Part Two - The War and After
n.b. Lee Miller's photographs are under copyright, but many of those discussed here can be found online at the Lee Miller Archive
After the invasion of Normandy, Withers sent an eager Miller to report for Vogue on the progress of the war on the continent (she had been accredited as an US army war correspondent in 1942). Her war coverage would prove to be an apotheosis for Lee, both professionally and personally. Her photos act both as documentation and as a revealing view of the effect of conflict on the individual. The camera is not a shield, so these images marked her as they passed through the lens and were developed and magnified in the mind’s eye. She also accompanied her photos with her own reportage, writing from the frontline, which combined her sharp eye for detail with a good deal of highly perceptive analysis of what she saw around her. This included a frank account of her own emotional responses, which gave her pieces an intense and personally revealing charge. She began in the field hospitals of Normandy, focussing on the work of nurses and doctors in the medical tents, and the patients whom they were treating. One of the earliest pictures is of a soldier how had suffered extensive burn injuries. He looks strangely and inappropriately jolly, black slits for eyes and nose, and a cartoon smile for a mouth in the round balloon of bandages which inflates his head, and which turns his hands into soft boxing paws. She reported that ‘a bad burns case asked me to take his picture as he wanted to see how funny he looked’. She added ‘it was pretty grim and I didn’t focus too good’. He died shortly thereafter. The blurred focus acts as an expression of her shock, of the sudden sense of dizzy disjuncture felt upon being plunged into a zone of conflict.
Lee then moved on to join the battalion HQ of the 83rd Infantry at St Malo, which had reportedly been liberated. This proved not to be the case. There were still pockets of German soldiers defending the town. She was now reporting from the frontline of a war in progress. With her photograph of billowing masses of smoke enveloping the town across the bay like a volcanic ash cloud, darkly framed through an upstairs window, she had inadvertently captured an image of one of the first ever uses of napalm bombs. In St Malo, she met up with David Scherman, who was there as a photographer for Life Magazine. They would continue to meet and journey together across the chaos of Europe throughout the rest of the war. As they progressed through Rennes, she witnessed the humiliation meted out to those judged to have been collaborators. Her picture and description of the event display a pitiless distance from the young women involved and a ruthless objectivity in pursuit of capturing the image. ‘In Rennes today’, she wrote in a letter to Audrey Withers, ‘I went to a chastisement of French collaborators – the girls had their hair shaved although the interrogation had merely confirmed that there was evidence enough for their trial later on. They were stupid little girls – not intelligent enough to feel ashamed’. Her photo of them shows their faces fixed in blank masks of stoical endurance as the crowds hustle and jeer them along. It’s difficult not to feel some pity for them. Even if Miller, caught up in the heightened (or deadened) emotional responses of wartime, would deny them any compassion, her objective eye offers the possibility of such a response from the viewer, even with the knowledge of their actions.
Lee arrived in Paris to record scenes of wild celebration following its liberation. She looked up old friends to check that they were still alive and well, and took their pictures to testify to their endurance. Jean Cocteau looks dapper and relaxed, leaning against the wall amongst the barred shadows of the Palais Royal Arcade. In another picture, Jean Marais leans out of the window of the apartment he shared with Cocteau, flashing a winning smile at a cluster of young female admirers. Miller visited Colette in a neighbouring apartment in the Palais Royal and wrote a characterful profile to accompany her pictures. She also photographed Maurice Chevalier, elegant and unruffled on the balcony of Louis Aragon’s flat, freshly cleared of all accusations of collaboration. She had an emotional re-union with Picasso, who was portrayed standing amongst his paintings in his studio. Marlene Dietrich is shown seated on the floor, her stylish evening coat pooled in artfully disarrayed folds around her. Miller also took a series of pictures for an article entitled Paris Under Snow. These brought her surrealist eye into focus once more, showing statues given new contours and features by their mantles of snow. Her bawdy sense of humour comes out in her picture of an outdoor lavatory, with offputting public information posters about syphilis posted to its entrance. There’s also a shot of her own balcony outside the room at the Hotel Scribe in which she was based. Champagne bottles and jerry cans are stood in incongruous juxtaposition against the iron grillwork. There is a jerry can shaped declivity in the snow. Lee may have taken command of the one which she kept filled with a try-it-and-see cocktail of whatever alcohol had been ‘liberated’ from cellars along the way. Fuel for the road.
