Sunday, 14 November 2010

Lee Miller

Part One - Model, Muse and Artist

Blood of a Poet - card playing Fate
We went to see Jean Cocteau’s Blood of a Poet a couple of weeks ago. The live score, by Steve Severin, was serviceable, if a little uninspired in its resort to the default dream sounds of synth washes. It was a little reminiscent of some of Stockhausen’s curiously bland later work, in which he seemed to have become overly absorbed in the techniques of digital music making. It also reminded me of Bill Nelson’s music for a stage production of Cocteau’s La Belle et La Bete from the 80s, which suggests that it was somewhat timelocked. It was great to see the film on the big screen, however, and I was particularly struck by the literally statuesque presence of Lee Miller. She appears as an armless classical statue who goads the poet protagonist into passing through the mirror (one of several characteristic Cocteau images in the film which recur throughout his work) and into the world of the imagination beyond. Scenes are played out behind the doors which stretch along the corridor (which, as with the underworld reached through mirrors in Orphee, seems subject to a weight of gravity and spatial laws all of its own) of the Hotel des Folies Dramatiques. Miller later appears, freed from her plaster carapace and more recognisably herself, as a card playing Fate, her restored arms now holding the hand which will determine whether the artist sitting opposite her at the table will triumph or face ruin. She warns him, with chilling intimacy, ‘without the ace of hearts, my dear, you are lost’. Lacking such a card, her prophecy proves accurate, and his blood is spilt on the snow in the midst of which their wintry al fresco game of death has been played out. Miller is then transfigured back into the statuesque goddess, her arms concealed by long black evening gloves to simulate their previous truncation. She moves slowly offscreen, relying on the inner vision of eyes painted over closed lids. She leads a bull alongside her, its hide a map to some unknown territory, and whose horns metamorphose into the frame of a lyre, the muse’s emblematic instrument. The film has often been categorised as a surrealist work, perhaps because it was made shortly after L’Age D’or (and indeed, funded by the same wealthy and unsuspecting patrons). But its symbolism is highly personal, and it aspires to the status of a poetic dream rather than a surrealist provocation. Besides, the surrealists weren’t at all keen on Cocteau, peevishly accusing him of stealing their ideas. Which seems rather rich, since these had supposedly arisen unbidden from the unconscious and were therefore symbolic archetypes which presumably had a certain common currency.

Blood of a Poet - statuesque muse
Miller talked about how she came to be involved with Blood of a Poet, and the tribulations and privations on set in a 1967 conversation with Francis Steegmuller, included in his 1970 biography of Cocteau. ‘One night Cocteau stopped at the table where I was sitting with Man Ray at the Boeuf sur le Toit’, she begins. ‘Do you know anybody who wants to be tested tomorrow? (Cocteau asked) I did, and told Man so when Cocteau had moved on. Man disliked the idea, but told Cocteau anyway. The tests were marvellous: I fitted Cocteau’s idea of a face. The script was constantly altered. Feral Benga, the black jazz dancer who played the angel, sprained his ankle and had to be a limping angel – Cocteau liked it better that way, but people have read all kinds of things into it. The star on Enrique Rivero’s back was put there by Cocteau to cover a scar – he’d been shot by his mistress’s husband. After nineteen retakes of the card-playing scene Rivero tore up the cards so there wouldn’t be a twentieth – there was a party he wanted to go to. The chandelier was delivered in 3822 pieces, each wrapped in tissue paper, the very day shooting was to begin. The studio was lined with mattresses to keep out sound – the mattresses were full of fleas and bedbugs that kept falling out. My armour – when I was the statue – didn’t fit very well: they plastered the joints with butter and flour that turned rancid and stank. They covered me with Nujol to make the costume cling: it cooked under the lights. The bull (really an ox) was supplied by an abattoir and had only one horn: time and money were running out, so Cocteau made a second horn himself’.

