This time last year I was hard at work on Lee Miller’s Eye, a review of the Peabody Essex Museum’s Man Ray | Lee Miller: Partners in Surrealism for the November 2011 issue of Open Letters Monthly Here is a repost, just for posterity. For the article with images, go to OLM.
Antony Penrose only understood his mother after her death. Son of model, muse, photographer and war correspondent Lee Miller and the Surrealist painter Roland Penrose, Antony had always known his parents were unique, entertaining the likes of Picasso on their British farmhouse throughout his childhood. However, his mother’s cosmopolitan past and complicated place within modern art was obscured from Antony by both her reserved nature and frequent bouts of depression-induced drinking. Though each of Miller’s identities dovetailed—her work as a model led to her role as muse, Surrealist photographer and ultimately to her seminal work as one of the first female war correspondents in history—Miller kept each of her selves distinct and staunchly private. While rummaging through the attic of their farmhouse a few years after her 1977 death, Antony and his wife discovered a trove of tattered boxes that contained the relics of Miller’s epic life: her notebooks, letters, negatives and photographs. As he combed through and catalogued her effects, Antony began to understand Miller’s character and artistry, born from her experience of witnessing and being witnessed.
Gorgeous and inquisitive even as a child, Miller was born in Poughkeepsie, New York in 1907 to a sophisticated but idiosyncratic family. At an early age, Miller tragically learned the dangers of sexual desire: before she was ten years old, a family friend raped her. By her early teens her father, an aspiring photographer, habitually chose a pre-pubescent nude Miller as his subject. While we can only speculate about the psychological ramifications of her father’s predilection, Miller’s childhood rape and its ensuing therapeutic treatment forever marred her adult sexual relationships and seemingly stimulated her intensely guarded emotional privacy.
American artist Man Ray was among the only people ever to have infiltrated Miller’s self-containment. The two met in Paris in 1929 when Miller appeared at his studio doorstep to announce that she would be his new pupil. By then Ray was an established member of the Parisian avant-garde, creating paintings and photographs in the chance-driven post-World War I aesthetic, Dada. By the late 1920s, Ray was using photography as vehicle to explore the poignant banality found within everyday objects. Miller became Ray’s apprentice immediately, but their student/teacher relationship quickly became a romantic collaboration lasting for three years. Miller survived as Ray’s inspiration and intimate friend for the rest of their lives, however. Though Ray’s oeuvre has long been studied, Miller’s has only recently received scholarly attention. Furthermore, despite the profound impact that scholars acknowledge Miller and Ray’s long, volatile and collaborative relationship had on their lives and works, it has never been presented in exhibition or publication until now. Organized by Massachusetts’ Peabody Essex Museum with the Lee Miller Archive, “Man Ray | Lee Miller: Partners in Surrealism” is on view until December 4, and with the corresponding catalogue of the same title, offers a compelling glimpse into the labyrinthine connection that Miller and Ray shared, as well as a touching elucidation of how the acts of observation and being observed effected their oeuvres.
Installed in a cozy, honeycombed gallery, the exhibition is divided into six portions and opens with three works foreshadowing the turbulently fruitful connection between Ray and Miller. Ray’s Le Logis de l’artiste (The Artist’s Home, c. 1931) hangs alongside his 1930 portrait of Miller and her 1931 portrait of him. Painted after a fierce argument over authorship of a photograph of Miller’s elongated neck, Le Logis de l’artiste depicts the contested body part in an aggressive, tensely abstract composition. Hung together and adjacent to this work are the portraits that Miller and Ray made of each other, each exuding affection, but suggesting the innate distinctions between their artistic practices and personalities. In Ray’s portrait of her, Miller’s gaze is downward and focused outside the composition’s edge, her face and hair radiant. In her portrait of Ray, the artist is enveloped in shadow, his face broodingly darkened and gaze directed upon Miller’s neighboring visage.
The show includes examples of Ray’s work before meeting Miller as well as photographs of Miller as a fashion model from the 1920s. Represented here is Georges Lepape’s portrait of Miller appearing on the cover of Vogue on March 15, 1927, as are some of Edward Steichen’s portraits of her. The curators evoke Miller’s trauma as a sought-after, scrutinized and ultimately malleable marketing tool through this inclusion. In 1928, Miller provoked furious outrage when Steichen’s full-length portrait of her was used in a nationwide Kotex ad campaign. The ad was the first to use a photograph of a woman, and resulted in a mass of scandalized letters protesting such a disgrace. Still it ran in several major magazines for six months. Though Miller was humiliated, she was also proud “that she had ruffled so many prudish feathers.” The Kotex scandal reinforced for Miller both the power of photography and her powerlessness as a photographed subject. Shortly afterwards, Steichen gave Miller an introduction to Ray and she absconded to Paris.