Her impressions and feelings whilst travelling through Luxembourg go towards making up one of her most profoundly insightful Vogue articles on the psychology of war, which was published under the title Patterns of Liberation. In this piece she attempts to describe the difficulties of adjusting to liberty, of starting the shift away from what had become ingrained patterns of thought and behaviour. She wrote to Audrey Withers, describing her assessment of the mental state of those she came across. Her conclusions might indicate that the shock of war was causing her to delve into her own psyche and conjure up some long dormant demons. ‘There were no visible signs or changes in manner’, she wrote, ‘but none the less they are ill – some kind of hidden and devitalizing microbe. The mental malnutrition of the last four years has sapped their strength’. In her article, she makes the point that liberation does not provide an instant solution to ongoing problems, and may indeed resurrect old, or create entirely new ones. ‘The pattern of liberation is not decorative’, she observes. ‘There are the gay squiggles of wine and song. There is the beautiful overall colour of freedom but there is ruin and destruction. There are problems and mistakes, disappointed hopes and broken promises. There is wishful thinking and inefficiency. There is Military Expediency. There is grogginess like after a siesta, a sleeping-beauty lethargy’. She notices the way in which language becomes expedient and adaptable during such inbetween times, hearing one of the American soldiers, upon seeing a medieval ruin, ask ‘well, I wonder who liberated that!’ This leads her to the realisation that ‘the word was bound to degenerate. Now we liberate a church when we wreck it, we liberate a bottle of brandy when we beat down a mercenary publican, we liberate a girl when we detach her from her chaperon. We liberate like we win or swipe a packet of cigarettes, or my field glasses, for instance. I got liberated last night, means I went on a particularly super drunk’.
The photograph Young Evacuee perfectly sums up the stunned confusion following the ending of occupation and the sudden cessation of conflict. A small boy with a satchel on his back sits on a pile of sacks and packing cases, as if he is just another piece of luggage. Temporary signs, quickly knocked up, point in each direction behind him. This makes him look even more lost, stuck at a junction with no idea of which way to go. His face wears an expression of weary anxiety which has a look of habitual fixity. Miller moved on from this area of uneasy liberated stasis awaiting new signs towards a more certain future. She marched with the army through the bleak wintry landscape of Alsace, icy, snow-slushed roads winding through bare woodland and the wreckage of towns. A picture of the bombed out ruins of a church, amongst the rubbled mounds of which ‘a small group of nuns clawed…searching for their padre’, is a particularly powerful depiction of the fresh destruction and accompanying human loss and confusion which she came across.
Lee received clearance to continue into Germany. From here on, her reports began to become increasingly anti-German in tone. As the Life photographer John Phillips, whom she met later in Hungary put it, ‘she hated the fascists – we were all anti-Nazi, but the strength of her hatred was unusual’. There is a barely suppressed fury, a violent rage expressed through visceral loathing (and no doubt voiced at the time with the wider vocabulary of profanity in which she was well versed and with which she could let loose outside the constraints of magazine publishing), which makes her pieces convey a powerful sense of immediacy to this day. She begins her first article from Germany by describing it as ‘a beautiful landscape dotted with jewel-like villages, blotched with ruined cities, and inhabited by schizophrenics’. As she travelled through the ruins of Cologne and Frankfurt, she continued to frame startling images of ruin. The iron grillwork of the Hohenzollern Bridge in Cologne forms a pattern of geometrical order which belies the fact that its central span lies in a collapsed tangle in the river beyond. In the bombed chemical plant of Ludwigshaven, the dislodged storage tanks lie cradled amongst the jagged tangle of pipes and gantries as if they themselves were the missiles which had wrought such destruction.
