Friday, 22 February 2008

The Art of Lee Miller

“The Art of Lee Miller”
15 September 2007 – 6 January 2008

Lee Miller was the golden girl of New York City as it fell from dizzy heights into an unprecedented Great Depression, a Vogue contributor of fashion and war stories alike, In London, Paris and Manhattan, she was a flapper with a talent, and a Jazz Age heroine. The first woman to make it as a model and photographer in American Vogue, Lee Miller broke boundaries and set the cameras rolling from a young age. She was the pupil and lover of Man Ray and Picasso’s muse, a party girl and a professional. She was born a hundred years ago and died seventy years later, and the present exhibition at the V&A, lit up in neon, celebrates her life and great contribution to the bohemian and glamorous art world of the early twentieth century.

Born Elizabeth Miller in 1907 in Poughkeepsie, New York, the little girl who enjoyed climbing trees and playing with the boys became one of the great beauties of her time. She was photographed throughout her childhood by her father, Theodore Miller, an amateur photographer. Significantly she was raped at seven, contracted a disease and had to suffer years of excruciating and invasive treatment. Before she fled to Paris, Miller was all too familiar with the themes of Surrealism, the perversities that inspired escape and the more difficult realities of human suffering that caused the group of artists and writers to react with images of parody and outrage in equal measure.

The archetypal Modern Woman before it was at all typical, Lee Miller (as she was called from the age of 20 onwards) created for herself a flamboyant and iconoclastic career with exhilarating success and style. She started modelling in 1927 as a striking and elegant twenty-year-old at the very top – for American Vogue – and was photographed by the stars of the day. She was notably versatile as a model and embraced the characterisation necessary to illustrate fashion stories and photographers’ imposed narratives, partly thanks to her training in theatre arts in Paris in 1925 and at Vassar College. When in Paris she tracked down Man Ray and swiftly and rather poetically became his muse, lover and pupil. She happened also to star in “The Blood of a Poet” by the original Enfant Terrible, Jean Cocteau. A popular and inspiring young woman, Lee Miller, a girl from a rather ordinary American family and with a sad past, became the darling of the avant-garde in a few parties, photo shoots and magazine covers. She discarded her previous pain for a glorious life out and about in Paris and London.

With Man Ray, Miller learned how to use lighting and printing and develop her burgeoning talent as a photographer. Together they discovered “solarisation” – a method in which tones are reversed and interesting effects are achieved, such as turning highlights to blacks and vice versa. She started working for Paris Vogue and made a number of portraits, satirical drawings and captured elusive Parisian street scenes and radical nude photographs of Surrealist sensibility.

In spite of the Great Depression casting misery and poverty over America and indeed the world, Lee Miller still managed to keep her cameras loaded with film and even set up her own studio in 1932, setting up the electrical wiring and lighting solo. As the money burned, Lee Miller photographed couture and stars, celebrities and decadence even as it quickly turned to decay. The star of New York was on its wane but Lee Miller captured its beauty, even as it faded like a shooting star. She was the first to cast herself as both model and photographer for American Vogue (presumably saving on model’s fees), exhibited at Julien Levy’s iconoclastic art space and worked closely with Joseph Cornell. Just before she eloped to Cairo, she was commissioned to photograph the cast of “Four Saints in Three Acts”, an avant-garde opera with a score by Virgil Thomspon and a libretto by Gertrude Stein, which opened in 1934. Flying the flag for the early Civil Rights Movement and earning controversy points with an all-black cast, the play was ground-breaking and inspired George Gershwin to write “Porgy and Bess”.
Following a slight disillusionment and boredom with commercial photography, Lee Miller fled New York and married Aziz Eloui Bey in 1934, offspring of a prominent Cairo family and the Director-General of the Egyptian Ministry of Railways, Telegraphy and Telephones. While frolicking under the Cairo sun, Lee started taking photos again, and created some of the most original images of Cairo of modern times.

When war was declared in 1939, Lee moved to London. She moved in with Roland Penrose and catalogued the chaos of war-torn England and the Blitz spirit lighting up the wreckage. Her Surrealist background would have familiarised her with chaos in a fictional sphere, but as with the other Surrealists, Magritte especially, who became notably disillusioned with the perversities of the movement during the war, it is unlikely Lee Miller could have been prepared for the desolate reality of the Blitz. “Grim Glory” was published in 1940, a catalogue of images inspired by the war, about the same time she started working for British Vogue.
She covered documentary, portraiture and fashion, moving with apparent ease from glamour to war – from love to death – decadence to destruction – to the light staccato of the camera’s click. She created a profile of Ed Murrow, of American broadcasting fame, in the same period she documented the chaotic and tragic scenes of a Normandy field hospital, the death camps of Dachau and Buchenwald (under the heading, simply and effectively: “Believe It.”)

It is the integrity and dedication with which Lee Miller tackled life and art, the flamboyant and yet very real portrayal of such versatile worlds as a death camp and a masquerade, paradise portrayed versus chaos revealed – that illuminates Lee Miller as a great artist, muse and heroine of the first electrical century. She had couture and she had a conscience, and her star refuses to wane. As important and iconoclastic now as decades ago, the London V&A exhibition does justice to her brilliance.

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