After convincing Ray to take her as her student (he never accepted apprentices), Miller quickly absorbed photographic technique as well as the Surrealist aesthetic and lifestyle. Originating in Paris in the early 1920s, Surrealism sought to comprehend the incomprehensible in modern life. While Dada was anti-art, looking to ‘pop culture’ and society at large for representational strategy and tools, Surrealist artists utilized conventional Western pictorial devices in order to represent their unconsciousness. Demystifying the movement in her short and sweeping essay at the start of the exhibition’s catalogue, Lynda Roscoe Hartigan, the Peabody Essex’s chief curator, explains that
Surrealism fed as much on philosophy and psychiatry as on revolutionary zeal in its quest to liberate imagination in the service of changing society—a goal that reflected the alienation and desire for individuality that many felt in the aftermath of World War I and under the pressures of modern life.
Surrealist artists rooted their work in the psyche as opposed to the exterior world, recoiling into the recesses of their dreams and imaginations and embracing accident and juxtaposition. Above all else, Surrealists celebrated individuality with pious fervor, and were commonly obsessed with objects or fetishes in which they expressed their often-idiosyncratic desires. Frequently, Ray and Miller’s works from this period share a subject, and as their relationship deepened, it was just as frequently Miller’s figure.
Several canonical examples are presented in the third part of the show, subtly demonstrating how Miller’s physical beauty divided the pair in their romantic and collaborative relationship. By the early 1930s, Ray was consumed with Miller, worshiping with equal zeal her awesome physical presence and keen, intellectual eye. This obsessive admiration and desire transformed Miller in Ray’s mind. Simultaneously, the very elements of Miller’s person that Ray found so desirable—the power of her beauty and her precocious curiosity—were increasingly becoming something of a fetish to herself. Hartigan explains that
To be a fetish implies representing something invisible rather than concrete, so that the fetishistic object is a metaphor for as well as a document or artifact of a belief system…For Miller, the camera and the photograph as objects cut two ways. They were the vehicles for objectifying her, initially by her father the amateur photographer and then by photographers from the worlds of fashion, journalism, and art. In her hands, in the studio or the field, they were also the means to establish her independence and identity from these very circumstances.
Ray’s muse was a Miller-fetish of his imagination: beautiful and smart, but docile.
Correspondingly, informed by her inescapable beauty and subsequent existence as a sex object, Miller’s photography, an act of observation, was paradoxically born from a fetishistic urge escape from the prurience of others.
Ray represents his fetish in his Lee Miller Nude with Sunray Lamp (c. 1929), included in the exhibition’s third portion. Seated suggestively at the edge of a rumpled bed, Miller’s figure is angled away from the viewer and set in shadow. Light from the lamp softly illuminates Miller’s breasts and torso, imbuing her skin with a velvety opulence. While her bent leg coyly hides her sex, Miller’s face is diminutively cast downwards toward it. However sexually aware she seems, this Miller also seems to be considering with melancholy what Ray and so many men crave from her. Contrasted with this sensual work is Miller’s Self-Portrait (c. 1930), in which she represents herself as resolutely sovereign. Miller is again seated, but this time upon an upright chair, her body straightforward towards the viewer. Miller covers herself below the waist with a tightly draped cloth, an gesture of dignified, tenacious protest against her continued objectification. Her partially nude figure made androgynous by her pose, Miller’s arms are bent behind her head in angular points, as if to keep a protective distance. Like in many of her portraits and self-portraits, Miller’s gaze relentlessly avoids that of her spectators, as if confrontation would melt her independence.
Miller fled Ray’s oppressive attempts at control over her life and work in 1932, eventually marrying Aziz Eloui Bey in 1934 and settling with him in Cairo. There, Miller photographed society ladies and the local landscape. Works from Miller’s brief life in Cairo (she left Aziz in 1937) demonstrate her technical command of the medium as well as a flair for surrealism and portraiture alike. However, these works are also marked with by distance and austerity. Though Miller’s marriage and life in Cairo yielded comfort and predictability, it was also devoid of what she desired most: the excitement of fresh experiences, and the power to document them.
All the while, Miller’s absence tormented Ray. His pining verged on the wretchedly pathetic, but stimulated two of his most masterful works, as Phillip Prodger, curator of photography at the Peabody Essex, notes in his extensively researched and pleasingly readable catalogue essay on the dynamics between the pair, “Lee Miller and Man Ray: The Ultimate Surrealist Object.” Indestructible Object (originally made in 1932, replicated in 1959) and A l’heure de l’observatoire—les amourex (Observatory Time—The Lovers, 1964) both emphasize not only the agonizing sadness that Ray endured after Miller left, but the impetuses that finally pushed and pulled her away: her roaming eye and its need to observe as much as his stifling fixation on her physical attributes. Indestructible Object, created in the wake of Miller’s departure, is simply a metronome with her eye, incised from a portrait, affixed to its pendulum. Ray published instructions for making an Indestructible Object, specifying that the pendulum’s eye should belong to a lost love, and should swing for as long as endurance allowed before being destroyed by a hammer with one well-aimed strike. Similarly, A l’heure de l’observatoire—les amourex depicts Miller’s mammoth lips floating over a French countryside, passing over a building on a hill which is, in fact, an observatory that regulated time in France. In his essay, Prodger writes that
in Ray’s painting the observatory, which thus represents quotidian obligations, is dwarfed by Miller’s all-consuming mouth. Turned on their side, the lips resemble female genitalia, delicately referred to in French as le sourire verticale. Considered separately, they might also form the abstract shapes of two bodies, one on top of each other, floating in ecstatic embrace.