But it is Miller’s pictures of people from this period which are some of the defining images of the end days of the war. She records the suicides of the family of the Burgomaster of Leipzig, all looking peaceful, as if they had posed themselves for just such a post-mortem photo. These portraits of easeful, almost ecstatic death represent a perversion of German Romanticism. The soul has turned inwards and become infected with a corrupting morbidity, more in love with death than life. Miller’s fascination with the ruins of gothic churches and cathedrals make up a further composite allegorical portrait of the wreckage of the German romantic soul. In her article accompanying this tableau of death, Lee memorably describes the daughter: ‘leaning back on the sofa is a girl with extraordinarily pretty teeth, waxen and dusty. Her nurse’s uniform is sprinkled with plaster from the battle for the city hall which raged outside after their deaths’. It’s disturbingly reminiscent of some of Man Ray’s photographs of Lee herself sleeping. She arrived in Buchenwald some days after it had been liberated. The inmates here had been granted no such decorous and pictorial ends. She photographed an SS guard who had tried to disguise himself as a prisoner. He had been recognised and beaten. He stares directly into Lee’s lense, his face bloody, wide-eyed and blank with animal fear. You almost feel as if she has added a few blows herself. Another guard is shown hanging from a radiator. She remarks that ‘he was taken out on a stretcher, stripped and thrown on a heap of bony cadavers where he looked shockingly big, the well fed bastard’. Such savage feelings, no matter how immediate, honest and well justified, feel like they might also be reaching back into the past, to memories of abuse, and spitting out long accumulated reserves of bile. It’s invidious to think of war in terms of personal therapy, but any extreme experience is liable to shake the elements of an individual’s psyche into new kaleidoscopic configurations.
Miller joined up with David Scherman again as US forces met with the Red Army at Torgau. They travelled together to Dachau, where Miller confronted the full horrors of the camp there, which were more evident than they had been at Buchenwald since it had been liberated only the previous day. She pictured the bodies piled up in the long stationary train stretching towards the camp with an artistic, ordering eye which some have found inappropriate. But these were the first time many people were confronted with these images, and such an imposition of visual order and language made them more readily comprehensible. Her carefully composed shots have nothing of the blurred sense of shock found in her earlier picture of the burns victim. These pictures place soldiers as witnesses to these appalling scenes of amassed dead bodies, standing in for the stunned viewer. Miller realised the importance of creating an indisputable record of scenes which would be scarcely believable back in the USA. The article in the US edition of Vogue in which they appeared featured her subtitle, in bold lettering, Believe It! The UK edition, focussed on victory, didn’t publish these pictures, including only one close-up of skeletal bodies stacked atop one another in Buchenwald, filling the entire frame as if part of a mountainous slope.
Lee and David went on to Munich, where Hitler’s former home was now the command post of a US regiment. It was here that Scherman took an astonishing and genuinely iconic picture which is filled with immense symbolic power, Lee Miller in Hitler’s Bathtub. She sits looking wearily out, to the side rather than directly at the camera, looking lost in thought. A small portrait of Hitler rests on the rim of the tub, and a commonplace nude statuette on the bathside table opposite. Its pose echoes her own in a photo Man Ray had taken of her a decade or so previously. She looks at it as if realising this and contemplating its meaning. She represents the life force set against the death impulse which has infected the German soul. Sitting in the bath in Hitler’s house (and water is traditionally viewed as an archetypally female element), she has occupied the inner sanctum of the country, its hidden core. Here she sits, a female presence at the heart of the masculine endeavour of war. The picture, taken by her sometime lover David Scherman, is a celebration of the body in the face of its desecration and systematic decimation. Lee’s presence, exhausted but unbowed, is a symbolic gesture of defiance in the face of the repression and self-hatred inherent in the urge towards fascism. Such conventional notions of femininity represented by the nude are counterbalanced by the heavy combat boots, in which Lee had trudged across Europe, standing on the bath mat beneath her bare arched back. The mat is filthy, as if she had wiped them thoroughly on it before taking them off. As she put it in a later interview, ‘I even washed the dirt of Dachau off in his tub’. Lee also looked around Eva Braun’s apartment, noting the objects and décor which reflected a life ended in suicide mere days previously. They both went to Berchtesharden, where they witnessed the burning of Hitler’s cabin, set aflame by SS guards who then fled into the surrounding mountains. They both took their pick of memorabilia, the personal effects which she referred to in her article as Hitleriana. Lee took a fancy silver tray etched with the initials AH.
