Saturday, October 20, 2007

The Art of Lee Miller

Cover of Lee Miller exhibit catalogue; photo by Val PhoenixV & A
Until 6 January 2008

Model, photographer, journalist, adventurer. Lee Miller's centenary is being celebrated in this exhibit at the V & A, continuing her belated recognition. The art is featured here, not the extraordinary life that began in oh-so-homely Poughkeepsie, New York (amazing anyone of achievement came from there) and ended in England 30 years ago.

In between, Miller became a Surrealist in Paris, then a war photographer and writer. She ended up doing features for British Vogue, coming full circle, having started as a model in American Vogue.

What comes through sharply in the exhibit is Miller's dissatisfaction with being a Thing, albeit a Beautiful one. She was clearly a woman of action, which must have been quite difficult in that era. The portraits of her as a young woman, by a range of male photographers, including her father, show a bestilled glacial beauty. She looks trapped and bored.

The most extraordinary photo of her is the earliest, a full-length shot from 1915, when she was eight. She appears as a handsome young boy with a crewcut, overalls and her hand clutching a post. Lips pursed, eyes veiled by shadows, she appears grave and solemn, but with a direct gaze. Given that she was raped at age 7, it is poignant indeed.

That she went on to become a model and a great beauty is an irony--always an object of someone else's gaze. She must have been keen to rebel against this fate, and at age 22 headed for Paris where some of her best work was done. Her nudes show a delicate sensuality and her eye for detail makes pictures of chairs and ironwork into works of art, unrecognisable as common-place objects. With Man Ray she developed solarisation, a technique which adds a magical quality to such portraits as that of Unknown Woman, 1930.

The exhibit includes a few drawings from this period, eye-opening depictions of a woman's head under a bell jar and another being pinned to a wall by daggers. Proto-feminist statements? Well, how about her Untitled [severed breast from mastectomy], which, far from being set in some medical scenario, is depicted on a dinner plate, complete with service? Surely, this is a woman with a critique of her surroundings.

Later, she worked in New York and then returned to Europe, turning her eye to photojournalism in London and in France during the Second World War. These pictures serve a different purpose, documenting the horrors of war, lest anyone deny or forget what happened.

She also became a war correspondent for Vogue New York, and her diatribe against the Germans she met accompanying the invading troops in 1945 makes for uncomfortable reading, especially as the layout contrasts the well-fed children of Germany with the murdered Holocaust victims. Miller's anger is palpable. Other work during this period includes a shot of her towering over Pablo Picasso in his studio in liberated Paris, the statuesque Miller, looking tired in her uniform, linking arms with a gleeful Picasso.

The pictures in Hitler's apartment in Munich seem quite off-colour, staged shots of her in his bathtub and a soldier reading Mein Kampf. What are they meant to depict? The banality of evil? If anything they seem disrespectful to the thousands of his victims, cocking a snook at a deposed dictator by turning his lair into a joke.

Curiously, Miller's work tails off after the war, just when she should have been at the peak of her powers and a double threat as photographer and writer. There is only a photo essay on Working Guests at her Sussex farmhouse from 1953 and then nothing, though she lived until 1977.

What happened? Did she retire? Did the work dry up? It seems sad that this cut-off seems to have coincided with her 50th birthday. Was the great beauty considered past her sell-by date? It is disappointing that after a life of action, she ended up becalmed.

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