Man Ray/Lee Miller: Partners in Surrealism, SF

Written by:
Emily S. Mendel
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Man Ray’s “A l’heure de l’observatoire— les amoureux” (Observatory Time – The Lovers), circa 1931, seen in a color photograph from 1964, after the original oil painting.
Photo by Avshalom Avital from The Israel Museum, Jerusalem © 2011 Man Ray Trust/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris

Man Ray/Lee Miller: Partners in Surrealism

Photos, paintings, drawings and manuscripts
Legion of Honor Fine Arts Museum, San Francisco
July 14 – Oct. 14, 2012

It’s rare that a museum presents two major artists whose works inform a fascinating love story. Such a rarity is “Man Ray/Lee Miller,” now at the Legion of Honor Museum in San Francisco.

Man Ray (1890-1976) was the only American artist to play a prominent role in launching the post-World War I Dada and Surrealism movements, along with Pablo Picasso, Jean Arp, Max Ernst, Joan Miró and André Masson.

As described by André Breton’s 1924 “Surrealistic Manifesto,” Surrealism is “Psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express — verbally, by means of the written word, or in any other manner — the actual functioning of thought. Dictated by the thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern.”

Man_Ray_portrait_SF_7-12Ray (pictured, left, in a 1931 silver gelatin portrait by Lee Miller; © Lee Miller Archives, England 2011), accompanied by Marcel Duchamp, moved to Paris in 1921, as avant-garde art was unpopular in the United States. In the 20 years Ray lived in Paris, he revolutionized the art of photography. Ironically, Ray considered himself a painter; he painted excellent portraits of Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Gertrude Stein, James Joyce and Ernest Hemmingway. Like Duchamp, Ray was also a creator of the “Readymade,” in which ordinary objects became art. Ray’s famous metronome, with a photograph of Lee Miller’s eye attached, known as “Indestructible Object,” and “Object to Be Destroyed,” retains its modernity. But to make ends meet, he photographed fashions for magazines such as Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and Vanity Fair.

Lee Miller (1907-1977) was a captivating, beautiful and talented woman, whose adventurous life exemplifies the changing world for women in the 20th century. At age 19, she was saved from inadvertently walking into a speeding car; her savior was the founder of Vogue, Condé Nast. Taken with her beauty, he initiated her fashion-modeling career with the charming illustration by Georges Lepape, “Portrait of Lee Miller,” published on a cover of Vogue in 1927.

Miller became one of the most desired models in New York; she was photographed by famous photographers such as Edward Steichen, Arnold Genthe and Nickolas Murray and modeled for Picasso. Unfortunately, two years later, a photograph of Miller by Steichen was used to advertise Kotex sanitary napkins at a time when such items were neither seen nor discussed in public. Her modeling whirlwind abruptly ended. She had been idolized for her beauty by men, but shunned by women for her daring and “unladylike” behavior.

Miller moved to Paris in 1929 with the intention of apprenticing with the then-famous Man Ray. And that’s where the love story begins.

Lee_Miller_SF_7-12Miller soon became Ray’s aide, as well as his lover and muse. Her photographic talent soon became apparent; she became Ray’s equal partner in all things artistic. Miller (pictured, right, in a gelatin silver print self-portrait circa 1930; © Lee Miller Archives, England 2011) took over many of Ray’s fashion shoots, but gave Ray the credit.

In 1930, Miller and Ray accidentally discovered solarization, a method that gave a photograph a silvery aura. Solarization became the breakthrough that propelled photography from craft to fine art. Solarized Portrait of Unknown Woman” (thought to be Meret Oppenheim), and “Solarized Portrait of Lee Miller,” are fine examples of this technique.

Ray was obsessed with Miller, who was 17 years his junior. His many sensuous and erotic photographs of her are highlights of the exhibition. Through his new techniques, he created a Surrealist vision of Miller that yet retains its allure.

Their intense relationship lasted only three years, when after a fight, Miller stormed out of Ray’s life, leaving Ray heartbroken, in agony for years. Miller wanted to retain independence whereas Ray wanted to retain control of her. Ray painted and repainted the large red lips in the sky that remain an icon today, titled “A l’heure de l’observatoire – les amoureux” (Observatory Time – The Lovers). The painting (shown above, from a 1964 photo) has been interpreteted, not only as sensuous lips, but also as a woman’s torso or genitalia.

After leaving Paris in 1932, Miller returned to New York and established a portrait and commercial photography studio with her brother Erik, while Ray remained in Paris. Miller and Ray reacted to the coming of World War II in opposite ways. Ray lived in Paris until 1940 when, as a Jew (formerly named Emmanuel Radnitzky), he had to leave Paris before the Nazis controlled it. He moved to California, but years later, returned to Paris.

Miller on the other hand jumped into the thick of the war and became a war photojournalist in Europe for Vogue and other Condé Nast publications. She documented the Blitz, the aftermath of D-Day, the liberation of Paris, Hitler’s death and the horror of the Nazi concentration camps at Buchenwald and Dachau. Some of these photographs are difficult to view.

The war cruelly affected Miller’s health and well-being. She drank heavily and suffered from depression. She married twice and had one child. Ray also remarried, but stilled loved Miller. Ultimately, the two became close friends. Man Ray died in 1976, and Lee Miller, a year later. Miller was cremated. The epitaph on Ray’s gravestone reads “unconcerned, but not indifferent.”

Many of the photographs in “Man Ray/Lee Miller” were found in her attic after her death and were lent to the exhibit by Miller’s son. The show contains approximately 115 photographs, paintings, drawings and manuscripts, plus selected works by artists in Ray and Miller’s Parisian circle, such as paintings by Picasso, Dora Maar, Max Ernst and Roland Penrose. Don’t miss the enchanting tiny sculpture by Alexander Calder. Many of the exhibition’s photographs are small, black and white and require close viewing to be appreciated fully. So try to visit early in the day or other off-hours.

©Emily S. Mendel 2012 All Rights Reserved.

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