Miller continued to travel through Europe after the war was over, observing the continuing chaos, the course of justice, and the opportunistic profiteering and political manoeuvring which was played out amongst the ruins. She was present for the trial of Marshal Petain, the head of Vichy France, in Paris. Her picture of an emaciated child, a tiny figure amongst the white folds of a Viennese hospital bed, is a heartwrenching image, a depiction of the true effects of war. As she wrote to Audrey Withers, ‘there was nothing to do. In this beautiful children’s hospital with its nursery-rhymed walls and screenless windows, with its clean white beds, its brilliant surgical instruments and empty drug cupboards there was nothing to do but watch him die’. Her photograph of the dying child inspired (if that’s the right word) Graham Greene as he was writing the screenplay for The Third Man. This is the human face of the tiny dots which the blackmarket profiteer Harry Lime points out from the top of the carousel, the face from which he and those whom he represents found it all too easy to distance themselves. Miller’s picture of the soprano Irmgard Seefried posed in dramatic silhouette against the wreckage of the Vienna Opera House as she sings an aria from Madame Butterfly is an image of the human spirit continuing to find a voice. Art offering some hope for renewal.
Miller travelled on through Hungary and Romania, photographing peasants and nobility alike. She took a dramatic picture of the execution of Laszlo Bardossy, the ex-prime minister of Hungary. He stands up straight against a neatly stacked wall of sandbags on a roadside pavement, the rifles of the four man firing squad pointing in at him just a few feet away. To the side, a priest and a small crowd of craning faces bear witness to his death in the early dawn light. She also visited King Michael of Romania, who had acted as the head of the anti-Nazi coalition which had ousted General Antonescu’s fascist government in 1944. She photographed his mother, Helen, leaning on the balcony of the summer palace. With its dark and mysterious spaces, twisting wrough-iron starircases, baroque weaves of balconies and balustrades, and sculpted heads looking on from all directions, this could be the interior of the beast’s castle from Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bete, a timeless world unto itself. It was a huge place, expansive enough for King Michael, no respecter of hallowed tradition, to drive his jeep down the stairs. Naturally, Lee got on with him, and with his resourceful mother too.
In Bucharest, she met once again with Maritza Lataretu, a Gypsy singer whom she had met on previous travels. The gypsies had returned to the cities once more, now that the fascists were no longer in power. Lee availed herself of one of their unique services, a bear massage. As she wrote, ‘the bear knew her business. She walked up and down my back on all fours as gently as if on eggs’. It was a mark of the fearlessness of this bold adventuress that she actively sought out a form of relaxation which involved being sat upon by a bear. The adventures were about to be brought to a halt, however, as she received a letter from Roland Penrose which was couched in the form of an ultimatum. Having given her the freedom to do as she wished within their relationship, he had now decided that enough was enough. He was currently living with a young art restorer by the name of Gigi, and intimated that this might be turning into a permanent arrangement in her continued absence. Needing some sense of underlying stability, she decided to return to England and attempt to patch things up. For a time, this involved living alongside Gigi in the house at Hampstead. Penrose seemed to find this an amenable set up, but Gigi eventually decided that it would be better if she left.
