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Book Review: Man Ray | Lee Miller: Partners in Surrealism by Phillip Prodger (contributions by Lynda Roscoe Harigan and Antony Penrose)

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Man Ray | Lee Miller: Partners in Surrealism by Phillip Prodger, with contributions by Lynda Roscoe Harigan and Antony Penrose, is a beautiful coffee table book, created to accompany the current exhibition at the Peabody Essex Museum, in Salem, Massachusetts through December 4, 2011. But it is also a look into a very interesting, and mostly unknown, artistic collaboration.

Lee Miller was introduced to photography by her father, who frequently would use her as a model. She began getting actual modeling jobs at 19, when Condé Nast, the founder of Vogue, spotted her and jump-started her career. She was a successful model from 1927 to 1929, when she decided to go to Paris and apprentice herself to the famous Surrealist artist Man Ray (born Emmanuel Radnitzky) — even though she had never met him and he didn’t take apprentices.

She managed to talk him into becoming his assistant, and soon the young beauty was also his favorite subject and lover. In the catalogue essays by Prodger and Hartigan it becomes clear that Man Ray and Lee Miller had a very complex relationship. The Surrealists believed that people should be free in their love affairs, but it was a very male-centric movement and the “rules” were quite sexist and old-fashioned when it came to women’s sexuality. Miller was a modern woman and didn’t adhere to their rules of dating. Man Ray would become jealous and possessive of Lee when she had another lover, but she was supposed to be fine with him doing the same.

Not only were Miller and Man Ray evenly matched sexually, but they became frequent artistic collaborators. Miller opened up her own photography studio near to Man Ray’s, and even took on some of his overflow clients. They discovered the technique of “solarisation” together.

The book juxtaposes works by Man Ray and Miller to show how closely they worked on similar themes with very different results. Man Ray’s photographs of Miller frequently showcase her beauty and sensuality. When Miller photographs herself or another model with the same props she creates a photograph that features a woman’s strength or psychological isolation.

Miller left Man Ray in 1932, but he continued to use her image, or parts of her image, in his work for many years. In “L’Heure de l’Observatoire — Les Amoureux (Observatory Time — The Lovers),” 1932-34, a giant pair of Miller’s lips hovers over an empty landscape. Man Ray would use her lips as a totem again and again in his work, abstracting them to become two lovers entwined.

In one of his readymade sculptures, “Indestructible Object (or Object to Be Destroyed),” a cut-out of one of Miller’s eyes ticks back and forth on a metronome. In a 1932 version of the sculpture, created after Miller had left him, Man Ray included these instructions, “Cut out the eye from a photograph of one who has been loved but is seen no more. Attach the eye to the pendulum of a metronome and regulate the weight to suit the tempo desired. Keep going to the limit of endurance. With a hammer well-aimed, try to destroy the whole at a single blow.”

It was definitely a difficult break-up, and Antony Penrose, who was Miller’s son with the painter Roland Penrose and who now manages her estate and archives, writes a very personal and moving essay about discovering who his mother really was and the breadth of her talent after her death. But he is as surprised as many must have been that two years after their acrimonious split, Miller and Man Ray were reunited — not as lovers, but as friends, and they remained so for the rest of their lives.

The book also includes portraits of Miller by friends and contemporaries Pablo Picasso and Dora Maar, another tempestuous romantic/artistic couple, as well as Max Ernst, Alexander Calder and Roland Penrose, to name a few.

Man Ray | Lee Miller: Partners in Surrealism is a fascinating glimpse into the lives of two extremely talented artists at the peak of their artistic and romantic partnership. Miller had quite an interesting career after she left Paris and Man Ray, including becoming the war correspondent for Vogue. Her wartime assignments included photographing Nazi concentration camps Buchenwald and Dachau — which, understandably, scarred her for life. Hopefully someday soon there will be another exhibit focusing on this aspect of her career. She was much more than a muse to Man Ray and he was much more than a mentor to her. They were artists and equals.

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  • Igor

    Very interesting article. Thanks for publishing it.