Ever heard of Lee Miller?
She was an artist, photographer, war correspondent, model, and girlfriend of the famous surrealist Man Ray.
There’s an exhibition right now at San Francisco’s Legion of Honor “Man Ray/ Lee Miller: Partners in Surrealism.” It was fascinating for me to see this show the day after I went to the Cindy Sherman retrospective at the SF MOMA. In many ways, Miller seems like a precursor to Sherman. Like Sherman, Miller was obsessed with depicting females and female body parts in a way these subjects, though done so many times before, hadn’t yet been presented.
Miller’s photographs show heads that appear to be severed by using lighting techniques or positioning them over cloaks, and one that I loved of a hand that appears to be floating, fiercely clutching an elaborate hair do. The creepiest and most Shermanesque image– or I suppose Sherman is Milleresque: the photographer stole severed breasts from a hospital (where a patient had a radical mastectomy) and photographed them on dinner plates. It amazes me that Miller had the guts to create this photograph, in 1930 no less. Miller has many more fascinating shots in the show including a female head suffocating under a bell jar (before the more famous Sylvia Path used that image) and a model pinned against the wall by knives thrown by another woman.
The next gallery documents Miller and Man Ray’s break-up. When she left him, he was tormented, writing pages of her name: “Elizabeth.” There are also framed love letters and a series of art works of Miller’s body parts by the obsessive Man Ray: giant lips floating through the air, an eye attached a metronome, severed legs. You can see why Miller experienced herself as so fragmented and disembodied. Her career as a model obviously contributed to this experience.
In one fascinating pairing in the exhibition, there is nude portrait of Miller by Man Ray next to Miller’s nude self-portrait. While Man Ray’s photograph has Miller in a typical seductive pose with typical soft lighting, Miller’s joyful art in a powerful pose is far more unusual and striking. When I looked at Miller’s photograph, the highlighted biceps and subtle smile– it also reminds me of poses made famous so many years later by Madonna.
Another gallery shows Miller’s war correspondent work, she was one of the few females to photograph war time– still not a profession that many women venture into.
This show is a beautiful and fascinating documentation of how a passionate relationship creates great art.
Reel Girl rates “Man Ray/ Lee Miller: Partners in Surrealism” ***HH***