Man Ray and Lee Miller: l’amour fou
The intertwined lives, careers and works of two of surrealism’s greatest artists
By Jane Finigan. Books, Issue 230, December 2011
Published online: 13 December 2011
In Paris around 1930, Man Ray was working on a series of photographs of Lee Miller, entitled “Anatomy”. The couple had shared their first kiss a year earlier and were now lovers. Miller had also been working as the photographer’s model and assistant for the last two years, but was beginning to forge a career as a photographer in her own right. On this particular occasion, Miller rescued a negative that had been discarded by Ray: a close-up of her neck with her head twisted, almost sickeningly, away from the camera. Miller took the negative and printed the photograph, claiming the result as her own. Upon discovering what she’d done, Ray threw her out of the studio. When she returned a few days later, Miller found the picture pinned to the studio wall, a gash torn through her neck with rivulets of scarlet ink pouring from the “wound”.
Two years later, when Miller had moved away and taken a new lover, Ray produced a photograph of himself, Suicide, 1932, in which the artist sits at a table, shirtless and holding a pistol to his temple. The smoke from his cigarette merges with the rope tied in a noose around Ray’s neck. It’s said that the self-portrait was produced in the early hours of the morning after Ray had spent all night in the rain, howling up at the window of Miller’s former studio.
Miller too was capable of radical behaviour and her passion seems to have been fuelled by her desire for sexual equality and her resentment of the objectification she endured as a fashion model in the 1920s. While on an assignment at a Parisian hospital in 1930, Miller somehow acquired a woman’s breast that had been removed during a mastectomy. Miller smuggled the loot into the Paris offices of Vogue and laid the breast on a plate with knife and fork on either side: a symbol of the way she felt society treated women as meat. She managed to take a couple of photographs before being escorted off the premises.
These are just a few examples of the fiery personas of the two artists and the tempestuous nature of their relationship. If the surrealist art movement can be described as glamorous, passionate, confrontational and mad, Miller and Ray can be seen as the physical embodiments of the movement. It is welcome and enlightening then to see for the first time their relationship as the focus of a recent exhibition and catalogue in the excellent Man Ray, Lee Miller: Partners in Surrealism.
Phillip Prodger, the curator of photography at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts (the exhibition closed on 4 December) contributes an insightful essay that documents the impact of the artists on each other. He discusses some of Ray’s most famous works, many of which were inspired by Miller. Indestructible Object, originally made in 1932 and replicated in 1959, was included by Ray in his 1944 list of “Objects of my Affection”. The work is a metronome with an image of Miller’s eye attached to the pendulum. On the reverse of the photograph, Ray has written: “…forever being put away/taken for a ride…/put on the spot…/the racket must go on/I am always in reserve”.
Equally, Ray’s influence on the young Miller (she was nearly 17 years his junior) is obvious in a direct comparison of their works. In 1929 Miller travelled from New York to Paris, whereupon she sought Ray out and brazenly presented herself to him as “Lee Miller, your new student”. We see a recycling of Ray’s techniques and many of his props in his student’s work. Some of their collaborations have become fabled anecdotes in art history, for example, their (re)discovering of solarisation, the process of exposing a negative to light during development. According to Miller, an animal crawled over her foot while the pair were in the dark room and, turning on the light, she exposed the film. Ray plunged the image into the chemical fixative and they were delighted with the surprising results.
In 1937, after years of estrangement and mental anguish for a heartbroken Ray, the pair met again at a party. They rekindled their friendship and Ray became close to Miller and her new husband, the British surrealist Roland Penrose. In this period, Miller’s mental health was increasingly volatile. She suffered from alcoholism and depression as a result of the atrocities she was exposed to as a photographer in the second world war. Ray continued to support her until his death in 1976.
This later, happier season of their relationship is recounted in an essay by Antony Penrose, the son of Miller and Penrose. He delivers his memories in an honest and human voice, rarely heard in an exhibition catalogue. Combined with Prodger’s essay and some beautifully reproduced images, we are offered here an intimate insight into the lives of two of surrealism’s greatest artists who also shared a passionate, explosive and loyal friendship.
Man Ray, Lee Miller: Partners in Surrealism, Phillip Prodger, with Lynda Roscoe Hartigan and Antony Penrose Merrell, 160 pp, £24.95, $39.95 (hb)
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