The work for Vogue continued, but Miller no longer felt any real involvement in it. The resumption of fashion and celebrity shots couldn’t seem like anything other than an anti-climax, a retreat into distracting triviality. She continued to produce some fine personal portraits of artistic friends however, such as those of Max Ernst and his wife, the surrealist artist Dorothea Tanning, and Man Ray and his wife, the dancer Juliet Browner, in their new homes in America. In 1947 she became pregnant, and she and Penrose married, Aziz having granted her an instant and unquestioning divorce. Before she went into hospital to have a caesarean birth, she wrote a letter which amounted to summation of her attitude to life, set down in the event of her death. ‘I keep saying to everyone, I didn’t waste a minute, all my life – I had a wonderful time, but I know, myself, now, that if I had it over again I’d be even more free with my ideas, with my body and my affection. Above all, I’d try to find some way of breaking down, through the silence which imposes itself on me in matters of sentiment’. She gave birth to a boy, Antony. It couldn’t be said that she was a natural mother. It wasn’t a role to which she was ideally suited. When she fell pregnant, she had written in no uncertain terms ‘my work room is not going to be a nursery’. Antony would remember his nanny Patsy Murray as a closer presence during his childhood than his mother (or, for that matter, his father).
Roland Penrose, meanwhile, was busy making a steady ascent towards the pinnacle of the art world hierarchy. He established the ICA (the Institute for Contemporary Arts) in Fitzroy Street (it would move to its current premises in The Mall at a later date) in 1948. The following year, he realised another dream, that of becoming a gentleman farmer, moving to a big country house from which he could take on a leading role in the local squirearchy. He chose a place called Farley Farm, near the village of Chiddingly in Sussex, a short drive from Lewes and therefore within easy reach of London. Lee’s attitude to the prospect of a rural lifestyle was pithily summed up in her remark ‘fuck living in the country’. She went along with him, nevertheless. In the years to come, she would appear to many to be little more than an adjunct to his ambitions. A lot of the fight seemed to have gone out of her. Not that she wasn’t capable of raising sheer hell at home.
She found work increasingly difficult and felt aimless and depressed, a state of mind which led to her taking solace in the bottle. Penrose didn’t seem to care. She never told him about her experiences at Buchenwald or Dachau, just as she never told him about her childhood abuse. Perhaps he just never took the trouble to find out. He was frequently more occupied with a series of young lovers. He was a post-war art world Ronnie Wood or Rod Stewart, clinging on to an endlessly prolonged bohemian adolescence, refusing to accept any personal responsibility. A high culture sugar daddy inviting a succession of impressionable young women to come up and see his Picassos. At one point, he fell for a Parisian trapeze artist named Diane Deriaz (you really couldn’t make it up) and tried to get her to marry him, but she was having none of it. Farley Farm was thrown open to all their artistic friends, with Lee expected to play host. Penrose had no patience with her mood swings, and no notion that there might be serious emotional troubles causing such turbulent behaviour. He even wrote to Audrey Withers at Vogue asking her not to offer her any more work. ‘I implore you’, he implored, ‘please do not ask Lee to write again. The suffering it causes her and those around her is unbearable’. He was effectively trying to draw the curtain down on her career. His surreptitious intervention also effectively put an end to a close and long-lasting personal and professional relationship. Withers let Miller know that there would always be an opening for her at the magazine whilst she was in charge, however. Unsurprisingly, Miller was absolutely furious when she discovered what her husband had done. She realised that she was effectively being put in her place. But she no longer had the energy to resist with anything more permanent than a display of foul temper. Her last article for Vogue was published in July 1953. Entitled Working Guests, it showcased photographs she had taken of various renowned artists and prominent figures in the artistic establishment, all of whom had been put to work doing tasks of manual labour around the farm. Lee made no distinction between the visitors to the farm as regarded their social status, treating all as equals, whether they were the local gardeners or the head of some national artistic institution. In the last photo, she herself was shown enjoying a nap inside on the sofa.
