Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Ingrid Pitt


I was sad to read of the passing of Ingrid Pitt last week. Headline writers no doubt reached for the nearest cliché on the shelf and posthumously crowned her Hammer’s Scream Queen. In fact, she only appeared in two Hammer films, and didn’t scream, unless it was in horror at glimpsing a reflection of her own instantaneously aging visage in Countess Dracula. Her brief membership of the Hammer family came after its golden period, when it was beginning to enter its decadent phase (in both senses of the word). Neither of her films could be said to be amongst the studio’s finest, but they are far from being its worst. I’ve not seen The Vampire Lovers, Hammer’s take on Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla, although I have had the misfortune of watching tis follow up, Lust For A Vampire. Pitt’s portrayal of the female vampire did much to earn the former film its generally accepted place in the canon of creditable later Hammer films, whereas her absence in the latter was just one of the elements which made it one of the studio’s biggest embarrassments.

Ingrid Imperious
Her Hammer roles cast her as the seductive monster, who somehow retained an element of audience sympathy despite the trail of pallid young innocents she left drained and lifeless in her wake. Her performance in Countess Dracula certainly turned what could have been an inadvertently absurd farce (complete with disguises which have to be rapidly changed behind the scenes) into a dark fairy tale which carries a powerful archetypal charge. The story was based on the figure of the Hungarian Countess Elisabeth Bathory, a bloodbathing aristocratic monster whose name became a blend of history and myth. For some reason, her name is here changed to Countess Elisabeth Nadasdy. The rejuvenating qualities of virginal blood which the Countess discovers create an ever accelerating rate of decrepitude once the effects wear off, resulting in a progressively grotesque appearance which maps the stages of the character’s moral disintegration in a manner akin to Oscar Wilde’s The Portrait of Dorian Gray. Her assumption of her daughter’s persona (her unfortunate offspring’s incarceration in a gurning peasant’s hut is a recurrent piece of narrative dead weight which the film could have done without) is a transposition into female form of the oedipal drama played out between kings and male heirs, the ruler’s fear of losing power and potency and being usurped by their progeny. It’s the kind of story which Angela Carter would have relished. Indeed, her radio play Vampira made reference to Elisabeth Bathory. Pitt was very enthusiastic about the part, and lobbied Hammer head James Carreras to get it, winning out over director Peter Sasdy’s first choice, Diana Rigg. She put particular effort into getting her accent right, drawing on her mother’s East European inflections. She was therefore absolutely furious (‘post-apocalyptic’, as she put it) when Sasdy (himself of Hungarian descent) replaced her dialogue with a dubbed recording by another actress (conveniently ‘losing’ her original voice track). He apparently had decided that the Countess, being royalty, should speak the queen’s English.

Pitt doesn’t say an awful lot about her Hammer films in her autobiography, even though its title, Life’s A Scream, plays on her reputation as one of the studio’s defining figures. It’s a tribute to her talents that she should have created such a lasting impact with just those two films. Her anecdote about repeatedly losing her loose-fitting fangs down Kate O’Mara’s capacious cleavage whilst filming an intimate moment in The Vampire Lovers, and having to cadge a stick of chewing gum from one of the studio crew in order to fix them in is very amusing, and indicative of her refusal to take herself too seriously. She was always very proud of her horror films, however, and was only too pleased to attend conventions and answer fans’ questions. You can see some great footage of her at one such event over at this Guardian collection of clips. Her website is entitled Pitt of Horror, which hardly suggests that she was chary of her reputation as a genre figure. It’s a good site, too, and contains some of her writing on horror, including a lengthy piece on Hammer.

