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Lee Miller and English Surrealism: an objectified woman that became a crucial photographer

The Fundació Miró in Barcelona shows through January 20 an exhibition about this female icon, that started being the muse of Man Ray but succeeded to cover the Second World War as a photojournalist and to establish herself as a referent of Surrealism in England.
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ike many women at the beginning of the last century, such as writers Colette and Virginia Wolf, or fashion designer Coco Chanel, Lee Miller did not have an easy life. It was her courage, her insatiable curiosity and her rigor and tenacity when it came to working that made her today a reference in the world of art and photography.

The Miró Foundation allows us, through an exhibition curated by Eleanor Clayton, with the support in Barcelona of Martina Millà, Teresa Montaner and Sonia Villegas, three authentic wells of knowledge, to get to know the great change that was able to carry out Miller: move from being an object to becoming a subject. As she wrote to her husband Roland Penrose, in her old age: “I continue to tell everyone that I have not wasted a single moment of my life, I have had a wonderful time, but I know, deep inside myself, that if I had to live again I would be even more free with my ideas, my body and my affections”.

Raped at the age of seven by a friend of her parents, who infected her with gonorrhoea and had to suffer the subsequent treatment to eradicate it, she also experienced how her progenitor, amateur photographer, portrayed her naked even during adolescence with the false “belief” (many art critics and psychologists consider that these photographs suggest an incestuous relationship) that this would help her overcoming shyness and rejection that caused to herself her own body.

Miller did not want to be a model, and went to Paris with the will to meet and be a disciple of Man Ray. After a first refusal, she became his assistant, muse and lover. Surrounded by the great names of Surrealism, such as Cocteau, Éluard and Picasso, among others, and Englishmen like Penrose, he began to experiment with nudity, taking photos in which she emulates the penis of the male with her back and limbs

With her father’s camera she began to take photographs and become familiar with the lenses and the process of development. Before turning 20, walking through New York, she was contracted by Condé Nast as a model. That girl who had suffered so much in her interior -from which emerged a rebellious spirit and a constant need for freedom and independence- became one of the most demanded models of the moment due to her extraordinary beauty, to the point that she appeared on the cover of Vogue.

But Miller did not want to be a model, and went to Paris with the will to meet and be a disciple of Man Ray. After a first refusal, she became his assistant, muse and lover. Surrounded by the great names of Surrealism, such as Cocteau, Éluard and Picasso, among others, and Englishmen like Penrose, she began to experiment with nudity, taking photos in which she emulates the penis of the male with her back and limbs. In this way, Lee Miller’s photographs of the female nude, clearly surreal, show how the woman’s body, when portrayed in any medium, is a projection of the male gaze.

Miller did not exhibit her work at the first international exhibition of surrealism in London, held at the New Burlington Gallery, but was present in the painting of Man Ray Observatory Time -The Lovers, in which -as can be seen at the Miró Foundation- Lee Miller’s lips appear floating in the sky over an unknown landscape. In fact, in the various portraits made by Roland Penrose, these lips can be found very subtly, explains Sonia Villegas, who personally met Miller’s son.

Seldom can the term “multifaceted” be applied as accurately as when referring to Lee Miller. During the Second World War, she worked as a photographer for the British and American editions of Vogue and as a war photojournalist, being one of the first to step on Omaha beach during the Normandy operation, and the liberation of the Buchenbald and Dachau camps. One of the most emblematic photographs of this period is the one of Lee Miller photographed by David E. Scherman -her lover of that time- in Hitler’s bathtub precisely the same day, without her knowledge, that the dictator committed suicide in his bunker. “Lee Miller had a huge visual culture, as one can see in this image, with a naked sculpture next to the bathtub and her uniform boots on the floor”, says Villegas. In the same way, she wanted to portray herself in Eva Braun’s bed. “Lee wanted to show that there were no more any superior stadiums, the freedom of the surrealist movement is evident it in these images”, says Silvia Lorenzo, Aesthetics historian.

After the war, Miller and Penrose They settled in Sussex and had a son. Her work and her relationships made of her an essential element to understand the full meaning of English surrealism, photographing the friends who visited her, such as Henry Moore and his family, Ernst, Agar and others.

All her activity as a photographer during the following years moves within the field of surrealism. In 1953, she was one of the curators of the exhibition The Wonder and Horror of the Human Head, that examined images of heads throughout history. All under a feminine gaze, and with a mixture of materials that can be considered antecedent of the fusion of scopes, from the elitism of the British high classes to the street culture that, years later, would be the cradle of British pop.

All those who wish to know more about this exceptional artist should not miss the exhibition at the Miró Foundation, which includes almost two hundred pieces, and links an extensive representation of Miller’s photographic work with drawings, paintings, objects and sculptures of some of the key names of the international surrealist movement, such as Dalí, De Chirico, Yves Tanguy, Max Ernst or Joan Miró.