Guest post by Lauren Richman.
It is 1929 and Lee Miller (American, 1907–1977) has just settled in Paris. At only 22 years old, Miller had already lived one of what would be many remarkable lives: after a chance meeting with publisher Condé Nast, she was propelled into the fashion world, her drawn likeness appearing on the cover of Vogue magazine in 1927. After years spent in front of the camera, Miller heeded the advice of famed photographer Edward Steichen and relocated to the French capital to both pursue photography and immerse herself in its dynamic arts scene.
By way of a letter of introduction, Miller connected with Man Ray — one of the most influential avant-garde artists of the period and seventeen years Miller’s senior — and offered to work as his bookkeeper and lab assistant. Not long after, Man Ray photographed Miller nude; then, they became lovers. Regardless of Miller’s fierce independence, ambition, and savvy, the inherent and significant power imbalance is difficult to ignore. In fact, their artistic collaboration has only more recently been recognized as just that: a collaboration.
In 1929, Miller accidentally discovered the solarization technique after a mouse frightened her in the darkroom and she turned on a light before a set of negatives had fully developed. Exemplified in Solarized Portrait of a Woman (1930), the technique produces a tone reversal: a glowing, halo-like quality derived from overexposure. Struck by its avant-garde potential, Man Ray worked alongside Miller to refine it; however, he accepted principal recognition for the discovery over the course of his lifetime. Other stories like this one exist in the literature: unhappy with a portrait of Miller, Man Ray disposed of the negative, only for it to be recovered from the trash bin by Miller. By cleverly cropping the resulting print to illustrate only her neck, Miller transformed what Man Ray accepted as failure into a surrealist icon. Furious, Man Ray insisted upon sole credit for the work, but Miller was unwilling to concede. After he banished her from his studio during an argument, Miller returned to find the photograph tacked to a wall: Man Ray had violently slashed her rendered throat and smeared red ink across the wound.[i]
Around the same time, Miller met French poet, artist, and filmmaker Jean Cocteau at a nightclub, where he immediately cast her in his film Le Sang d’un Poète (The Blood of a Poet, 1930). The film opens with a dedication to “painters of insignias and enigmas,” pointing to the perceived struggles of being a poet: the shedding of blood and tears, the poem as a coat of arms. As such, The Blood of a Poet functions as an allegory of the artistic process, with an undeniably gendered tone. We first meet Miller’s character as a two-dimensional visage drawn by Cocteau’s petulant poet. Suddenly, her lips come to life. They taunt him with inaudible speech, resulting in their violent erasure at the hand of the poet. However, upon washing his hands, the poet notices the lips have now transferred to his own hand — “contracted . . . like leprosy”[ii] — as he watches bubbles of oxygen rise to the water’s surface. After using the disembodied lips in a masturbatory act, the poet transfers the lips to an armless, white marble statue played by Miller by aggressively covering her mouth. Miller’s enigmatic statue instructs him to jump through the mirror, thus sending him on a dreamlike exploration of imagined hotel rooms, surreal encounters, and repressed childhood memories.
Often cited as Man Ray’s muse and echoed throughout her role in Cocteau’s film, Miller eclipsed this rather romanticized, subservient role. However, the trope of artist and muse was particularly appealing to Surrealists for whom Freudian psychoanalysis provided both guidance and meaning.[iii] It was theorized that women possessed unfettered access to the subconscious and irrational mind, both of which held the potential for unbounded artistic inspiration. Women were often portrayed as dolls/mannequins, la femme-enfant (“child-woman”)[iv], or simply othered: objectified further through dismemberment, fragmentation, and distortion.
Miller’s 1946 double-portrait of artists and partners Max Ernst and Dorothea Tanning in the Arizona desert could be interpreted as a reflection upon these troubling dynamics. Miller depicts Ernst as a towering giant and Tanning a diminutive subject. Ernst’s gaze stretches beyond the frame deep into the western landscape, his legs firmly planted in an active stance and his left arm extending over Tanning’s head, culminating in a tight fist. Tanning’s body is slight in the presence of Ernst’s: her posture reads unsteady, her gaze focuses acutely on him, and although her right arm reaches above her head, it appears to yield.