Ingrid in The House That Dripped Blood
The picture of her which is used most frequently in articles comes not from either Hammer film, but from her Amicus outing, The House That Dripped Blood. It’s a publicity shot which shows her projecting a buxom, full-fanged vampire hiss at the camera. I watched the story from this portmanteau film in which she appears the other night. It’s a diverting and enjoyable comic squib, with Pitt having no trouble playing the cool actress opposite Jon Pertwee’s pompous and self-important horror star, whose insistence on authenticity might be a little dig at Christopher Lee’s repeated pleas to return to the source material of Bram Stoker’s novel for the next Dracula script. Pertwee’s character, in stating his preference for classic horror, mentions Dracula, but adds that he is referring, of course, to Lugosi, ‘not this new fellow’. The new fellow, Lee, appears in an earlier story in the film. Pertwee digs up a real vampire’s cloak in one of those ill-frequented antique shops, generally open only after dark and cluttered with grotesque and occult artefacts, which feature in Amicus films. He finds the authenticity he was seeking, but at a price. Pitt, who playfully dons the cloak at the end, turns out to have been indulging in an advanced form of method acting herself, having been a vampire all along. She clearly has a lot of fun, rising and flapping towards the petrified Pertwee, who mugs and gurns in comical terror for all he’s worth. Pitt looks fabulous throughout in a series of seventies outfits topped off with large floppy brimmed hats, taking languorous puffs on cigarettes attached to the end of a holder which rivals Audrey Hepburn’s in Breakfast at Tiffany’s for absurd length.

Pitt went on to work with Jon Pertwee in the Doctor Who episode The Time Monster, broadcast in 1972. She played the extravagantly coiffured queen of Atlantis, who is wooed, for his own nefarious ends, by the Master. This was Roger Delgado’s last appearance in the role before his untimely death in a car crash. She appeared in a later Who story from the Peter Davison era, Warriors of the Deep (broadcast in 1984), in which she, along with the rest of the supporting cast, adopt a post New Romantic look. Unfortunately, this is Doctor Who at its very worst, a woeful attempt to revive both the Silurians and the Sea Devils, who had been dormant since the early Pertwee period. Ingrid does get to show off her karate chops, however (she was a black belt). It’s as good a way as any to tackle a would-be sea leviathan, the Sea Devil’s purportedly deadly pet the Myrka. It’s a monster which would shame a parish hall pantomime (or an episode from the William Hartnell years), and makes the giant rat hand puppet in The Talons of Weng-Chiang look like a masterpiece of terrifyingly authentic design. She went on to write a Who script herself, in collaboration with her husband. It used the mystery surrounding the supposed ‘Philadelphia Experiment’ carried out by the US Navy as its background. It never made it into production at the time, but has now emerged as an audio adventure, The Macros, in the Lost Stories series. Having made her Hammer and Amicus films, and appeared in The Wicker Man, Pitt went off to Switzerland to make the children’s TV series Ski Boy, a complete contrast to her previous roles. She also wrote a children’s book herself, Bertie the Bus, which falls squarely into the anthropomorphised vehicle category.

I also listened to Pitt’s audiobook recording of her autobiography Life’s A Scream. It’s an extraordinary story and a hugely affecting reading, in which she relives painful and horrific events from her wartime childhood. It must have been hard enough to write about these things, let alone to speak them aloud. The turbulent currents of emotion stirred up by such recollections are quite audible in her voice. The book opens with a trip to LA for a publicity event to promote the opening of the film Where Eagles Dare, in which she played the subsidiary (and this being an Alistair Maclean adaptation, all women’s roles would be subsidiary) but significant part of Heidi. Her description of the tawdry daylit world of LA, disguised I the neon-lit glamour of its nightside, and her clear-eyed appraisal of the movie industry’s sexism, as embodied in the new MGM head Bo Poke’s view of women as objects paraded to sell product, indicate from the outset that she’s not out to write a starstruck showbiz memoir. When the stereotypically crass Poke comes out with a crack about the Nazis being the biggest source of entertainment since Nero burned down Rome, a comment which turns out to be the cue for a ‘comedy’ Nazi in SS uniform and Hitler moustache to burst in and march about the room, Pitt stands up and walks out. The story of her childhood which follows shows just why (aside from her temperamental inability to defer to the power of moronic moguls or boneheaded bullies of any description) she was not prepared to put up with such a dismally distasteful display.