I was vaguely aware of Lee Miller’s name; that she was a photographer and had been associated with Man Ray. The common, reductive summation of her reputation is that she was a ‘surrealist muse’, a description which Angela Carter, oddly enough, repeats in a couple of her essays and reviews (collected in Shaking A Leg). A trip to the library unearthed a few books about her, and I discovered that she was an extraordinary woman for whom such a passive designation is wholly inapt. She was born Elizabeth Miller in 1907, in the (at the time) quiet and gentile city of Poughskeepie, in New York state. At the age of 7, she suffered the horrific trauma of being raped by a family acquaintance into whose care she had been left. The ordeal was made all the more terrible by the fact that it left a legacy of VD which she had to deal with for years afterwards. Shortly thereafter, her father, Theodore, began taking photographs of her which revealed a level of intimacy which seems deeply uncomfortable. She was very close to him throughout his life (and it was a long one) but these pictures suggest a fundamental betrayal of the bond which exists between a father and his daughter. Such unsettling childhood experiences may have contributed to the sense of restlessness, and the resultant wild and impulsive behaviour, which characterised her adult life.

Lee on the cover of Vogue - March 1927
She first travelled to Europe in 1925 to study set design at a school run by the Hungarian artist Ladislas Medgyes, which he had immodestly given the name of L’Ecole Medgyes Pour La Technique du Theatre. A noted Lothario, it’s likely he had an affair with his young student. At any rate, Elizabeth’s parents, possibly alerted to such goings on, travelled to Paris and escorted her back to the States in early 1926. That year, she took dancing lessons and found brief employment in the chorus of George White’s Scandals, a slightly more daring variant on the Ziegfield’s Follies style of Broadway show. One of her predecessors in the chorus line had been Louise Brooks, whose short, bobbed hair and liberated persona was very much akin to Miller’s. Both would go on to embody the spirit of the age. Miller didn’t last long in the Scandals. She moved on once more, this time to study painting at the Art Students League of New York. But she didn’t find her metier here, either. Legend has it (and with Miller, the legend is seldom at great variance with the truth) that she was dreamily wandering out into the street one day, and was pulled back from the path of an oncoming car by a passing stranger. He happened to be Conde Nast, the owner of Vogue magazine, and he was immediately struck by her looks. She had the short haircut and boyish look of ‘moderne’ fashionability, and was stylishly attired in clothes she’s bought in Paris. He asked her back to his office and invited her to model for Vogue. She was soon greatly in demand, and was shot by some of the most famous photographers of the age, principal amongst them being Edward Steichen. He was an artist who was almost as feted as those whom he portrayed, and he had the attendant wealth to prove it. He created an aura of unassailable glamour around his subjects, a look which became part and parcel of the elevated world of celebrity. He essentially created a new pantheon of demi-gods and goddesses. Miller would later credit him with giving her the idea of taking up photography. She was certainly absorbing some of the techniques being employed on the other side of the camera lens, remaining always at a slight remove from the fantasies of which she was the object (a distance which she would maintain later in her career, both as model and photographer). This merely enhanced her mystery, of course. She had always had an interest in technical matters, something which she no doubt inherited from her father, who worked in engineering and was an inveterate tinkerer. The possibilities of photography, which could harness technological means to express an artistic view of the world, seemed like it just might be the medium she had been searching for.

Lee solarized - Man Ray 1929
It was while modelling for Vogue that Miller changed her Christian name, Elizabeth becoming Lee. It seemed more suited to the boyish style which she had first gleaned from Anita Loos, and to her modern outlook. It was a self-willed transformation which seemed to indicate a distancing from her path, and attempt at rebirth and the beginning of a completely new life. In a reversal of the general pattern of the early 20th century, she left the new world for the old in order to be reborn. She returned to Paris in 1929, determined to find her way to the other side of the camera, or ‘to enter photography by the back end’, as she later put it with characteristic fruitiness. She looked up Man Ray at his Montparnasse studio. He wasn’t in, so she retired to the neighbouring café, where she bumped into him and announced that she was his new student. She was obviously persuasive, as she was soon much more; his lover, his model, his muse, his studio assistant and eventually (whether acknowledged or not) his collaborator. Madame Man Ray, as she became known. She learnt a lot from him, and really became a serious photographer from this point on. She can lay claim to be the true inventor of his famous solarization technique. Her discovery of it occurred when she accidentally exposed some negatives which she had been developing to light. She went on processing them anyway. The results were striking, surrounding the main subject with a dark outline which separated it sharply from the background, and highlighted black and white contrasts, lending the whole thing a texture of haze and dapple. Further experimentation refined the accidental discovery and subjected the technique to greater control, although a chance element always remained, which lent the process an element of the magical. The best of the solarized portraits by both Man Ray and Miller have a visionary, hyper-real (or surreal, if you wish) air, as if some essence of the subject has been drawn through the lens and filtered onto film.

