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Lee Miller and Surrealism in Britain

This exhibition at The Hepworth Wakefield, on American photographer Lee Miller, centres on her portfolio from the 1930s and 1940s. Including images of sculptures and art by Dali, Magritte and Moore, it reflects the artistic circles in which she lived and moved

Henry Moore with his sculpture Mother and Child, Farleys Garden, East Sussex, 1953.

© Lee Miller Archives, England 2018. All rights reserved.

American photographer Lee Miller (1907 –1977) was a pioneer across the fields of art, fashion and photojournalism. Her work embraced experimental studio work, portraiture, reportage and fashion shoots. Her involvement with the burgeoning Surrealist movement in Britain in the decade before the Second World War is the subject of an exhibition at The Hepworth Wakefield in Yorkshire. It still has a few weeks to run, until October 7th. I urge you to go.

The term ‘surrealist’ - signifying ‘above’ or ‘beyond realism’ - was coined by the French avant-garde poet Guillaume Apollinaire at the turn of the 20th century, and taken up by a group of poets and artists in 1920’s Paris led by André Breton. The irrational, unconscious mind, hitherto said to be suppressed, was now championed.

Lee Miller and Surrealism in Britain uses Miller’s photographs mainly from the 1930s and 1940s to make links between the avant-garde artists she associated with, photographed and exhibited alongside during one of the most prolific periods of her career.

The exhibition features sculptures, paintings, photographs, collages and works on paper by, among others, Eileen Agar, Salvador Dalí, Max Ernst, René Magritte, Henry Moore, Paul Nash, Roland Penrose, and Yves Tanguy. The juxtaposition of artworks is one of the delights of this show. For example, Max Ernst’s Joie de Vivre, 1935–6, hangs near a photographic portrait of him peeping ludicrously from a bush.

But it’s Miller’s eye - key to everything she did - that is the first thing you see. It sits on a metronome, attached to the pendulum, and is quietly unsettling; it doesn’t move but you feel its watchful ticking. The sculpture, you learn from the label, is Man Ray’s Object of Destruction, first made in 1923 and remade in 1933 with a photograph of Miller’s eye attached following the breakup of his relationship with Miller. The sculpture here is Andrew Lanyon’s 2004 reconstruction, but the label informs us that Ray’s performance instructions were, disconcertingly to “cut out the eye from a photograph of one who has been loved but is seen no more...” and with “a hammer well-aimed... destroy the whole at a single blow.”

Nude Bent Forward [thought to be Noma Rathner] Paris, France, 1930. © Lee Miller Archives, England 2018. All rights reserved

Miller was spotted at the age of nineteen by the publisher Condé Nast and modelled for Vogue in New York in the 1920s, moving to Paris in 1929 where she became Man Ray’s apprentice and lover. The opening gallery has some beautiful cropped images of nudes from this period, torsos that defy traditional depictions of the female body, as well as Miller’s arresting profile portrait of the photographer shaving.

Besides placing Miller at the heart of the Surrealist movement in Britain, along with her later-husband Roland Penrose, again and again in this exhibition I was reminded how outstanding Miller was as a portrait photographer.

Interweaved among works by Miller’s surrealist friends, including Eileen Agar’s Quadriga, a Dali lobster telephone, a lithograph of one of Man Ray’s most famous works where Lee Miller’s red lips are floating in the sky, and Penrose’s The Last Voyage of Captain Cook, are her masterfully lit and composed portraits.

Portraits range from the witty and playful - like Henry Moore hugging one of his Mother and Child sculptures, or the faces of sitters reflected in a teapot - to the beautiful and mysterious, such as Floating Head, Mary Taylor - and the emblematic, notably the dramatically lit and angled portrait of documentary filmmaker Humphrey Jennings, a cloud of cigarette smoke curling away like a cartoon thought bubble into the darkness.

There are a few landscapes, such as when marriage to an Egyptian industrialist took Miller to live in Egypt, from where she produced the gem, Portrait of Space, Nr Siwa, Egypt, 1937. To her surrealist eye it is a portrait of space, not desert; she injects mystery, the torn netting an uneasy kind of eye onto the landscape.

Bathing Feature, Vogue Studio, London, England, 1941. © Lee Miller Archives, England 2018. All rights reserved

Miller worked as a fashion photographer throughout her career, and in Bathing Feature, of a model standing tall beside a fish, a 1941 Vogue studio image, it’s clear that Miller’s delight in the absurd also informed her fashion work.

During the Second World War, Miller was a prolific contributor to British Vogue as a freelance war correspondent. And she stayed on in Europe to document events after the War, producing some harrowing images of wartime life. Possibly her most famous war photograph, taken in Hitler’s secret apartments at the end of the war, comes at the end of this show: the carefully staged Lee Miller in Hitler's Bathtub (1945).

Lee Miller’s granddaughter, Ami Bouhassane, Registrar and Trustee of the Lee Miller Archives, said: ‘It’s been a great pleasure to collaborate with the Hepworth, the scholarship they have brought to this exhibition has further widened the horizon and understanding of Lee’s work and will make this show the highlight of our year.’


Lee Miller and Surrealism in Britain

The Hepworth Wakefield, West Yorkshire

Until 7 October 2018

For more information CLICK HERE


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