She had been born Ingrid Petrov in 1937 on a train which had crossed over the German border into Germany. Her parents were trying to flee the Nazi regime and make their way to England, where her father had lived for many years. Her father was German, of Russian descent, and a scientist wanted by the government to assist with work on military projects. Her mother was Polish, of Lithuanian Jewish descent, and therefore in considerable danger. Ingrid’s arrival was ill-timed, and meant that they were unable to get out of the country. They stayed with her mother’s parents in Bialystock, but the Nazis caught up with them in the end. They were herded into the trucks of a train bound for the concentration camp at Stutthof, where Ingrid and her mother were parted from her father. They were to spend the next three years in the camp, until the war came to an end in Poland with the advance of the Russian army. Ingrid’s detailing of the constant immediacy of death and abuse which they witnessed and suffered makes for a harrowing documentation of the experience of the camps. It is both personal and particular, and stands in for the suffering of so many which went unrecorded. Her reading in the audiobook adds a reference (absent from the book) to Primo Levi’s quote about the good ones having died in the camps, with the survivors being left with their guilt. She makes it clear at the end of the book that her survival was a matter of sheer chance. ‘I survived the hell,’ she wrote, ‘but hardly any one else did. Surviving doesn’t make one special – but it does make one extraordinarily lucky’. Her account of life in the camp comes partly from her own childhood recollections, but also from the memories which came pouring from her mother’s mind as it became dislocated from the present at the end of her (thankfully long-lived) life. She had never liked to talk about her experiences beforehand.

Ingrid spent a good deal of time in the kinderschuppen, or children’s hut. SS officers would come in from time to time and round up potential candidates for being raised in good Nazi households. She would appear to have been an ideal choice, being a pretty blonde-haired girl. But there had been an infestation of lice in the dormitory hut where she and her mother slept, and she had scratched her head until it was a tectonic landscape of scabs. The SS inspectors, noting such imperfection on closer inspection, turned to someone else instead. Ingrid came very close to death having caught an infection which caused a swelling on the side of her neck. Of course, no medical treatment was on offer in the camp. She was saved by a man named Peter Steiner, who had been a shoemaker before the war. He kept a knife hidden about his person, and used it to lance her wound. He later carved her a wooden Cossack doll with the knife. He was one of those unsung heroes of the war, who did their best to preserve life where they could. Such acts of selfless kindness would unquestionably have led to his death had they been discovered by the camp authorities. Later in the war, as reports of the Red Army’s advance began to filter through, the SS began to systematically round up the prisoners, hut by hut, to take to the gas chambers. Steiner once again rescued Ingrid, smuggling her out of the children’s hut when he received information that it was going to be the next to be ‘cleared’. Of course, very few had such brave and resourceful guardians to watch over them.



Eventually, the SS came to the hut where Ingrid and her mother awaited their fate. But instead of pushing them towards the gas chamber they marched them out of the camp and along the road outside. Those exhausted souls who were unable to keep up and fell by the wayside were shot where they lay. After a while, a plane flew low overhead and strafed this straggling line of guards and prisoners. Ingrid’s mother fell into a ditch by the side of the road, dragging her daughter down with her and lying atop her. She played dead, convincingly enough to persuade the SS guard who nudged her with the side of his boot that she had fallen victim to the plane’s bullets. They lay there for some time before escaping into the forest. Here, they came upon a couple of foraging partisans who agreed, reluctantly at first, to allow them to join their encampment, which was hidden in the heart of the woods. Ingrid recalls this period with a great deal of fondness as a time of romantic adventure, the woodland setting allowing her imagination to roam free. She became inseparable from a boy called Yuri, who joined her in her games and came to play a willing part in her imaginary world. ‘Forests for me will always mean Yuri and the partisans’, she later recalled. ‘Surely it was the best part of my childhood. The only time I remember without pain’. She had recently been working on an animated impression of her life in the forest with Bill Plympton, which hopefully should see the light next year, as you can see above.

