Man Ray / Lee Miller
Partners in Surrealism
With contributions by Lynda Roscoe Hartigan and Antony Penrose
London & New York: Merrell, 2011
Hardback, 160 pp. ISBN 978-1-8589-4557-6. £24.95
Reviewed by Laurent Bury
Université Lumière – Lyon 2
Lee Miller (1907-1977) is a fascinating figure, but one who remains jealously protected by her son and heir, Antony Penrose, the Director of the Lee Miller Archives (which include some 60,000 negatives, prints, and manuscripts) and the Penrose Collection (which boasts works by Picasso, Max Ernst, Calder or Le Corbusier). The only child Miller had with her husband, Surrealist painter and art historian Roland Penrose, Antony Penrose (born 1947) is the formidable guardian of her mother’s work and memory, and when he does not turn down the applications he receives from writers who would like to devote a book to his mother, he carefully monitors their work. When the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, decided to organise an exhibition focusing both on Miller and her mentor-cum-lover Man Ray, Antony Penrose obviously had to be included in the process (the two other venues for this travelling exhibition were the Montclair Art Museum in New Jersey, and the Fine Art Museum in San Francisco, where it ended on 14 October). Only a few of the works on display come from other sources (the Man Ray Trust, the MOMA in New York, the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, the Tate, …), the overwhelming majority having been lent either by the Lee Miller Archives or the Penrose Collection. Penrose’s brief contribution to this volume (“A Thing of the Heart, Lee Miller and Man Ray”, pp. 56-63) is remarkably frank, starting with childhood memories to end with the candid confession of his mother’s alcoholism. Examining the various metaphors for capture or escape one can find in Miller’s art, he also mentions her very casual treatment of the gifts Man Ray sent her, long after their paths had diverged: one day, a spiral lampshade suddenly vanished from the dining room. What had happened to it, asked young Antony? “Oh, it got so covered in fly shit that I threw it out – I’ll ask Man Ray to make us another” answered Lee Miller .
However unbelievable it may seem at first, one has to accept the claim formulated on the back cover of the Merrell volume: “The first book to focus on the relationship between the major Surrealists Man Ray and Lee Miller”. Despite the relentless activity of the Lee Miller Archives (her work is currently lent to four or five different exhibitions round the world, and the Musée National de la Photographie in Paris had a monographic show about her in 2008-2009), no one had ever brought the two artists together for a specific display of their works. In 1999, the National Galleries of Scotland mounted a show entitled “The Surrealist and the Photographer”, but that was all about Miller and Penrose; in 2003, the relations between Ray, Miller and Penrose were at the heart of another exhibition, “Surrealist Muse”, hosted by the Getty Museum. It seems incredible that no one had ever tried to juxtapose the creations of those two artists who worked together for some years, but that may reflect some of the prejudice which relegated Miller to the role of Ray’s muse for so many years.
Born Elizabeth Miller in Poughkeepsie in 1907, “Lee” first went to Paris in 1925, to study drama. Back in New York, she took art lessons, and was discovered by Condé Nast, the founder of Vogue magazine. She began a career as a model when she was barely 19, posing for Steichen and other photographers. She then left the United States for good, and went back to Paris. There she met Emmanuel Radnitzky, better known as Man Ray (1890-1976): she actually “chased” him into accepting her as a student. Between 1929 and 1932, Ray and Miller were lovers and worked together in partnership, creating some of the most famous pictures of Surrealism, as told by Phillip Prodger in his contribution, “Lee Miller and Man Ray, The Ultimate Surrealist Object” [27-55]. Of course, a major problem is whether there was a genuine give-and-take between the two, or if she was content with the role of the muse, like the silent, armless statue which she played in Jean Cocteau’s film Le Sang d’un poète (1930). Ray and Miller experimented together with photography, and Lee was obviously influenced by Man’s style, but she worked on a different array of subjects. They notably had different attitudes to the female body, which they showed as vulnerable (Man Ray) or formidable (Lee Miller). “Wary of slipping into romanticism, Ray was not often driven to explore the inner character of his portrait subjects. Miller, by comparison, consistently made pictures with psychological charge” [34-35]. Prodger opposes Miller’s “provocative, partially resolved narratives” , often tracking the absurd elements in the Parisian streets, to Man Ray’s sealed environment (he seldom worked outside the studio). Solarisation is the effect to which both their names remain attached, a technique which they “reinvented” by pure chance (one day, Miller switched on the light in the darkroom when she felt a small animal crawling over her foot).
Was Miller’s work really “ahead of her time” ? Photographing a woman’s head in a bell jar may was nothing really new (Claude Cahun had already done it, as Prodger acknowledges), and it seems slightly disingenuous to hail her as a pioneer simply because Sylvia Plath published a novel entitled The Bell Jar some thirty years later. As shown in the introductory essay by Lynda Roscoe Hartigan, “Coupling: Reflections on Bell Jars and Metronomes” [12-19], the use of bell jars had quickly become one of the commonplaces of Surrealism, being taken up by a certain Joseph Cornell (1903-1972), an American Surrealist whose works were photographed by Miller in 1933. The difficulty to distinguish what belongs to Ray from what belongs to Miller is exemplified by a discordance between the contributors in the volume: while Roscoe Hartigan  mentions “Man Ray’s photographs of bell jars (page 92)”, the photograph reproduced on page 92 is in fact “Attributed to Lee Miller” in the caption. However, one can easily accept those images as “appeals for sexual equality” , as an expression of women’s anger at being systematically excluded from the theoretical texts of Surrealism. Ray apparently found it hard to overcome their separation: “His recurring need to examine Miller’s absence in his art is another reason why his pictures outnumber hers in this volume” . Indeed, one of the attractions of the book is its splendid series of about one hundred colour or black and white reproductions. “Together, and unbeknownst to them, Miller and Ray had themselves become the perfect Surrealist object – a hopelessly irreconcilable combination that answered only to its own rhythm, its own logic” .
The Objet is precisely what Roscoe Hartigan focuses on in her text, as a source of “surprise, discomfort, poetry, and mystery in its new guise as art” . Thanks to her own artistic autonomy, Lee Miller managed not to become an object : “I would rather take a picture than be one” she once said to a journalist .
French-speaking readers will probably be surprised by the various claims relative to their language: they may agree that “the French word for lily – lys – is pronounced ‘Lee’” , but they may find it harder to accept that “the French word for hand – main [is] pronounced ‘Man’” . The worst case being that of the word “provocateuses”  which only a non-French speaking writer could have coined, instead of “provocatrices” which, however equally exotic it may sound to English or American readers, has the advantage of existing. A pun which may have escaped the authors of the book is to be found in La Femme et son poisson: Prodger notices that the fish is a mackerel, but he does not go on with the obvious conclusion that the woman on Man Ray’s painting is a prostitute with her pimp, son maquereau in popular French . Parisians may also be surprised to read about the “Moorish observatory at Montsouris […], just a few blocks away from Ray’s studio in Montmartre” : a quick look at a map of the French capital will show that Parc Montsouris is close to Montparnasse, not Montmartre.
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