Wednesday, March 5, 2008

More Than Just a Pretty Face

Self Portrait in Headband, New York, 1932 © Lee Miller Archives, England 2008. All rights reserved.

A high fashion model beginning in the 1920s, Lee Miller starred first in front of the camera and later behind it—sometimes even both, as in Self Portrait in Headband, New York (above). Miller’s legendary beauty beguiled fellow artists such as Man Ray and Picasso, earning her the title of “muse of the Surrealist movement.” Behind that beauty, however, hid great pain. Raped by a family friend at just seven years of age, and contracting gonorrhea from the experience, Lee became, in the words of fellow Surrealist Eileen Agar, “a remarkable woman, completely unsentimental and sometimes ruthless.” Miller’s “ruthlessness” served her well in first carving out a niche in the all-male club of Surrealist art and later in pursuing the most horrific corners of World War II as one of the first female photojournalists in battle. The PMA’s current exhibition, The Art of Lee Miller, commemorates the centennial of her birth and displays the depth of artistry behind that artful exterior.

Lee Miller was literally born in front of a camera, the child of devoted amateur photographer father in Poughkeepsie, New York. Theodore photographed his precious daughter at eight years of age, just one year after the tragic rape, nude in the snow in a work he called “December Morn.” He continued to photograph his daughter in artistic nudes up through her early twenties, honing her modeling skills. When Conde Nast, publisher of Vogue, discovered Lee in 1927, her modeling career as the quintessential flapper began. Mark Haworth-Booth, in the catalogue to the exhibition, describes Miller’s appearance in these photographs as “an elegant woman accustomed to command.” Even when appearing in a Kotex feminine product ad, the first to feature a woman, Miller seems in cool command and serenely sexual.

Miller’s ability to command helped gain her entry into the world of art when she moved to Paris in 1929. “My name is Lee Miller and I’m your new student,” she legendarily told Man Ray upon finally meeting him. Despite Man Ray’s protest that he didn’t take students, he took Miller on as a student, assistant, and lover for the next three years. “Lee learned Man Ray’s techniques so well, including solarization, which required very careful adjustments of lighting, exposure and development,” Haworth-Booth writes, “that many of her portraits can stand comparison with his.” Her relationship with Man Ray opens a whole new world for Miller, leading to an appearance in the 1931 Surreal film The Blood of a Poet by Jean Cocteau, and friendships with Picasso, Salvador Dalí, and other artists. Paris itself became her Surrealist subject, influenced heavily by the photography of Eugene Atget, a precursor to the Surrealist movement that they adopted posthumously as one of their own. Miller believed that her female intuition gave her, and all female photographers, an advantage over her male counterparts in “understand[ing] personalities more quickly than men,” which comes across in the many portraits she did around this time of actor Charles Chaplin, poet Mina Loy, and others.

Portrait of Space, Nr Siwa, Egypt, 1937 © Lee Miller Archives, England 2008. All rights reserved

After her relationship with Man Ray ends in 1932, Miller meets and marries an Egyptian government official named Aziz Eloui Bey in 1934. Living in Egypt, Miller photographs street scenes in Cairo as well as landscapes during expeditions into the surrounding desert. The stark landscape becomes the subject of works such as her beautiful Portrait of Space, Nr Siwa, Egypt (above), which looks through a broken screen onto the desert and mountains in the distance. The catalogue reproduces the series of photographs Miller shot before arriving at the final version of Portrait of Space, allowing you to see the mental process Miller performed in cropping and editing the image and choosing just the right angle to achieve the exact effect she wanted. The aridity of the Egyptian terrain provided the perfect subject matter for Lee’s dry humor and no-nonsense personality. By 1937, Miller’s marriage was failing and she spent the summer in Paris with Picasso, Man (no hard feelings) Ray, Max Ernst, Dorothea Tanning, and her next husband, Roland Penrose, reestablishing her position in Surrealist and art circles.

Dead SS Guard in the Canal, Dachau, Germany, 1945 © Lee Miller Archives, England 2008. All rights reserved.

Summer of 1937 provided one last idyll before the war swept across Europe. In England with Penrose, Miller found work photographing the war effort, publishing Grim Glory: Pictures of Britain under Fire in 1941 to document the Blitz. Photo essays on women manning searchlights and nurses in the theater of war allowed Miller to gain entry into wartime photojournalism while also promoting the role of women in the war effort. After D-Day, Miller followed Allied forces with her camera and pen as they liberated Europe. Flying over freshly liberated France, Miller writes, “My self-conscious analysis was forgotten in greedily studying the soft, grey-skied panorama of nearly a thousand square miles of France… of freed France.” Miller’s unashamed emotion, along with her customary steely, controlled eye, brought the war in Europe back to American and England vibrantly. When the Allies liberated the concentration camps at Buchenwald and Dachau, Miller is there, documenting the atrocities. “BELIEVE IT!” one piece shouts, accompanied with grim photos such as her Dead SS Guard in the Canal, Dachau, Germany (above), which simultaneously depicts the absurdity of war while employing Surrealist sensibilities. “No question that German civilians knew what went on,” Miller writes indictingly, never accepting their claims of ignorance. (It would be entertaining to know what Miller would think of today’s Holocaust deniers.) Unfortunately, many of Miller’s more caustic comments were removed and more graphic photos suppressed by her American editors, who, like the American public, longed to put the war behind them as quickly as possible.

Lee Miller in Hitler’s Bath, Munich, Germany 1945 (Lee Miller with David E. Scherman) © Lee Miller Archives, England 2008. All rights reserved.

Miller, unfortunately, could not put the war behind her. While traveling through liberated Munich, Miller and fellow correspondent David E. Scherman visited Adolf Hitler’s apartment there. Scherman photographed Miller bathing in Hitler’s bathtub (above), her heavy army-issue boots—still caked with mud—sitting on the tile floor. Miller could never wash away the trauma of seeing the death camps, becoming an alcoholic in response to what we would call post-traumatic stress disorder today. Her photography career gradually faded away as she settled into domesticity on a farm in Sussex, England, with Penrose and their son, Antony, who knew little of his mother’s work while growing up and, since her death, has dedicated his life to her legacy. Miller’s photographs stand on a par not only with those of Man Ray but also with those of Edward Weston and other giants of twentieth century photography. If there is a ruthlessness to her beauty and the beauty of images, it is understandable in response not only to her childhood trauma but also to the barriers both contributed to and transcended by her sexuality. If standing before the lens allowed her time behind it, Lee Miller seemed comfortable with the transaction. Like Frida Kahlo, the subject of another centennial celebration at the PMA, Miller never allowed her vulnerability to show on her face, expressing it instead in her art.

[Many thanks to the PMA for providing me with a review copy of Mark Haworth-Booth’s The Art of Lee Miller and for the images from the exhibition.]

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