Lee Miller, The suicided Burgermeister’s Family, Leipzig, Germany, 1945, © Lee Miller Archives, England 2008, All rights reserved.
Lee Miller, Self Portrait in Headband, New York, 1932, © Lee Miller Archives, England 2008, All rights reserved.
Lee Miller, Dead SS Guard in the Canal, Dachau, Germany, 1945, © Lee Miller Archives, England 2008, All rights
David E. Scherman (1916-97), Lee Miller in Hitler's bath, Munich, 1945, © 2007 Lee Miller Archives. All rights reserved.
Theodor Miller, Lee Miller and Tanja Ramm in Miller’s Paris studio having breakfast in bed in the company of a wall hanging by Jean Cocteau, after 1929.
Lee Miller, Nusch and Paul Eluard, Roland Penrose, Man Ray and Ady Fidelin, Île Sainte-Marguerite, Cannes, France, 1937 © Lee Miller Archives, England 2008. All rights reserved.
Arnold Genthe (American), Portrait of Lee Miller, about 1927, Gelatin silver print, 8-3/4 x 6-3/4, EX.2003.3.19, Lent by The Lee Miller Archive.
Man Ray, Lee Miller, 1930.
Man Ray, Lee Miller, 1929.
Victoria & Albert Museum
+ 44 (0)20 7942 2000
The Art of Lee Miller
September 15, 2007-January 6, 2008
Lee Miller (April 23, 1907-July 21, 1977) is one of the most renowned female icons of the 20th century, admired as much for her free spirit, creativity and intelligence as for her classical beauty.
This exhibition covers her career as a photographer and is the first complete retrospective of her life and work, exploring her transformation from artist's muse to ground-breaking artist. The Art of Lee Miller celebrates the centenary of her birth.
Her father, Theodor Miller, an engineer and businessman, introduced Lee to photography. She was his model — posing for many pictures in the nude — and he also showed her technical aspects of the art.
At age 19 she was stopped from walking in front of a car on a Manhattan street by magazine publisher Condé Nast, thus launching her modeling career. For the next two years, she was one of the most sought after models in New York, photographed by the likes of Edward Steichen, George Hoyningen-Huene, and Horst P. Horst. Her picture advertising a female hygienic product (Kotex) caused a scandal.
In 1929 she traveled to Paris intending to learn photography from surrealist artist and photographer Man Ray. Although he first tried to demur, insisting that he did not take students, Miller soon became his photography assistant, as well as his lover and muse. While she was in Paris, she began her own photographic studio. Together with Man Ray, she invented the photographic technique of solarization. She was a major participant in the surrealist movement, with her witty images. Amongst her circle of friends were Pablo Picasso, Paul Éluard, Jean Cocteau, Gertrude Stein, and Alice B. Toklas. She appeared in one film, Cocteau's The Blood of a Poet (1930), as a statue.
After leaving Man Ray and Paris in 1932, she returned to New York and established a portrait and commercial photography studio with her brother Erik as her business partner. Among her portrait clients were artist Joseph Cornell and the African-American cast of the Virgil Thomson-Gertrude Stein opera Four Saints in Three Acts (1934).
In 1934, she abandoned her studio to marry Egyptian businessman Aziz Eloui Bey who came to New York to buy equipment for Egyptian Railways. Though she did not work as a professional photographer in this period, photographs she took living in Egypt with Bey are regarded as some of her most striking surrealist images. By 1937, Lee had grown bored with her life in Cairo and she returned to Paris, where she was to meet her future husband, the surrealist painter and curator Roland Penrose.
With the outbreak of the Second World War, Miller had separated from Bey and was living in London when the bombing of that city began. Ignoring pleas from friends and family that she return to the US, she embarked on a new career in photojournalism as the official photographer for Vogue documenting the Blitz and was accredited to the U.S. Army as a war correspondent for Condé Nast Publications from 1944. She teamed up with David E. Scherman, a Life Magazine correspondent on many assignments.
Miller travelled to France less than a month after D-Day and recorded the first use of napalm at the battle of St. Malo, the liberation of Paris, the battle for Alsace, and the horror of the Nazi concentration camps when the victims were liberated. A photograph by Scherman of Miller in the bathtub of Adolf Hitler's house in Munich is particularly well-known.
After the war she appeared exhausted, drank, and uncertain about her future. She travelled doing post-war assignments in Denmark and Hungary. She met Penrose again in 1946, and she returned with him to the United States where she visited Man Ray in California. After she conceived her son, she divorced Bey and, on May 3, 1947 married Penrose. In September 1947 they had a son, Antony Penrose. In 1949, they bought Farley Farm House in Sussex. During the 1950s and 1960s, Farley Farm became a sort of mecca for visiting artists such as Picasso, Man Ray, Henry Moore, Eileen Agar, Jean Dubuffet, Dorothea Tanning, and Max Ernst. While Miller did the occasional photo shoot for Vogue, she soon put her camera down for good except for an occasional picture of visitors. She took up gourmet cooking, but appeared depressed. Her son described it later as a "downward spiral" that may have been accelerated by her husband's long affair with the trapez artist Diane Deriaz. She rarely talked about her war experiences.