After the war ended, Ingrid and her mother trudged across Europe on foot, from one displaced persons camp to another, trying to find any news of her father’s fate. They discovered that her grandparents, with whom they had found shelter in Bialystock, had perished in the camp at Treblinka. Finally, after much tribulation and near fatal illness, they made it to Berlin and the remains of their old house. They did have an emotional reunion with Ingrid’s father, whom they tracked down to an old college friend’s place. He too had spent the war in a camp, having refused to assist in developing new weapon systems. He had made his way back to Berlin at the end of the war, but had collapsed and found himself unable to remember his address. Worn out and physically diminished, he lived on for a further five years before passing away. During this precious remaining time, he took the young Ingrid to the cinema on many occasions, and she got it into her head that she wanted to be an actress.

Having been rejected at every turn and corner in her initial attempts to reach the stage, she decided to try the prestigious Berliner Ensemble, which had been set up after the war by Bertolt Brecht, and was now run by his widow, Helene Weigel. To her surprise, she was accepted. Weigel was perhaps won over by her brazen chutzpah, or maybe by her personal interpretation of Chekhov (she had grown up reading the Russian classics). Never one to keep her opinions to herself, Ingrid found herself in trouble with the volkspolizei, the East German police force which doubled as an ideological enforcement army. Having narrowly escaped their clutches once, thanks to Weigel’s timely intervention and plea of mental instability on her behalf, she was informed that they were after her once more. She was waiting to go on stage for her first major role with the Ensemble at the time, playing Kattrin in Brecht’s Mother Courage. The police were sitting in the front row to enjoy her performance before arresting her. Casting aside her big moment, she fled in full-skirted theatrical costume. She was soon cornered by the police in the streets outside, and made a desperate dive through an adjacent hedge. This turned out to be bordering a steep slope which sent her tumbling down into the icy waters of the River Spree. She was swept along by the currents and struggled to stay afloat, managing to summon a last surge of energy and kick her way to the concrete shore. She lacked the strength to pull herself out of the river, but an American GI happened upon her and reached down to pull her out. He and a friend took her to recuperate in a local brothel, where the prostitutes treated her with great solicitude. A few days later, her rescuer came to visit her at her mother’s flat, and not long thereafter, they were married. He was lieutenant Pitt, and so she became Ingrid Pitt.

There is much further incident in the book, all of it involving and well-observed. Pitt writes well, and did indeed publish a number of novels in her lifetime. She also wrote scripts, articles and magazine columns. Her East European Jewish roots show through in her fondness for the Yiddish word ‘schlep’ (as in ‘I schlepped my suitcase up the stairs’). Her familiarity with English idioms (she lived in England for the greater part of her adult life) comes through in her use of such phrases as ‘shanks’ pony’. The earlier half of the book is undoubtedly the most powerful, however. As, given the events it relates, it could hardly fail to be.

Ingrid and the boys (and Mary Ure)
There are small passages of film star anecdotage scattered throughout. Richard Burton comes on to her, arousing the catty ire of Elizabeth Taylor. John Wayne irritates her by calling her ‘little lady’, making her mad enough to join the poker game in which he is engaged with some buddies. This is a particularly ill-informed decision since she has very little money and even less expertise in a game whose rules she has only been shown a few weeks before. Orson Welles proves to be a huge disappointment, treating her with contemptuous rudeness after she has expressed her genuine admiration for his work, and making a slobbering, drunken advance. She learns karate with the teacher who is instructing Elvis, and has a few practice bouts with the King. Peter Cushing provides the most touching story, dating from the time when he was starring alongside her in The Vampire Lovers. He had discovered that it would have been her father’s 100th birthday (she had brought champagne onto the set to toast him). He and his wife Helen invited her out for an evening meal. After they had finished, a cake was brought out with the words ‘For Ingrid’s Papa’ written on top. Such a lovely gesture of simple kindness. Ingrid found out that Helen knew Russian, and they used to write short letters to each other in the language. Alas, their friendship was cut short by Helen’s premature death, which so utterly devastated poor Peter.