After a tempestuous three-year relationship with Man Ray, Miller left him in 1932 to open her own photography studio in New York. There, she built a successful business, eventually meeting and marrying an Egyptian businessman named Aziz Eloui Bey. They relocated to his family home in Cairo, where Miller continued her photographic practice. One of Miller’s best-known images from this period, Portrait of Space (1937), depicts a barren desert landscape through a torn fly screen. Miller constructs multiple frames in the composition — the window-frame, the torn screen, the rectangular form, the division and infinitude of sky and sand — disrupting the viewer’s sense of space and suggesting an enduring isolation. A recurrent Surrealist theme, the window is both a threshold and a liminal space linking interior and exterior and evoking opposing senses of familiarity and alienation. The unsettled nature of this image extended into many of Miller’s photographs from her next chapter as a war correspondent for both American and British Vogue during the Second World War.
Miller’s wartime photographs exhibit an intense proximity that allowed very little opportunity for psychological distancing from the atrocities she witnessed firsthand. The resulting trauma, depression, and alcoholism negatively impacted Miller for the rest of her life. She decided to pack away over 60,000 negatives in the attic of her and second husband and poet Roland Penrose’s home, never to be discussed again. It was only after her death at age 70 that Antony Penrose, their only son, learned anything of his mother’s storied career. Penrose established an estate and archive at his childhood home, now Farleys House and Gallery, in East Sussex, England.
In 2014, I was fortunate enough to visit to conduct research. It was a Friday in October, overcast and moody. As I wandered through Miller and Penrose’s brightly painted home — a creaking labyrinth, adorned with artworks by modernist greats (Pablo Picasso, Joan Miró, Leonora Carrington) and bespoke assemblages hiding in quiet windowsills — the sun unexpectedly appeared. As if amongst family, I was called down for a homemade lunch on a sundrenched patio, replete with strawberries and champagne. There, we dined together (the family dog, too), embraced by the idyllic green countryside. Surreal, indeed.
[i] Siobhan Morrissey, “Through photographs, ‘Indestructible Lee Miller’ tells a remarkable woman’s tale.” Miami Herald, October 30, 2015. Morrissey’s article is a review of an exhibition, “The Indestructible Lee Miller,” co-curated by Walter Moser (Albertina Museum, Vienna, Austria) and Bonnie Clearwater (Nova Southeastern University Art Museum, Fort Lauderdale, USA), which was on view October 4, 2015–February 14, 2016.
[ii] An intertitle in the film reads, “Taken out of a portrait where the naked hand had contracted it like leprosy, the drowned mouth seemed to fade in a small pool of white light.” Le Sang d’un poète (The Blood of a Poet), directed by Jean Cocteau (1930), 50 min.
[iii] Contributions made by women previously referred to as muses — or whose achievements were erased in favor of their male peers — have received long overdue recognition over the past few decades. Some Surrealists include Claude Cahun, Leonora Carrington, Suzanne Césaire, Nusch Éluard, Françoise Gilot, Dora Maar, Alice Rahon, and Remedios Varo.
[iv] This concept originates in a novel by French poet Catulle Mendès titled La Femme-Enfant (1891); however, it was appropriated by Surrealist artists to describe a sexualized, childlike woman whose naivety is central to both their vulnerability and sense of wonder. Similarly, film critic Nathan Rabin coined the term “manic pixie dream girl” in 2005 to describe a stock female film character whose existence hinges upon the enlightenment or healing of a troubled male character (or creator, viewer), assuaging his anxieties to “embrace life and its infinite mysteries.”
The 2020 documentary Capturing Lee Miller and Blood of a Poet will be screened as a double feature at IU Cinema on September 12 at 1 pm as part of the Art and a Movie and International Arthouse series. There will be a pre-screening gallery talk at 12 pm at the Eskenazi Museum of Art. Space is limited; please register in advance on the museum’s website.
Lauren Richman is the Assistant Curator of Photography at the Eskenazi Museum of Art, Indiana University, where she oversees the Henry Holmes Smith Archive. She holds an MA and PhD in art history from Southern Methodist University and a BA in the same subject from Vanderbilt University.