Man Ray - Neck (1930) before desecration
Man Ray made many photographic portraits of Lee. One, in which she raises her arm and rests her hand on the back of her head, revealing her armpit in a pose of axillary eroticism, was to be echoed in the small plaster-cast piece of faux classical statuary which stands on the bathroom cabinet in the famous wartime photograph of her sitting in Hitler's bath. It's also reminiscent of the pose which Patti Smith strikes in a rather more assertive fashion on the cover of her Easter LP. As was the case with the surrealists in general, Man Ray's pictures often express a violent and misogynistic sexuality. A photograph in which she turns away from the camera and looks upward, exposing her neck, was later slashed, red ink poured onto the gash in murderous anger. He encases her head and arm in wire mesh, crops her naked body so that its head and legs are truncated, crosses her torso with jagged lines of electricity, reduces what is probably her to a ball of back and buttocks (a photograph which he titles The Prayer, as if it’s expressing her desires) and generally divides her body into its component parts. His Object of Destruction, a personalised refinement of the earlier Object To Be Destroyed, attaches a cut out of one of her eyes onto the spike of a metronome, there to be set into blinking motion, adding the instruction that the whole should be smashed with a single hammer blow once the limits of endurance have been reached. He would later paint her lips floating huge and disembodied in a cloud-speckled sky above a mountain-bordered lake.

Man Ray - Observatory Time: The Lovers (1932-4)
Her full, sensual mouth obviously exerted a certain fascination. It is the first part of her which appears in Blood of a Poet. The poet wipes it off the canvas on which he is painting a portrait after it starts to move, only for it to appear on the palm of his hand. After kissing it and allowing it to kiss his body, he smears it onto the head of a statue which appears in the corner of his room, Lee in truncated form once more. Cocteau was never part of surrealist movement, which was, paradoxically for a group supposedly valuing the free expression of the unconscious, fiercely prescriptive in its decisions as to who was or was not allowed into its hallowed circles. Neverthleless, he followed in their stead by having the poet smash Lees static form into pieces. He does, however, face retribution for this act of violent desecration. He himself becomes a statue, and centuries later, warring schoolboys denude his body for use in their snowball battle, subjecting it to an instant process of erosion. Miller’s insistence on sharing the libidinous release which the surrealist painters and poets claimed for themselves as an essential adjunct to their art exposed the inherent conservatism which lay underneath their loud declarations of revolutionary intent and expressions of contempt for bourgeois values. This emerged in the sadism which was such a prevalent feature of their art (and was enshrined in their elevation of de Sade to their cultural pantheon), particularly when it came to depicting women. The muse was there to inspire the unbounded and violent expression of their sexual energy (and was even interchangeable amongst their number for that purpose), but she was herself supposed to remain a passive and submissive object. This was a role which Lee Miller was never likely to conform to.

Miller set up her own studios in Paris in 1930, nearby to Man Ray’s. She began to take portrait pictures, some of them for French Vogue (known informally by its crashed name Frogue). She also walked the Paris streets, taking pictures of incongruous details which her eye, versed in surrealism, detected around her; eruptions of the strange onto the surface of the everyday. This seems almost literally the case in her photograph A Strange Encounter, in which the edge of a wave of viscous asphalt seems to be reaching out towards the shiny surfaces of a bystander’s black shoes; The Blob hits 1930s Paris years before lowering its sights to small town USA. Exploding Hand shows the said appendage, draped in an impressively angular sleeve, reaching for a door handle behind a pane of glass and seemingly sparking a sizzling discharge of electrical energy. They are in fact merely scratches on the window, appearing more luminous against the darkness of the trees reflected in the background. But they are transformed by the eye of the imagination which has captured them. Miller returned to New York in 1932, her apprenticeship and affair with Man Ray over. She set up her own studios in Manhattan and became a very successful freelance portrait photographer, shooting some of the most renowned celebrities and artists of the day. These were mostly conventional, professional jobs, expertly executed. She did occasionally experiment which solarization, as with her 1935 portrait of Lilian Harvey. In 1933, she held her first one woman show in the Julien Levy Gallery in New York. She had established herself in her chosen art form and was respected and successful. Which made her decision to marry an Egptian industrialist, Aziz Eloui Bey, in 1934 and go and live with him in Cairo all the more surprising. Perhaps it was the lure of the exotic, the air of mystery which the Near and Middle East held at the time, perhaps the attraction of a wealthy father figure. Anyway, as Carolyn Burke puts it in her biography of Miller, ‘Lee embarked on marriage as if it were a holiday’. It was one which lasted 3 years.