Miller’s body remained a fetish to Ray, her absence constantly felt. Smartly placed between Indestructible Object and A l’heure de l’observatoire is letter from Ray, pleading in anguish to Miller for her return.
Miller’s experience under Ray’s gaze informed her documentary photographs of Germany and Eastern Europe during and after World War II. These, her most passionate and moving photographs, are sadly missing from the show, which heightens in the viewer a compassionate identification with Ray’s loss. When World War II erupted, Miller forced her way into a position as a correspondent for the British Vogue—the very magazine that ruthlessly objectified her in her youth now provided her a platform to decry tyranny against individuality. One of the very first female war correspondents, Miller was among the first people to enter Dachau after its liberation. Briefly thereafter, while exploring Eva Braun’s Munich apartment, Miller conceded to model for Life photographer Dave Scherman in his infamous picture of her scrubbing the dirt from the experience off herself in Hitler’s bathtub. Throughout the war, Miller photographed destruction and death with profound candor. Miller’s fear of being vulnerable permeates her wartime photojournalism; perhaps the best example is Miller’s 1945 photograph of a Nazi’s teenaged daughter, found soon after she committed suicide with her family. Reclined on an enormous leather couch, the girl’s arms are almost poised in a position of surrender, only her armband betraying any political affiliation. Miller photographed her with soft empathy for the girl’s forfeiture of her individuality and life.
The lack of Miller’s wartime works in this exhibit accentuates the searing emotional paralysis she felt after the war’s end, as well as Ray’s continued longing for her friendship. The show concludes with various works given to Miller and her husband by their artist-friends, revealing the steadfast commitment that many, chiefly Ray, felt towards Miller despite her privacy and depression. Incapacitated by what we can now identify as post-traumatic stress disorder, Miller’s depression was exacerbated as her exquisite beauty slowly deteriorated in her middle age. As it matured, Miller’s body may have lost the erotic charge of a sex symbol, but her true strength, her power as precocious witness, endured.
At the end of his life, Ray finally understood Miller’s undying passion. Installed in a vitrine in the middle of the gallery is Ray’s Consoler for Lee Miller (If She Needs One, 1974), a cigar-box with an arrow pointing towards a drilled-in peephole that Ray meant to allow Miller to alter her perspective at her whim. Lovingly inscribed, Ray comprehended that freedom to Miller was the ability to see and to see prolifically, and that while he could guide her eye, he could never control it. Through the Consoler, just as he had taught her photographic technique, Ray steered Miller’s eye, but acquiesced to her authority over her own vision. In his tender anecdotal essay that concludes the catalogue’s text, Miller’s son explains the gift as an emblem of Ray’s admiration and embrace of Miller’s driving love of observation. Antony describes the weight of Ray’s gift:
I think what Man meant was that if she didn’t like what she saw in her life, peeping through the lens of his Consoler might give her troubles a different perspective and help her get through them. Right to the end, he loved her; he understood her and cherished her friendship in his own particularly intense way. And she held the same feeling for him. That has given me the unshakable belief that love is a thing of the heart and endures forever, and is not just about being fascinating and attractive while young.
The curators of “Man Ray | Lee Miller: Partners in Surrealism” have mimicked the nuanced explorative experience of Antony’s discovery in the attic in their pocketed, progressive installation. Just as Penrose fully realized the complexity of his mother’s life and contributions to modern art history through organizing her photographs and ephemera (he eventually established the Lee Miller Archive from his find, which he now directs), the viewer understands Miller and her work through gradual views of her work and the work of those surrounding her. Fittingly, the exhibition concludes with a photograph of Miller and Ray during their love affair juxtaposed with an intimate photograph of the pair at the end of their lives (Ray died in 1976), tucked away in a darkly lit recess of the gallery. In a vitrine next to the photographs is another of Ray’s letters to Miller, this time dated about a year before his death. In loose handwriting, Ray describes to Miller how he teases significance from the ordinary through his artistic vision, writing, “I never work from pretty objects, but transform things of no interest into themselves!” At the start of their relationship Miller may have been just a pretty object, but his gaze–her experience of being an object–directed her sharp curiosity, helped her find her own vision.