Miller died from cancer at Farley Farm House in Chiddingly, Sussex in 1977, aged 70.
For the last 30 years of her life, Miller did virtually nothing to promote her work. Nor did her husband Roland Penrose, although he was a noted collector and promoter of surrealist art, and the co-founder the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London. That Miller's work is known today is mainly due to the efforts of her son Antony, who has been studying, conserving, and promoting his mother's work since the early 1980s. Her pictures are accessible at the Lee Miller Archive.
In 2005 her life story was turned into a musical Six Pictures Of Lee Miller with music and lyrics by British composer Jason Carr, and book by Edward Kemp, it premiered at The Chichester Festival Theatre (also in Sussex). Also in 2005 Carolyn Burke's biography, Lee Miller, A Life, was published in the U.S. by Alfred A. Knopf and in the U.K. by Bloomsbury.
A rebellious and independent young woman, Miller left her family home in Poughkeepsie, New York, at the age of 19 to enroll in the Art Students League. Shortly after, she pursued a modeling career in New York City. A model for several major magazines, Miller became friends with Vogue senior photographer Arnold Genthe, a German who had immigrated to the United States in the 1890s. Despite their 35-year age difference, Miller and Genthe reportedly adored one another and spent much time discussing art and culture during the late 1920s and 1930s. Genthe's study of her in a dreamlike reverie and apparently undressed casts her as the archetypal muse.
Financially independent from her work as a model, Miller persuaded her family to allow her to study and model in Paris. Soon after arriving there in 1929, she became Man Ray's studio assistant. She stayed with Man Ray for several years as his muse, apprentice, artistic collaborator, and lover. Some of Man Ray's most reproduced pictures were created between 1930 and 1932 with Miller's assistance. With Man Ray, Miller learned the craft of photography and was introduced to Surrealist artists, for whom social interaction was an important source of creativity. Here, Man Ray playfully photographed himself with Miller and two Surrealist friends.
Miller broke off her relationship with Man Ray in 1932 and left Paris for New York, where she established a portrait and advertising studio with her brother. Not long after, she married an Egyptian businessman and moved to Cairo, where she continued to make photographs on her own. During a visit to Paris, she was introduced to Surrealist artist Roland Penrose and soon became his muse and collaborator.
When Miller returned to Cairo after their first meeting, Penrose painted his new muse in an imaginary party costume. Her body is divided into three elements: her legs are earth, her torso and arms are air, and her face is fiery, like the sun. Her hands are in the forms of a dove and a swallow. In the background, one can make out a group of pyramids that signals Miller's whereabouts.
While Miller was a muse to Penrose, Penrose was also a muse to Miller. When Miller returned to Egypt in 1937 after spending time with Penrose and his circle of Surrealist friends, her imagination was excited. The photographs she created after her visit move beyond the documentary and into the realm of the perceptual and the experimental. Made through a crooked frame embedded in a torn screen, this composition transforms an ordinary landscape into a strange and provocative abstraction.
In late 1942, at the age of 35, Miller received from the United States War Department a military identity card accrediting her as a war correspondent and later making her one of the only female combat photographers in the European war zones during World War II. Her photographs from the war fused her newfound documentary impulse with a Surrealist aesthetic developed during the 1930s and represent the culmination of her career in photography.
Miller was in Leipzig, Germany, when Hitler's Third Reich collapsed and many Nazis began to take their own lives. The city's mayor, Alfred Freybourg, and his wife and daughter honored a suicide pact together in the city hall. One of the first on the scene, Miller moved her camera close to the mayor's daughter, who is recorded in gentle, available light as though between dream and sleep, life and death, a state the Surrealist artists and poets greatly admired.
The interplay between words and pictures was central to the Surrealist ideology. Here, Miller surely saw the irony between the name of the site (Nonconformist Chapel, with its advertisement for "Children's Sunday School") and the cascade of fallen bricks spilling out the door.
In a collaborative effort with fellow photographer David Scherman, Miller posed in Hitler's personal bathroom the same day she photographed the liberation of Dachau. Poised and self-aware, Miller carefully constructed a stage set with a portrait of Hitler perched on the tub and her dirty boots at the foot of the bath. She raises her right arm in a gesture that mirrors the sculpture to her left.
When Picasso saw Miller after the liberation of Paris, he remarked, "This is the first Allied soldier I have seen, and it's you!" Picasso's incredulity at seeing Miller in fatigues was likely spurred by his memories of her as the radiant, carefree model who sat for a portrait (on view in the exhibition) seven years earlier. Despite her smile in this self-portrait, Miller's experiences during the war, particularly the devastation at the concentration camps, are believed to have left her with an emotional wound that never fully healed. Robert Capa, another war correspondent, was present at this meeting and may have operated Miller's camera.
Man Ray, Electricity - Lee Miller 1931.
Lee Miller, Joseph Cornell, New York,
Man Ray, Torso of Lee Miller, 1930.
Man Ray, Lee Miller, 1930.
Man Ray, Solarized Portrait of Lee Miller, ca. 1930.
George Hoyningen Huene (Russian, 1900-1968), Lee Miller Wearing Yraide Sailcloth Overalls, 1930, Gelatin silver print, 24 x 18 cm.