with other images in further iterations with still more elements in steps that are almost invisible in the finished image, though perceptible in the fine gradation of tones in the darkest passages. [1] Thus Ubac metamorphosed a few negatives of real people and things into larger rhythmic groupings of as many as twelve figures displayed horizontally, as in a frieze.

    The series recalls ancient Greek carvings of Amazons, whose naked flesh and coils of hair emerge from the shadowed recesses of sarcophagi; here these symbols of strong sexual and aggressive drives seem to arise from the archaic unconscious. Photography was useful for the Surrealists because of its unique relationship with reality: its truthful depiction contains its potential deformation (due to the plasticity of the photographic negative/positive process). The Penthesilea groupings perfectly demonstrated this duality, so much so that they were chosen by the Surrealist-in-chief, André Breton, to accompany one of his poetic texts in Minotaure, an important Surrealist magazine that also featured charged and highly evocative images by Man Ray and Brassaï. [2]

    This unusually large, exhibition-scale photograph was printed on Agfa Brovira double-weight paper by Ubac probably a few years after World War II, when bigger photographic papers once again became available after wartime shortage. Brovira paper was one of the longest-lived products made by Agfa. The product logo appears on the verso of this sheet in a font and style suggesting that the paper was manufactured in the 1940s to mid-1950s. The presence of titanium in the paper, detected through X-ray fluorescence analysis, also suggests a late date for the print, since manufacturers began to use titanium as a paper filler in the 1950s. The paper’s very matte surface emphasizes the flat gray tone that seems to steal over the nudes like sediment settling, solidifying them into fossils. Despite this or perhaps in part because of it, the malevolent eroticism generated by these strangely metamorphic figures remains unsettling and potent.

    —Maria Morris Hambourg, Hanako Murata

    [1] Rosalind Krauss, “Corpus Delicti,” in Dawn Ades, Krauss, and Jane Livingston, Explosante-Fixe: Photographie et surréalism (Paris: Hazan, 1985), p. 70.

    [2] André Breton, “Des tendances les plus récentes de la peinture surréaliste,” Minotaure 3, nos. 12–13 (1939), n.p.

Back / Verso

  • Mount Type No mount - evidence previous mounting
  • Marks and Inscriptions Signed in black ink on mount verso, top left: R. Ubac. Inscribed in black ink on mount verso, top left: 1938/SOLARISATION. Inscribed in pencil on mount verso, bottom right: [illegible].
  • Provenance The artist, Paris; to Marcel Jean (1900–1993), Paris, before 1959 [1]; to Herbert Molderings, Cologne, 1980s [2]; purchased by Thomas Walther, February 15, 1993 [3]; purchased by The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2001.
    [1] Herbert Molderings, letter to Maria Morris Hambourg, October 1, 2013. Marcel Jean was a member and historian of the Surrealist movement.
    [2] MacGill/Walther 2000, p. 38; and Molderings, letter to Hambourg.
    [3] MacGill/Walther 2000(2), p. 47.

Back Printing

Detail showing Agfa-Brovira manufacturer logo printed in ink on the verso of the photograph. In image processing, contrast was adjusted to enhance the readability of the logo. The area of detail is 1 x 3 cm. Department of Conservation, MoMA


  • Surface Sheen Matte
  • Techniques Enlargement
  • PTM
    View of the recto of the artwork made using reflectance transformation imaging (RTI) software, which exaggerates subtle surface details and renders the features of the artwork plainly visible. Department of Conservation, MoMA
  • Micro-raking
    Raking-light close-up image, as shot. Area of detail is 6.7 x 6.7 mm. Department of Conservation, MoMA
    Raking-light close-up image, processed. Processing included removal of color, equalization of the histogram, and sharpening, all designed to enhance visual comparison. Department of Conservation, MoMA

Paper Material

  • Format Metric
  • Weight Double weight
  • Thickness (mm) 0.29
  • UV Fluorescence Recto negative
    Verso negative
  • Fiber Analysis Softwood bleached sulfite 91%
    Hardwood bleached sulfite 5%
    Rag 3%
    Bast 1%
  • Material Techniques Developing-out paper
    Back printing
  • XRF

    This work was determined to be a gelatin silver print via X-ray fluorescence (XRF) spectrometry.

    The following elements have been positively identified in the work, through XRF readings taken from its recto and verso (or from the mount, where the verso was not accessible):

    • Recto: P, S, Ca, Zn, Sr, Ag, Ba
    • Verso: Al, P, S, Ca, Ti, Zn, Sr, Ba

    The graphs below show XRF spectra for three areas on the print: two of the recto—from areas of maximum and minimum image density (Dmax and Dmin)—and one of the verso or mount. The background spectrum represents the contribution of the XRF instrument itself. The first graph shows elements identified through the presence of their characteristic peaks in the lower energy range (0 to 8 keV). The second graph shows elements identified through the presence of their characteristic peaks in the higher energy range (8 to 40 keV).

    Areas examined: Recto (Dmax: black; Dmin: green), Verso or Mount (blue), Background (red)
    Elements identified: Al, P, S, Ca, Ti, Ag, Ba
    Areas examined: Recto (Dmax: black; Dmin: green), Verso or Mount (blue), Background (red)
    Elements identified: Zn, Sr, Ag

In Context

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