Magritte - Le Baiser (1938)
She was utterly unsuited to life in Egypt. Women were expected to remain sequestered from men in their household harem, having no contact with those beyond their immediate family. Bey was a liberal modern Egyptian, and essentially let Lee do whatever she pleased (perhaps recognising that she would do it whether he wished it or not), but she was surrounded by those for whom such liberties were not afforded. She hated the climate, too. She stuck it for as long as she could, making several trips out into the desert. One of her best pictures emerges from these excursions. Portrait of Space from 1937 looks out at the vast empty expanses of the desert through a ragged hole torn through the gauze veil of a tent window. It is a mysterious, almost mystical image, and inspired Magritte, whose 1938 painting The Kiss (Le Baiser) draws directly from it. She stuck it in Egypt for as long as she could, and then headed back for Paris, to the bohemian artistic milieu in which she was more comfortable.

She attended a fancy dress ball with Julien Levy (the gallery owner who had staged her New York show) and there met the English artist Roland Penrose, who had come along with Max Ernst. Penrose had been instrumental in staging the first major exhibition of surrealism in England in the previous year. It had created something of a stir, principally on account of Salvador Dali’s attempts to deliver a speech from within a deep sea diving suit, from which he had to be unscrewed after he began to suffocate. Penrose immediately fell for Miller, and thus began a golden summer and a lifelong relationship. She joined him in Cornwall, where she met up with Man Ray again, there with his new girlfriend Ady Fidelin. Also there were Max Ernst , the artists Leonora Carrington and Eileen Agar, the surrealist poet Paul Eluard and his wife Nusch, and, on a short visit, Henry Moore and his wife Irina. Lee and Roland then went to the continent and called on Rene Magritte and Paul Delvaux in Brussels. They stopped off to have a look around the Palais Ideal, the concrete castle of the imagination built by the postman Cheval in his spare time. It’s a classic work of so-called outsider art, which means the kind of creative endeavours made by people who neither know nor care about art history or art markets. They then joined up with some of the others to spend the rest of the summer with Picasso and Dora Maar, one of his two alternating mistresses and muses. Picasso painted six ‘Portraits of Lee Miller as an Arlesienne’ during this period, the same year in which he had also produced Guenica and The Weeping Woman, two of the most famous pictures of his entire career. Lee later said of him ‘you do not sit for Picasso, he just brought it to me one day having painted it from memory’. Lee Miller’s photographs from this summer sojourn capture the dreamy spirit of their sun-kissed idyll. The best known is Picnic, in which the participants (the Eluards, Man Ray and Ady Fidelin, and Roland Penrose) seem to have their mind on other things than sandwiches and ginger beer.

