L’Art de Lee Miller

December 23, 2008By Heidi EllisonArchive

Convulsive Beauty

“Portrait of Space” (1937). © Lee Miller Archives, England 2008. All rights reserved. www.leemiller.co.uk

What a life Lee Miller led! The exhibition now on at the Jeu de Paume tells us rather more about its fascinations than about the quality of her photographs, but there is enough of her work to give us a sampling of the different phases of her career.

Miller was born in Poughkeepsie, New York, in 1907, the daughter of an engineer who loved to take photographs and who also loved his daughter, perhaps too much: he took so many photos of her posing naked as a girl and a young woman that even her own son, Antony Penrose, wonders if there wasn’t an incestuous relationship between them, although Penrose says in a documentary film (which I recommend watching) being shown in the exhibition that there is no proof of that. What is known is that she was raped by a family friend when she was only seven years old, contracted gonorrhea from him and had to suffer invasive, painful treatments for it. That horrific experience must have tainted at least her entire childhood, if not much of her life.

This beautiful young woman was soon the chou-chou of fashion photographers and made a career for herself as a model in New York before moving on to Paris, where she fell in with photographer Man Ray and became his model, apprentice and lover. Together, they even invented (by accident) a technique he made famous: solarization. Her early works clearly show his influence, but she quickly moved on, developing a more personal style, marked by shadows (often falling across the subject’s face or cutting an image in two), high contrast and a penchant for structured compositions.

During those heady years in Paris in the early 1930s, she hobnobbed with the Surrealists and other avant-garde artists and writers of the day, and dabbled in Surrealism herself. One of the photos here, “Untitled (Exploding Hand)” (c. 1930), illustrated the ideal of “convulsive beauty” espoused by the pope of Surrealism, André Breton. She also played the role of a living, breathing statue in Jean Cocteau’s 1931 film Le Sang du Poète (excerpts of which are on show at the Jeu de Paume). During her lifetime, she counted among her friends the poet Paul Eluard, and painters Picasso, Dalí, Ernst, Braque, Miró, de Chirico and Brancusi.

After a stint of running a photo business with her brother in New York City and doing fashion and celebrity photos for magazines like Vogue, she gave up photography for a time, taking it up again after her marriage to a well-off Egyptian, Aziz Eloui Bey, in 1934. One of her handsome images of the desert taken during this period, “Portrait of Space” (1937), was used by René Magritte as the basis for his painting “Le Baiser” (1938).

When she left her husband, she went back to a former love, the Surrealist painter Roland Penrose (who later became her husband). World War II turned her into a intrepid photojournalist, drawing her out on the streets of London during the Blitz and onward to Europe with the Allied advance. She was among the first photographers to enter Dachau, and her images of piles of emaciated bodies and dead SS guards (one who had hanged himself and another who was drowned by freed prisoners) are unforgettable. In her photo reportage for Vogue (she turned out to be a talented writer as well), she paired these shocking images with serene photos of life as usual in the quaint villages of Germany. She photographed Hitler’s just-abandoned apartment in Munich and even posed for a photo while bathing in the führer’s tub.

After the war, she married Penrose, settled down with him on a farm in Sussex, England, and had their son (who has written a biography of her and supervises her archives, even though she was not much of a mother to him). Her career seems to have ended there, and the show doesn’t tell us much more about what happened to her after that , piquing one’s curiosity about this woman who seems to have had it all – brilliant career, globetrotting lifestyle, exciting and talented friends and lovers, a loving husband and a son – sadly, without ever seeming to find satisfaction or happiness. She died in 1977.

Heidi Ellison

Jeu de Paume: 1, place de la Concorde, 75008 Paris. Métro: Concorde. Tel.: 01 47 03 12 50. Open Tuesday, noon-9 p.m.; Wednesday-Friday, noon-7 p.m., Saturday-Sunday, 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Closed Monday. Admission: €7. Through January 4. www.jeudepaume.org

© 2008 Paris Update

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