Newsletter - March 2013
Our March lecture
Antony Penrose came to talk to us about the extraordinary life of his mother, Lee Miller. He described her as a surrealist artist, but also a warm, friendly person with a sense of humour. Her image is currently being used to advertise the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, Man Ray Portraits.
In 1925, aged 18 Lee made her first visit to Paris and introduced herself to Man Ray, the surrealist artist and photographer. The surrealists believed in free love, and intolerance of sham, but in spite of that, when Lee and Man Ray became lovers, he was jealous. Their group might intellectualise they were above such things, but in spite of that many of them married – a “bourgeois” relationship. Man Ray had to compromise because of her desire for freedom, but in many other ways he was generous.
The surrealist artists were inspired by language, dream and reality, and found objects; Lee’s photography in this period displayed all these features. Her photographs of nudes have a sculptural quality. Claude Cahun, another surrealist woman photographer, influenced Lee with her self portrait of her own head in a bell jar. This chimed with Lee’s view that woman were often displayed as trophies. Man Ray also used this image in his paintings.
Man’s method was to shoot wide, and crop tight so that his portraits often fill the frame of the photograph. Another of the techniques that Man and Lee developed in their photography was called solarisation – which gives a dark line round images. This was created accidentally when white light entered the darkroom. They both used this freely in their work from then on. Lee’s work has sometimes been attributed to Man, but at this period she said ‘we were so close it was as if we were the same person’.
Man Ray included Lee among his possessions and her body as an object. Her anger at this attitude was heightened when a manufacturer modelled a champagne glass on the shape of her breast. She retaliated by photographing a breast after a radical mastectomy with a knife and fork beside the plate. She was not afraid of shocking.
She also caused outrage by acting in a Jean Cocteau film called ‘Le sang d'un poète’ where she was cast as a statue that comes to life. Man Ray was deeply upset and by October 1931 she had enough of Man Ray’s tantrums and he was practical suicidal. In 1930 he created a self portrait with a rope around his neck, a gun in his hand – and in the barrel of the gun, a cigarette (a smoking gun). The work was titled Suicide. In 1932 Lee left Paris and it took two years for Man to get over his grief. Eventually he forgave her, but he continued to love her till he died.
Lee had been born in upstate New York, and had two brothers; she was a tomboy and rather wild. At the age of 7, she was raped and infected with venereal disease, which caused a great deal of trauma. As a teenager she was with a young man she loved and he died in a boating accident and she was devastated. Maybe as a result of these early disasters, she was unable to really fall in love. In New York she had been stopped from walking in front of a car by the founder of Vogue, Condé Nast. This started her modelling career – she was a very successful model until a photograph of her was used in an advertisement for a feminine sanitary product and her career crashed.
On her return from Paris in 1932, she set up Lee Miller’s Studios in New York; her techniques and artistic vision – influenced by her years in Paris – were way ahead of the Americans, and she both modelled and took the photographs. She also concentrated on portraits. In 1934 she married an Egyptian, Aziz Eloui Bey, and lived in Cairo with him, taking striking surrealist photographs in Egypt. But ex-pat life did not suit her and she returned to Paris and met Roland Penrose, Antony’s father, where their social circle included Picasso and Dora Maar. Picasso was fascinated by Lee and painted her six times, often ‘à l'Arlésienne’, one of which was a direct homage to Van Gogh. Roland meanwhile painted her with legs of ‘earth’, a body of sky, and a head of fire in a painting entitled ‘Night and Day’.
World War II brought about another chapter to Lee’s life; she was in London during the Blitz living with Roland, and became the official war photographer for Vogue, reporting and photographing the bomb damage. In 1944 she became a US war correspondent and teamed up with American photographer David Scherman. Roland was prepared to share Lee with him as he wanted her to be looked after, and he and Scherman remained close friends. She went to France shortly after D day and recorded the siege of St Marlo, and the liberation of Paris, where she was reunited with Picasso. Perhaps being a surrealist was a good training for a war correspondent; she bore witness to the Nazi atrocities at the liberation of Buchenwald and Dachau, which she never spoke about in later life. Lee got the pictures others could not take.
After visiting Dachau she and Scherman stayed in Hitler’s apartment in Munich – the only place in the city with hot running water – and there the famous picture of Lee in the bath tub, taken by Scherman, was taken. Scherman was her best friend, but could not live with her and she returned to London and Roland.
After 1945 she started to drink and her life became a downward spiral of alcohol abuse and depression. She married Roland in 1947 and they moved to Farley Farm in East Sussex where Henry Moore and Man Ray were amongst the many artists who visited. Antony admitted Lee was not cut out to be a mother, but when he himself married his wife Suzanna a partial rapprochement came about. When Lee died in 1977 all her photographs and letters had been consigned to boxes in the attic of Farley Farm, leaving Antony to uncover the entire history of her life and start the Lee Miller Archive.
Antony’s talk about Lee’s amazing life – or as his biography has it, The Lives of Lee Miller – was enthusiastically received. A moving and fascinating evening.
Images of Lee Miller © Photographer Unknown. All rights reserved. The Penrose Collection, England.
Visits for 2012/13 and renewal of membership
The leaflets for the first three visits of our new programme year, and our overseas trip, have been sent to everyone on email and postal lists. These are open to members who have renewed their membership for the coming year starting in May. We do hope these forthcoming events encourage you to renew if you have not already done so. Programme/membership cards will be available to collect at our April lecture or sent out by post to all renewed members. We look forward to an excellent year of lectures and events.
Diary dates – a selection of events
Time and Time, Norfolk Museums, Great Yarmouth
Alfred Wallis: Works from the Kettle’s Yard Collection
30 March – 8 September 2013
Ice Age Art – Arrival of The Modern Mind
until 26 May
Life and death – Pompeii and Herculaneum
28 March – 29 September
National Portrait Gallery
Man Ray Portraits
until 27 May
George Catlin: American Indian Portraits
until 23 June
George Bellows: Modern American Life
until 9 June
Tate Modern (Bankside)
Lichtenstein – A Retrospective
until 27 May
Victoria and Albert Museum
Treasures of the Royal Courts – Tudors, Stuarts and the Russian Tsars
until 14 July