The series of silkscreen prints, What is Man, was the fruition of an idea that first came to Ruth Tulving when she was teaching at the Ontario College of Art in Toronto.She had given the assignment to her students to come up with a representative work to answer the age-old question “What is Man?” Some came up with interesting ideas, but not one approached the question from the perspective of Man-Woman. And so it was that Ruth Tulving showed them What is Man, “as seen through the loving eyes of a woman”, as she, herself, put it.The initial work she made for the students gave way to a series of 24 beautifully articulated prints to answer the ageless question: What is Man?
Anu Liivak writes in the book Ruth Tulving:“This body of work depicts the artist’s very own and personal feminine point of view in the strong spirit and language of pop art. The set of silkscreens appeals to the viewer with stylistic wholeness and fine balance of emotion and calculation. The exhibition [of this series in a solo show in Tallinn, 1990] introduced the Estonian art public to the delightful area of pop-thinking…”
Ruth Tulving relates how the renowned series What Is Man came about:
In the late 1960s I was involved in starting the Toronto-based Open Studio printmakers workshop. There, in 1969, I began my two-year-long work based on the study of the human figure in an abstract way, that I called What is Man. This is a series of silkscreens done in the op/pop style, a style that was in vogue at the time. The completion of that cycle occurred in 1972, the official Year of the Woman, and the exhibition bearing the title What is Man was circulated in various public art galleries in Canada.
What is Man was actually started as a project for the students at the art college. The class was given a task to do a work in two months’ time entitled “What is Man.” The students could approach the subject in whatever manner they wished. The students brought me preliminary ideas like Man through ages, Man in life: child-adult-old man, Man and technology, Man in political turmoil.Not one of the students brought me a theme concerning the Man as the Male, or Man as seen through the eyes of the Woman. I tried to suggest these possibilities to some of the students, but the students did not see these themes as viable enough for some reason. So I thought that I would paint them an example, so that I could show them that it can be meaningful.
From this one example grew a body of 24 silkscreens.
With them I have tried to show musingly the Man and Woman relationship in certain aspects -- for instance, the woman in the landscape form being the green germinating hill, and the male presence depicted by a moving red cloud. I tried to show motion by making the prints in 1-2-3 step sequence in a film-frame fashion, where one movement follows the other; or a loving look at the male figure turning.