Picasso - Portrait of Lee Miller as an Arlesienne (1937)
Miller returned to Egypt and Aziz, whilst remaining in frequent contact with Penrose and agreeing to meet again as soon as possible. She travelled through Egypt and surrounding countries before finally conceding the inevitable and deciding to leave the country, and Aziz, for good. As she wrote to him, she had seen ‘as many changes of scenery and weather here as there are kinds of religions and races of people… (but) all of them (were) vaguely disappointing because of my own state of mind’. She moved in with Penrose in his house at 21 Downshire Hill, Hampstead in 1939. You’ll find a blue plaque on its wall now to identify it. London was bracing itself for German assault, in whatever form it might take. Miller joined the staff of British edition of Vogue (Brogue, naturally) and formed a close relationship with its editor Audrey Withers, a woman in whom she felt she could confide and who encouraged her to develop her work. Withers, a strong-minded socialist, was interested in the changing nature of women’s role in society brought about by war. Miller photographed women at work or in uniform, some of which were published in Vogue, others collected in a book called Wrens In Camera. Many of the shots of working women show them mastering the kinds of mechanical and technical tasks in which Miller herself took an interest. Some are characterised by a poignant absence, such as A Canadian Wren’s Cabin from May 1944. This frames a cluster of personal belongings adjacent to the iron frame of a functional bed frame. A stuffed toy dog leans against the rim of a tin hat, jewellery and family photos and a small stack of books sit on the bedside table and sporting pennants form a descending flight on the wall. These are traces which sketch the barest outline of the person who is the invisible subject of the picture. Effects which are all the more precious given the possibility that this absence may become permanent. In US Army Nurses’ Billet from 1943, the white uniform hanging against the darkness of the interior and the crumpled shapes of underwear outlined against the light, draped in front of the window, seem presentiments of potential hauntings, awaiting the return of bodies which is no longer as assured as once it was. Her shots of ATS searchlight operators offer the perfect opportunity for the contrast of light and darkness, with the profiles of the women clearly etched against the powerful beam.

Miller’s surrealist eye came in to play on her pictures taken in London as it prepared for whatever was to come. Particularly striking is Fire Masks, taken at the entrance to the shelter in the garden in Hampstead. These masks, made to protect those who were on the watch for incendiary bombs, look like a modernist version of the sinister carnivelesque masks worn by figures in Goya’s paintings. They resemble the simplified rendering of the human face in a few bold curves and lines found in the African and Polynesian masks which had so inspired Picasso and the cubists. The grotesque distortion of the human head created by the gas mask is also represented in her photograph of her friend David Scherman, a young photographer from Life magazine who had joined her and Penrose for a time in their Hampstead home. Miller’s shots of the aftermath of raids during the blitz also focus on the surrealist disruptions of the cityscape, the odd inversions of the normal order. Her 1940 picture Nonconformist Chapel shows the solid porticoed door framing a torrent of rubble pouring out onto the street, as if the bricks of the building have themselves become the congregation and are rushing to exit into the open air.

She photographed portraits of many of the artists, musicians and actors in London at the time, as well. Hein Heckroth, the set and costume designer who was to work with Powell and Pressburger on films such as A Matter of Life and Death, Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes, looks nervous and guarded, his face half in shadow, half in the light shining through the window through which he is casting a sideways glance. His downturned mouth is largely concealed by the hand which holds the cigarette he is taking a drag from. This picture was taken shortly after his release in 1942 from his internment as an enemy alien. Humphrey Jennings, the film-maker who produced such landmark wartime films as Listen to Britain, Fires Were Started and A Diary for Timothy, and who had also been a surrealist painter, leans back and looks pensively into the distance to one side of the frame. A cloud of cigarette smoke, illuminated against the inky black background, hangs before him like a comic book thought bubble. It's a picture which is used on the cover of Kevin Jackson's biography of Jennings. Miller shot Henry Moore sketching the huddled bodies sheltering in the London underground at Holborn station during a documentary called Out of Chaos, which focussed on the work of Official War Artists. There’s also a very glamorous shot of Charles Hawtrey in full evening dress drag; he’s almost unrecognisable from the cheerfully weedy characters he would become known for in the Carry On films after the war. Her informal portrait of the journalist Martha Gellhorn pictures her sitting cross-legged on her chair having a fag break, her typewriter awaiting her on the dressing table turned work desk behind, pictures of her husband Ernest Hemingway clipped to the mirror. She looks like she has been captured turning around in a momentary pause from work to which she will soon feverishly return.

As the war moved into its final phases and armies began to do battle in the heart of Europe, Miller was given the opportunity to witness events at first hand. She took it and threw herself into her work with fierce fearlessness and wholly committed dedication. There was something very personal and revealing about her series of war reports for Vogue. The war shook up elements of her psyche which had been held at a distance. It was to be the making of Lee Miller.

n.b. Miller's photographs are under copyright, but you can find many of the pictures discussed here at the Lee Miller Archive

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