The Art of Lee Miller

Artvehicle 24/Review

15th September 2007 — 6th January 2008

Lee Miller described her life as 'a water-soaked jigsaw puzzle, drunken bits that don't match in shape and design'. This fascinating exhibition gives an insight into her many lives and extraordinary work. It celebrates the achievements of this model and Surrealist muse turned photographer and war correspondent on the centenary of her birth and the thirtieth anniversary of her death.

Born Elizabeth Miller to a well-off family in Poughkeepsie in 1907, she was a tomboy who became a 'beauty'. She was frequently photographed by her father including, disconcertingly, in the nude. The exhibition opens with his photographs of her. Raped aged seven she contracted gonorrhoea and had to endure years of painful treatment. After being expelled from several schools she studied theatre design in Paris aged 18 then art in New York whilst modelling and learning photography. She was 'Vogue' cover girl in 1927, wearing a blue cloche hat which matched her eyes, against the nocturnal Manhattan skyline. Another shot of her in a elegant gown was used for a sanitary towel advert without her permission, which caused a scandal at the time, but Miller grew to relish her notoriety.

She yearned to return to Paris and in 1929 she did. There she quickly became Man Ray's model, student, lover and collaborator, inventing solarisation with him. His violently truncated portrait of her throat is shown here. Miller riled Man Ray by starring in his rival Jean Cocteau's film 'The Blood of a Poet'. Miller's photographs from the period 1929-32 are of the convulsive beauty of Pairs, the surreal city: a girl's head in a bell jar; Salvador and Gala Dali as a two-headed monster; marble statues in a shop window like mannequins; rats' tails dangling like a chorus line; painted cows on a carousel; a hand 'exploding' behind a scratched glass door; a nude back foreshortened into a phallus; an amputated breast on a plate.

Miller returned to New York and set herself up as a society photographer, applying her new techniques to photographing beautiful actresses. By 1934 she had become bored so she married a rich Egyptian Aziz Eloui Bey and moved to Cairo from where she led expeditions into the dessert. She made some of her most poetic images in Egypt. Her 1937 'Portrait of Space' looks out onto the endless dessert through a tear in a diaphanous tent, and inspired a Magritte painting. A shot from the top of the Great Pyramid looks vertiginously down onto its triangular shadow on the sand below.

Miller also made trips to Britain and France with her lover British artist Roland Penrose in 1937. She took pictures of her fellow artists enjoying topless Surrealist picnics and one of Eileen Agar in silhouette, pregnant with her camera. During this time Picasso painted Miller's portrait and Penrose and Miller recorded folk life on a trip to Romania.

In 1939 Miller moved to London to be with Penrose and started working for British Vogue when the Second World War broke out. She photographed the everyday surreality of war in the grim glory of blitzted London in the early 1940s. Glamorous women in square black fire masks and tin hats pause at the entrance to an air raid shelter. A smashed Remington typewriter and a statue of a woman buried in rubble are seen as enemy attempts to destroy culture. A naked mannequin stands in the street with a sign saying 'Please take me away, I'm ashamed'.

Later in the war, Lee gained accreditation to cover the fighting in Europe with the US army for 'Vogue'. She set off with 'Life' photographer David E. Scherman, mentor and lover, who she photographed in his gas mask holding a camera. Miller photographed field hospitals, battles, and the liberation of Paris, celebrated in a photograph of her in uniform reunited with Picasso. In a searing article 'Believe It' she described the liberation of the Dachau and Bruchenwald camps she had witnessed, photographing a dead guard in a stream and piles of skeletal corpses. In Leipzig she recorded the macabre spectacle of the mayor's blonde daughter, draped in an armchair after committing suicide. Miller also photographed herself in Hitler's bathtub at his Munich apartment. After the suffering she had witnessed throughout the war Miller was cold with fury at what she found in Germany. In an article 'Germans are like this' she compares the 'German children well-fed/ Burned bodies of starved prisoners/ Orderly villages, patterned, quiet/ Orderly furnaces to burn bodies.' Facsimiles of the entire June 1945 issue of US 'Vogue' are available so you can see Miller's articles in context amongst adverts for girdles and fashion spreads. Miller stayed with the army during the meet up with the Russians then travelled on to Eastern Europe.

Miller found her voice reporting the war, but never recovered from the experience. She refused to talk about it and suffered from undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder. She married Roland Penrose in 1947, the year their son Antony was born, and supported his work as director of the ICA. Miller was disgusted with how the world turned out after the war. She lived in the country depressed and alcoholic without a project to inspire her, but did enjoy a later career as a celebrity chef. Her last 'Vogue' story was 'Working Guests' from 1953 and shows Alfred Barr feeding the pigs, Max Ernst gardening and Dorothea Tanning changing a plug, whilst the hostess takes it easy. Miller always claimed her work had been lost during the war but after her death her son found boxes of her photographs in the attic and began to create the Lee Miller Archive, in an attempt to reconcile himself with the mother he realised he had hardly known.


Victoria & Albert Museum
Cromwell Road
London SW7 2RL

Daily, 10am-5.45
Late opening on Friday until 10pm

The Art of Lee Miller —