The story of Man Ray and Elizabeth "Lee" Miller is a love story. It is not a happily-ever-after story, but one of obsession, inspiration, anxiety, and defeat. Theirs is a story of two incredibly talented artists and their combined ability to both create and destroy.
If this all sounds a bit melodramatic, that's the hook the Legion of Honor is going for in their exhibition Man Ray | Lee Miller, Partners in Surrealism. Organized and first shown by the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, the exhibition looks at the two artists before, during, and after their tumultuous relationship.
According to Partners in Surrealism, Miller's bewitching looks were the central tension in her life and relationships. In 1929, after modeling work in New York dried up, photographer Edward Steichen recommended Miller seek out Man Ray as a mentor. Her apprenticeship with him quickly morphed into a romance. She became both a photographer and the photographic subject of Ray's practice.
Man Ray, Lee Miller, ca. 1930; c. The Artists Estate 2010. All rights reserved. The Penrose Collection.In 1941 she would say, "I would rather take a picture than be one," but that time had not yet come. For the three years of their relationship, Miller's body served as the inspiration for many of Ray's most iconic images. Shadow Patterns on Lee Miller's Torso (1930) is strategically cropped to cut Miller off at the head and the hips, leaving her chest exposed, her body fragmented.
Miller herself was steeped in Surrealist thought, seeking in her own photographs to make the familiar unfamiliar. Unlike Ray, who kept mostly to his studio, Miller roamed the streets of Paris, finding surreal juxtapositions readymade in reality. Her photographs are strikingly high contrast, geometric compositions: Parisian architecture is rendered uncanny.
Lee Miller, Untitled (Exploding Hand), 1930; c. Lee Miller Archives, England 2011. All rights reserved.One such happenstance is an untitled photograph of a woman's hand reaching for a perfume shop doorknob. The hand appears to explode upon contact, but what is first seen as spontaneous combustion is merely a concentration of scratches caused by customers' diamond rings. The haphazard angle of the photograph and the immediate confusion caused by the image is disarming. Miller's skills are assured.
An entire room of the exhibition is devoted to Ray's reaction to Miller's departure in 1932. On display, a page of his journal is covered with the repeated word "Elizabeth." Miller's name, eye, and lips haunted Ray (yet also spurred his creative process) for years after their break-up. The atmosphere created by these now-iconic objects is intensely claustrophobic, shedding some light on the undercurrent of the intact relationship.
Man Ray, Lee Miller's Eye, 1932; c. 2010 Man Ray Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY / ADAGP, Paris.The love story pauses to include works from the couple's "Paris Circle," a brief and welcome respite before the final chapter. Working as a professional photographer in New York, Miller eventually became a combat photographer during World War II. She experienced firsthand, and diligently photographed, the horrors that were revealed as the war drew to a close. A series of particularly disturbing images captures a prominent German family in their living room, all dead by suicide, with a portrait of Hitler propped against a chair -- the absentee guest of honor.
The trauma Miller suffered while in Europe spelled the total end of her photographic career. It was only after her death that her son Antony Penrose discovered the boxes of prints that were his mother's artistic legacy. Accordingly, the remainder of Partners in Surrealism belongs to Ray, who shows himself to be a playful and gentle egoist to the very end. Objects and paintings he created to cheer her (often featuring his name prominently) dot the gallery. But without any way to contextualize her response, these gestures appear futile.
Lee Miller, Man Ray Shaving, 1929; c. Lee Miller Archives, Sussex, England.The love story presented by Partners in Surrealism provides a thorough introduction to Miller, Ray, their lives, art, and influence on one another. The art objects visually demonstrate a flow of ideas between the couple as they collaborated, fought, and separated. In this context, Miller and Ray represent lives lived to their full extent, inspiring despite the lack of a fairytale ending, or perhaps because of it.
Man Ray | Lee Miller, Partners in Surrealism is on view at the Legion of Honor through October 14, 2012. For more information, visit legionofhonor.famsf.org.