Ingrid also fell into an ill-starred relationship with George Pinches, a very powerful man in the British film industry. He was the booker for the Rank cinema chain, which was then dominant in the country. Finding herself in trouble over obtaining a work permit, and facing possible deportation in the near future, she accepted his apparently sincere offer of a marriage of convenience. This would allow her to stay in the country, and him to have a companion to accompany him to film premieres and other gala events which a man in his position was expected to attend. Outside of these obligations, they would lead entirely separate lives. He proved to be considerably less amenable once the certificates were signed, and became extremely possessive. He seems to have been one of those people who embodied the overlapping of the networks of the post war British film industry and the criminal underworld. They were close in more terms than just their physical proximity along the narrow alleyways of Soho. He appears to have been a genuinely unpleasant man (although admittedly Pitt may not be the most objective of judges here), who nobody liked but all feared. He made good on his promise to wreck her career should she stand up to him. She lost many film roles as a result.

But the book is not about showbiz stories, and indeed, most of these are comfortably excised from the audiobook abridgement. At its heart are her enduring love for her mother (and father, in the brief time she was able to spend with him), her daughter Steffanie (or Steffka), and later, her husband Anthony Rudkin (whom she insists on Latinizing as Tonio). The rest is just set dressing. It is through them, and through her own fortitude, that she is able to partially overcome the mental scars of a childhood in which she was classed as one of the untermenschen, or non-people. The book ends, after she has come through a second bout of cancer (her attitude to which was ‘the Nazi’s didn’t get me and a bunch of fucking cancer cells wouldn’t either’), with an uplifting affirmation of life as constant blessing. ‘I love every day’, she wrote. ‘But then I always have done. The sun or the rain, cold or stifling heat. I love the moon and the stars, the dark nights with wind blowing around the house, telling tales of goblins and gnomes and demons and elves rushing through the park – just like that Polish forest, lifetimes ago’. I hope that she sustained such a feeling of joy until the end.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Lee Miller

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

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

A Night with a Vampire


Radio 4’s Book at Bedtime has a good selection of vampire stories next week to prime you for a night of fevered dreaming. Which might be on account of the feeling of pleasurable dread engendered by the terrors just unveiled, or possibly because they are related by retired Doctor David Tennant, who has returned to the arms of the BBC after his attempt to export his charms across the Atlantic met with any inexplicably stony response. His lilting Scottish tones will no doubt prove to be the perfect storytelling voice with which to create the hushed suspension a good supernatural tale gathers around itself. It will be a refreshing variant on the usual accent employed for readings of the classic horror canon. This is exemplified by the measured and deadly serious scholastic manner in which Christopher Lee reads MR James, pausing at moments of tension or imminent revelation, creating a moment of still silence to catch the held breath of his attentive listeners.

Boris Karloff in Mario Bava's Black Sabbath - a Vourdalak?
There are five stories spread over the week, of which the first purports to be a study by a French Benedictine monk, Antoine Calmet, from 1746, which records eyewitness accounts of the apparitions of vampires in the remote towns and villages of Hungary. His documentation of the creatures’ survival into the latter half of the 18th century was reprinted in English in 1850 under the title The Phantom World. This may have been inspired by the popularity of Thomas Peckett Priest’s penny dreadful Varney the Vampire at the time. Alexei Tolstoy’s (not to be confused with Leo or his later namesake, author of Aelita) The Family of the Vourdalak from 1839 places the locus of vampiric infection in the already fearful figure of the patriarchal head of the household. It was the basis for the gorgeously stylised, colour-drenched gothic romanticism of the centrepiece story in Mario Bava’s anthology film Black Sabbath (1963), which possibly stands as his finest achievement. In this segment, Boris Karloff gives a powerful and atypical perfomance as the father who may or may not have picked up the evil infection on his travels, but who is terrifying whatever the case. Having never read the original story, it will be interesting to hear how much it varies from Bava’s adaptation.

