Having read the inspiring biography on Lee Miller: A Life, by Carolyn Burke a few years ago by, I was impressed with her range of artistic and political might. As a muse, model and lover for the Surrealist ringleader, Man Ray from 1929 – 1932, they feed on one-another’s artistic fervor. Ray did some of his best work with her and she the same. As a feminist, she also asserted herself in the art world among heavyweights, as well as in their relationship.
The book details the community of artist that circled them. Especially the summers spent in the south of France, with the likes of the Eduards and Picasso. The artistic games they played and work they produced, would humble the most prolific artist. Paris, in this period, was the nirvana sought by all of us creative people, complete with cigarettes and absinthe. The iconoclastic pursuits of Duchamp and Breton, produced some inscrutable art works that challenged the mind and perception. The Urinal comes to mind. The intention here was to reorient our perspective of reality and especially common objects (ready-mades). The evolution of the movement to Dada created some splintering of the core group, but Miller remained a central character.
Miller started her career as a model in New York. Very successful and stunningly beautiful, she became the favorite of many fashion photographers. She moved to Paris to get a fresh look on life, and because she always viewed fashion with a jaundiced eye, despite her middle class rearing, she knew there was more out there. Her interest in photography took her behind the camera. She showed up to Man Ray in a bar and announced that she was to be his student. “I don’t take students,” he replied. “I am going to the South for holiday,” he proclaimed. Miller upped him and declared she was accompanying him, albeit their first meeting. And she did! It was in this role, that she collaborated with Ray. He being the famous, and much older icon, he struggled with their collaboration. He seemed content in using her as a model but uneasy with their being equal partners.
Miller’s work in the current show, Man Ray | Lee Miller: Partners in Surrealism, at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco, is quite scattered. When seen in the vein of Man Ray’s work it seems cohesive and remarkable.
Her exploration of Solarization (Sabatier) was discovered when a mouse ran over her foot in the darkroom and she accidentally turned on the light during processing and then turned it off again is sublime.
Ray took it further with his compositions. Her vision was rooted in a much more experiential realm, not the learned realm of the trained and disciplined artists of her circle. In this sense, it was Surrealisitic. Shooting reflections and patterns created by a rattan chair seat, she shot in the real world while Ray shot in his controlled studio. One strong image employed a tenant of the Surrealist, ‘Exploding Still.’ She shot outside a Parisian perfumery where the glass door was deeply scratched by diamond rings. The exhibition is more about her as a woman than that of an artist.
When she left him in 1931, he was devastated. She moved back to New York and began a very successful fashion photographic career. Her earlier association with George Hoyningen-Huene proved fruitful so upon her return he used her as model and assistant. From Ray’s continued letters and their rapprochement in 1937, he never seemed to recover from her absence. He in fact created a ready-made of a metronome with an image of her eye placed on the hand, to remember or to exorcise himself of her memory, unsuccessful as it was. When the War broke out, she gained an unusual government document to photograph the battles and free range throughout the campaign. Ray escaped to Los Angeles. This is some of her most powerful and emotional work. The work seemed to take a toll on her psyche as well. She documented the liberation of several concentration camps, including the most horrific Dachau. Miller aged considerable both physically and spiritually.
One memorable image is her bathing in Hitler’s tub shortly after he ‘committed suicide.’ There is a compelling honesty and forthrightness to her images of the war that is seldom seen even in today’s ‘embedded’ photojournalism. She is feeling the pain of the battle and soldiers. Her complicated images of the suicidal Nazis are very poignant. She entered into a depressive state, according to friends and Ray’s opinion. He sent her endearing images to brighten her spirit, many of which are exhibited here.
She continued making fashion pictures for French Vogue after the War and even joined the Life Bureau in Paris. She once took a masticated breast to the Vogue office to suggest a photo spread. She was harangued out of the office and then shot it on a plate alongside a lovely, pressed table napkin. She had some conflicting issues that gave her the impetuous to create wonderful, insightful images but also tore her up from the inside.
Other images that imply the objectification of women, include a head in a Bell Jar.
The superbly installed exhibition successfully created the context of the artwork of her period of collaboration with Ray. Picasso painted her six times, her film with Cocteau titled ‘The Blood of a Poet’ (Le Sang d’un Poète) caused friction and jealousy with Ray who thought the gorgeous muse was having an affair.
Nonetheless, she was sought after and lead the life a of an independent woman with flare and vision. It is unfortunately difficult for me to discern the images of Ray from Miller. I have long been a fan of Ray, especially his seminal Rayograms that influenced me as a young photographer and student. As with Picasso, when you mature and realize the influence that others have on artists, it is eye opening. I recall a show at MOMA where one room was devoted to all six of Picasso’s main lovers, and how the progress of the images devolved as he became distant from them, they are just humans with extraordinary talents. Miller married a British artist Roland Penrose, and they had a son Antony. She was included in the prestigious exhibition at Moma, Family of Man.
The Woman as Muse is such a staple of Western art,
and here in this exhibit, it is being questioned.