Roland Penrose rose steadily in the ranks of the English establishment, as befitted the scion of a rich banking family, dalliance with revolutionary artistic credos notwithstanding. He was awarded a CBE in 1961, and in 1966 became a knight of the realm. Miller therefore became a lady to his sir. She viewed the whole thing with great amusement and refused to take it seriously, insisting that she be known as Lady Lee. In 1960, Penrose curated a Picasso exhibition at the Tate Gallery, for which a fund-raising Picasso Party was held at the ICA. Miller wrote an article for the accompanying brochure entitled Picasso Himself, which drew on personal insights gained from her longstanding friendship with the artist. She sat next to Prince Philip at the party, with whom she apparently got on very well. Blunt speakers both. She wasn’t invited to the Tate opening, however, since it was feared she might say something inappropriate to Her Majesty. A shame, since she could have given her a showing to really remember.
Back at the farm, Penrose filled the house with his art collection and works of his own, with sculptures scattered around the garden. Lee’s pictures and negatives gathered dust in boxes in the attic. Denied artistic outlets, she threw herself into the running of the house, and in particular to the creative environs of the kitchen. Her highly individual dishes sometimes displayed a provocative side which expressed her irrepressible character. She reacted to one guest’s snobbery about everyday American food by whipping up a marsmallow and coca-cola ice-cream, the ingredients of which she revealed to him after he had declared how much he’d enjoyed it (a generous apportionment of rum may have helped). You can find the recipe for it at the back of Carolyn Burke’s biography of Miller. Another dish was known as Muddle Green Green Chicken, which was indeed green, thanks to its heavy concentrations of celery, parsley and leeks. The kitchen became a warm haven for some of the genuinely unconventional guests at Farley Farm, such as the artist John Craxton. He joined her in her culinary explorations, and became a good friend. She still took photographs ofv visitors for personal pleasure. Her picture of the New Yorker cartoonist Saul Steinberg seeming to have just finished sketching the Long Man of Wilmington on the Sussex Downs is especially witty and inventive. She always got her camera out when Picasso was visiting, and her pictures of him form a fine informal record of this most famous of twentieth century artists through the years.
Lee conquered her dependence on alcohol and continued to travel the world in her later years, although she resolutely refused to explore the countryside around the farm, sticking firmly to her initial dictum. She always favoured more exotic climes, and was more a creature of the city. It seems strange that she became stranded in the confines of the Sussex Downs, in damp and chilly England, for the latter part of her life. She died in 1977. Her son, Antony, discovered more about her after her death than he had known during her lifetime. He sorted through her long-unseen photographs and worked towards producing the biographical volume The Live of Lee Miller, enjoying the benefits of a close consultation with David Scherman. Antony Penrose did much to resurrect his mother’s reputation. It could be said that this now eclipses that of her husband, Roland Penrose, much as Gwen John’s reputation posthumously eclipsed that of her brother Augustus John. Penrose now regularly conducts tours of Farley Farm, which now features Miller’s work hanging prominently alongside her husband’s, and holding its own amongst the illustrious company of his collection of twentieth century art. David Scherman wrote the introduction to the volume of war photography and reportage which Antony Penrose edited, Lee Miller’s War. His final sentence provides his own personal and heartfelt summation of a life well-lived: ‘She was the nearest thing I knew to a mid-20th century renaissance woman. In the less grandiose but perhaps more appropriate pop culture patois of her native land, she was a mensch’.
There are a number of good books about Lee Miller which are available in Exeter library, if you happen to live in Devon (and remember, you can always use the inter-library loan system). Or maybe they’re in your own libraries if you live elsewhere.
I’ve got out (but will soon be returning):
The Live of Lee Miller by Antony Penrose
Lee Miller: Portraits From a Life by Richard Calvocoressi
Lee Miller by Carolyn Burke
Lee Miller’s War edited by Antony Penrose with a foreword by David Scherman
The Home of the Surrealists: Lee Miller, Roland Penrose and their Circle at Farley Farm by Antony Penrose