Guy de Maupassant
Guy de Maupassant’s The Horla, from 1887, is the undisputed masterpiece amongst this selection. It is a fairly lengthy short story, and will need some editing to fit into the fifteen minute time slot of Book at Bedtime. I would guess the section in which the doctor demonstrates the power of mesmeric suggestion may be excised, since, thematic resonance aside, it’s absence wouldn’t unduly affect the flow of the narrative (and might, in fact, ease its passage). The form of the diaristic journal which the story takes, in which the narrator confides a gradual apprehension of the nature of the terror which has come upon him, is reminiscent of the opening chapters of Dracula, in which Jonathan Harker records the insistent hospitality he receives from the Count, and the escalating horrors which he discovers in his exploration of the castle. This form of private narration, in which the protagonist tries to make sense of what is happening to him, also points to The Horla’s underlying dissection of solitude, depression and developing madness. We find out enough about the narrator’s worldview prior to his encounter with his psychic vampire to recognise the seeds of his subsequent decline. In making such a study of a mind on the brink of complete breakdown, de Maupassant gives very personal expression to his pained sensibility of his own incipient insanity. This was brought on by a naturally morbid turn of mind and by the syphilitic infection, caught in the course of his enthusiastic pursuit of La Vie Parisienne, which was worming its way inexorably towards his brain. He attempted to commit suicide on New Years Day 1892 and spent the remaining year and a half of his life in an asylum.

The Horla
The Horla is a giddying descent into madness which, as with some of Lovecraft’s clammiest stories, may afford a glimpse into a dimension otherwise mercifully beyond human apprehension. Maupassant is much preoccupied with the limits of perception in this story, the narrow confines within which the human sensorium operates. There are hints of vastnesses which lie beyond its boundaries which would induce a sense of individual insignificance to make the mind shrivel. Such exposure would be equivalent to the experience of the Total Perspective Vortex in The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, against whose terrifying sense of absolute proportion only Zaphod Beeblebrox’s monumental ego proves a match. ‘How deep it is, this mystery of the Invisible’, the narrator muses. ‘We cannot plumb its depths with our wretched senses, with our eyes, which are incapable of perceiving things that are too small, things that are too big, things too far away, the inhabitants of a star – or the inhabitants of a drop of water’. The speculations of the protagonist make this story fall more into the category of a scientific romance of the sort HG Wells would soon be writing than a supernatural horror story. The creature which afflicts him is seen, in a Darwinian light, as a new order of being, better adapted to its environment and destined to become the successor to mankind’s dominion of Earth.

In an almost ecstatic flowering of delirium and untethered imagination, the narrator pictures different potential orders of creation, culminating with a creature which encompasses untold immensities; ‘a butterfly the size of a hundred universes, with wings whose shape, beauty, colour and movements I could not find words to describe (shades of Lovecraft again). But I can picture it…it flies from star to star, leaving in the light, harmonious wind of its wake refreshment and fragrance! And the inhabitants of those worlds out there watch it pass by in an ecstasy of delight’. It is a vision worthy of Olaf Stapledon. A butterfly as a god. But the narrator immediately ascribes such an explosion of the imagination to the invasive presence of the alien being which haunts him. The dissociation of personality which the intrusions of this psychic vampire creates is impossible to distinguish from madness, particularly as we are given no counterbalancing objective and external perspective. The only time the protagonist catches a glimpse of his tormentor is when he looks into the mirror and finds that his own image has been eclipsed by a blurred yet undefined form. The most terrifying horrors are those which lodge themselves within the walls of the skull. David Tennant’s reading of this story will make a good pairing with his Who predecessor Christopher Ecclestone’s narration of Maupassant’s conte cruel The Necklace as part of a series of dark tales for Christmas on the radio last year.

