Sealed lips say a lot. A pair painted in the rainbow colours of the gay pride flag became the focus of a moving photo that circulated in the news this week. The identity of the young woman to whom the delicately defiant lips belong – an attendee of a one-year anniversary memorial service for the 49 victims of the mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida last year – is concealed by the close-up crop of the image, making it impossible for us to look her in the eye.
By keeping the observer’s attention squarely on her mute mouth, the photographer succeeds in dislocating his subject’s expression from something glancing and ephemeral to something enduring and universal. Her message of solidarity speaks volumes in its speechlessness.
The photo’s silent eloquence on the subject of loss (and its hint of hope stretching across the sky) calls to mind one of the more tender visual statements from Modern Art: Man Ray’s 1934 oil painting Observatory Time – The Lovers. When Man Ray’s muse, model, lover, and creative rival, the photographer Lee Miller, left him in 1932, after three turbulent years, the split devastated the legendary Surrealist. In his struggle to cope with Miller’s departure, Man Ray found himself re-evaluating how he related to his art. For Observatory Time – The Lovers, he imagined Miller’s lips, mystically untethered from her body, drifting at enormous scale in the sky above a forest – swelling like a meteorological phenomenon of ambiguously good or ill omen.
It wasn’t the first time Man Ray had imagined the body of his former lover disintegrating into component fragments that haunted and taunted him. In the months after she left him, he fitted a photograph of Miller’s eye onto the pendulating arm of a metronome – the basis for one of his most famous works, Object To Be Destroyed (a readymade sculpture he’d initially conceived in 1923). Man Ray had convinced himself that by staring at Miller’s eye for as long as he could, as it rocked back and forth in perfect time, he would eventually overcome his excruciating heartache.
In the case of Observatory Time – The Lovers, the very making of the painting was conceived to help Man Ray cope with his loss. For several years, he would begin each day by adding a single brushstroke to its levitating lips – as if slowly transferring from himself to the canvas a a throbbing palette of pain. Eventually, he and Miller did indeed manage to repair their friendship, if not their romance. They remained extremely close for the rest of their lives. Placed alongside this week’s photo from Orlando, Man Ray’s weightless pout reminds us of the emotional mystery of lips – how they often mean the most when they say the least.
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