"The Art of Lee Miller," Sept. 15-Apr. 27, 2008, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, 26th Street and Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Philadelphia, Pa. 19130
"The Art of Lee Miller" is a revelation in more ways than one. And well worth a trip to Philadelphia.
Lee Miller (1907-1977), born Elizabeth Miller in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., is usually known as the muse and lover of the Surrealist photographer Man Ray, who supposedly never got over her, despite their split and long-term friendship. Lee Miller first went to Paris in 1929 with an introduction to Man Ray from Condé Nast photographer Edward Steichen, determined to learn photography from him. Steichen had shot her as a model in New York and thought that she had potential as a photographer herself. That she did, producing her own photographs while modeling for Paris Vogue.
In 1932, Lee Miller opened her own studio with her younger brother in New York, turning out commercial and fashion work, plus portraits and Surrealist images. She marked her independence from Man Ray with an ad for a headband for French Vogue. She modeled the headband and did the photography. Self-Portrait in Headband (1933) showed Lee Miller, model, by Lee Miller, artist. This doubleness, the passive female and the aggressive artist, shows up throughout her life.
Lee Miller’s Surrealist and abstract photos are just plain terrific. Her Untitled [Hand in Silhouette] from 1931 looks as if the hand was reaching for someone’s eye. Her abstract images, such as two street scenes (ca. 1931) shot beneath ground level with repeating heavy dark shadows, are more complex than many similar abstract photographs of the period in the way repetition is creatively deployed in each composition.
Miller actually began her career by training in theatrical lighting. Doing a variety of jobs in New York City, including dancing in the theater, while taking life drawing and "painting for women" classes at the Art Students League, she was discovered as a model by Condé Nast himself, when he saved her from being hit by a car when crossing the street. She was on the cover of Vogue within months. Tall and pretty, she was seen as the new American woman. But her restlessness -- this was a girl who got thrown out of several schools and educated herself, having lasted only seven months studying theatrical design in Paris and a year at Vassar -- soon surfaced.
Lee Miller, for all her feminine beauty, was also a bit androgynous in her helmet of blonde hair. She later combined portraiture and Surrealism in a photograph of Joseph Cornell with a boat that appears to float into the side of his head. A mane of hair hanging from the mast seems to belong to him. Years later, he returned the favor by making a collage of Lee Miller, pasting an image of her in female Victorian dress next to one of her in male Victorian dress.
An impressive cache of photographs resulted from a short-lived marriage to an Egyptian businessman. Lee Miller’s images of Cairo, like her Untitled [Restaurant Table] (ca. 1935-9) with its Surrealist charm, and the desert surrounding it, like Untitled [Snail Shells] (ca. 1936) with large snails clinging to a tree, allowed her Surrealist eye to find the odd in both the manmade and the natural world.
Most of Lee Miller’s work comes from the war years. She was a photojournalist and certainly as intrepid as any male war correspondent. She seemed to be everywhere in the early 1940s, energized by her love for her friends in France and their sufferings. She was one of the first to photograph Normandy, showing the medical teams at work after the battle and contributing a first-person report. She was at the Siege of St.-Malo. Her photograph of piles of dead bodies at Buchenwald is one of many searing images she made during the war. Her Dead SS Guard in Canal at Dachau from 1945 is so complex and beautifully composed that the viewer can endure the horror that is also there.
Simultaneously, Miller was shooting fashion work. But all this activity came at a cost. Eventually she suffered from what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder. The stimulants and trauma that kept her going also contributed to alcoholism.
Lee Miller retained her art connections, marrying the British artist Roland Penrose after the war. She reinvented herself as a Surrealist gourmet chef in charge of the couple’s Sussex farm, welcoming the art world and creating an hilarious portfolio "Working Guests," published in British Vogue in 1953. She photographed Saul Steinberg wrestling with a garden hose and Alfred H. Barr Jr., director of the Museum of Modern Art, tossing a bucket of swill to the pigs. But soon the photographs of Lee Miller stopped coming and older photos went into the attic and stayed there.
Most of Lee Miller’s photos were only found after her death in an attic on the farm by her only child, Anthony Penrose. Not only did her son find her Surrealist and abstract photos but also her photos of Egypt and her extensive wartime photos and reportage. Any of these series would entitle her to an important place in the history of photography.
Anthony Penrose also discovered that Lee Miller had been raped at age seven by a "family friend" and had to endure years of treatment for gonorrhea from childhood off and on into her early adulthood. She also had psychological counseling. This fact adds a new dimension to reports of her restlessness, daring, and rebelliousness. It helps to understand why being extremely feminine might have been frightening for her.
It also gives a new slant to Miller’s many images of confinement and escape, like her Surrealist Portrait of Space from 1937. Other works, such as Untitled [Man and Tar] (ca. 1931) and From the Top of the Great Pyramid (ca. 1937), although abstract, suggest penetration and may have been inspired by her early trauma.
Lee Miller’s photography -- her Surrealist, abstract, portrait, commercial, fashion, Egyptian and WWII images -- and her handful of drawings and collages have been thoughtfully organized in The Art of Lee Miller by Mark Haworth-Booth, who also produced the attractive and well-written catalogue for the exhibition.
With this show, Lee Miller is no longer Elizabeth Miller of Poughkeepsie or Lady Penrose, but the artist Lee Miller -- at last.
"The Art of Lee Miller," was organized for the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, where it was seen from Sept. 15, 2007-Jan. 6, 2008. The exhibition, in slightly different form, is at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Sept. 15-Apr. 27, 2008.
N.F. KARLINS is a New York art historian and critic.