Mary E Wilkins Freeman’s 1902 tale Luella Miller takes us to New England, and one of the variants of the Lamia myth from which the vampire tale grew in the nineteenth century. The titular character is a particularly American belle dame sans merci, a nonchalant baby doll who casts her enchantment over a series of willing victims who are then slowly drained and worked to death. Luella appears as a helpless, childlike young woman. It’s as if Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla had rode on the wave of European emigration to the New World. She may not be aware of her own alluring glamour, or her deathly appetites. She may also be simply lazy, oblivious to the suffering which she causes and incapable of helping herself. The old woman who tells the tale in retrospect may herself have fallen under Luella’s spell, in which case her narration is less than wholly reliable. Particularly as the evil whose demise she witnessed and which was thought to have been long since dead and buried may be on the rise once more.

Munch - The Vampire
The final story is Theophile Gautier’s Clarimonde from 1836, another tale of the seductive Lamia transformed into vampiric form – the Muse biting back. Gautier was a French romantic writer who, with his lush and fevered imagery and subject matter, anticipated the Decadents who were to be his fin-de-siecle successors, and also the prevalence of devouring female figures in the Symbolist art of the latter part of the century. Such imagery can be seen most explicitly depicted in Munch’s The Vampire, in which the woman’s devouring embrace sends blood red tendrils of hair cascading over the head of the man upon whom she feeds. Not much digging needed to find the Freudian subtext there.

So, this is a good and wide ranging selection of stories, tracing the roots of the modern, post-Twilight resurgence of the vampire. From Hungary to Russia, France (via Brazil in The Horla) to New England, charting a course through the nineteenth to the dawning of the twentieth century, these European tales trace the vectors of an infectious disease with considerable symbolic freight. They show that it spread, in the way that ideas often do, to every corner of Western civilisation. It is an imaginary disease which mutates to reflect the buried fears and desires of the age, as it has with ours. You can hear all five stories next week (the 22nd to 26th November) on radio 4 from 10.45 till 11, or for the next week on the i-player. Let them invade your dreams.

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

Monday, 8 November 2010

Brian Eno and Terry Riley on radio 6

The cover of Eno's Small Craft on a Milk Sea

There were two towering musical figures interviewed on radio 6 on Sunday. Jarvis Cocker’s Sunday Service show had Brian Eno, once his train from Brighton arrived (delayed outside Gatwick as usual). Eno was there ostensibly to talk about his new album on Warp records, Small Craft on a Milk Sea, although the conversation inevitably wandered into all kinds of interesting avenues. The new album is based on improvisations with guitarist Leo Abrahams and keyboard player Jon Hopkins, although Eno talks of how he tried to introduce guiding instructions to give them some shape and prevent them from drifting along on an unchanging plane. He describes them as being musicians who are very accomplished on their instruments, but for whom that is just the ‘beginning of a long chain of things that can happen to sound’. Their approach to the music they set out to make had an element of cerebral imagination, as Eno asked them to imagine looking back on the musics of the future as if all recorded traces of them had been eradicated and only written descriptions remained. Such attempts to jolt the mind out of its conventional patterns of thought led on to discussions of the oblique strategies cards, which Eno developed in the 70s with artist Peter Schmidt. These are a collection of suggestive aphorisms, designed to be picked at random in order to suggest ways out of creative impasses. Eno came up with them to help him with his own work in the recording studio, but they can be applied to a wide variety of situations. Jarvis had a pack to hand and drew his own card out. It read ‘look at the order in which you do things’.

They also talked about the early days of Roxy Music, when Eno would retire to the back of the auditorium, from where he would also provide backing vocals in full peacock finery. He professed himself glad to be back on a small record label, the likes of which he compared to galleries, gathering together and curating a particular style (he used ECM as another example of a label which had done this). White noise was cited as being a good learning aid, blotting out the anxiety of the mind at receiving new information, and he revealed his attempts to do something new with the fusion of music and spoken word (something which his old musical partner Harold Budd has managed admirably on records such as By Dawn’s Early Light and his Beat recording, made with Daniel Lentz and Jessica Karraker, Walk Into My Voice). Eno is also stubbornly persisting with his ‘unwelcome jazz’, despite its less than rapturous reception it received on the album The Drop, its previous showcase. The track which he played, Bone Jump, sounded fine, but its perhaps best enjoyed in small doses. In what was an excellent programme in general (and how could a show which started off with Richard Burton’s intro to Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds be anything but) he also played Kate Bush’s recording of Brazil, made for Terry Gilliam’s wonderful film but not, to my knowledge, used in the final cut (I’d certainly never heard it before). Also featured was some of Edward Williams’ music from Life On Earth (as released on Trunk Records) and the mixture of spoken word (by Derek Bowskill) and music for November, from David Cain’s Radiophonic Workshop LP The Seasons.

Following on from this, Stuart Maconie’s Freak Zone featured an interview with Terry Riley, alongside one of his fellow musicians on his current tour, George Brooks. Riley is playing concerts to mark his 75th birthday, and also to celebrate the legacy of Pandit Pran Nath, the Indian musical master with whom both he and Brooks studied. The music which the trio (currently touring Britain and Europe) are playing has a strong traditional Indian component, driven by the tabla playing of Talvin Singh. Riley looked back to the music which inspired him in his youth, coming up with the rather surprising choice of Spike Jones and his City Slickers. Favouring uplifting art, he suggests that ‘music has to have a smile’. It’s a sound which comes over in his voice which, like that of Jerry Garcia, suggests a Californian quality of sunny optimism and engaging enthusiasm. Such an outlook creatively clashes with the more glowering attitude of the New York avant garde, as heard in the first track which is played, Church of Anthrax, his collaboration with John Cale. He briefly mentions their common participation in LaMonte Young’s Theatre of Eternal Music, but given the bad blood that seems to exist for pretty much everyone involved in that, it’s probably best that they move swiftly on.

The cover of the Eddie Cochran Instrumental EP on Fruits de Mer
Riley talks with clear admiration for his former teacher, and describes how he was caught up in the chaos of partition on the Indian subcontinent, having to flee his home in Lahore with countless others who suddenly found themselves displaced. The brief extract from the soundtrack to Lifespan (a film which apparently starred Klaus Kinski, among others) clearly displays the influence of his studies of Indian music with the Pandit. He also expresses interest in Native American music, which he describes as representing an older, occult tradition of American culture. This is reflected in Salome Dances for Peace, recorded in its full 2 hour form by the Kronos Quartet. This has some kinship with the music Brian Eno was talking about creating for his new LP. It arose from improvisations made on the piano, which were then incorporated into a more composed structure. It still forms the basis for improvisations on stage, however, and thus refuses to remain in a fixed form. The story behind the piece takes the form of a future myth, with Salome seen as a reborn female shamanistic warrior for peace, doing battle with war demons in her own non-violent way and travelling into the underworld to regain the way of life which these demons have stolen. It sounds like it would be great if staged, a slightly less grandiose (and hopefully more coherent) equivalent to some of Stockhausen’s Licht cycle ‘operas’. The Freak Show being the eclectic beast that it is, Salome Dances For Peace was followed with the nostalgia rush of Tony Hatch’s music for Sportsnight. There was a gorgeous piece earlier by Head South By Weaving called Rain, a cover of an Eddie Cochran instrumental from an EP on Fruits de Mer (which my smattering of French tells me translates as seafood) records with the self-explanatory Eddie Cochran Instrumental EP. It reveals a whole different side to Eddie’s musical personality. And it’s about as far from The Who’s cover of Summertime Blues on Live at Leeds as you can get.