Much More Than A Muse: The Art Of Lee Miller And Man Ray A new exhibit celebrates the work of the two Surrealist artists: first lovers, and later, friends. Man Ray's love for Lee Miller inspired some of his most well-known work. But she wasn't merely a muse; Miller was an actress, model and accomplished photographer in her own right.
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Much More Than A Muse: Lee Miller And Man Ray

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Much More Than A Muse: Lee Miller And Man Ray

Much More Than A Muse: Lee Miller And Man Ray

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News, I'm Jacki Lyden. Surrealist artist Elizabeth "Lee" Miller was also an actress, model, muse and a war correspondent She has been referred to as a femme fatale - and that fatale may best describe the intoxicating effect she had on her lovers, one in particular, the avant-garde American artist Man Ray. His love for her nearly drove him to madness. She was his muse but then became a photographer in her own right. Now, a new exhibit at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts is showing the work of Lee Miller and Man Ray. It's called Man Ray/Lee Miller, Partners in Surrealism. And joining me first to talk about this is Phillip Prodger, the exhibit's curator. He joins me from member station WBUR in Boston. Welcome to the program.


LYDEN: And we're joined by Lee Miller's son, Antony Penrose, who is also the director of the Lee Miller Archives and the Penrose Collection. He's at the BBC studios in Brighton, England. Welcome.


LYDEN: Phillip Prodger, as curator of this exhibit, tell us please how these two people became a combined force in Surrealism.

PRODGER: You know, it was only because Lee Miller was rescued from being run over by a truck in the streets of New York by the publisher Conde Nast that she was discovered as a fashion model. Conde Nast looked at her and said, gosh, you've got the makings of a great model. And before anybody knew it, she was on the cover of Vogue magazine. But she had started out as an artist and when one of her images was licensed to the Kotex Company, suddenly she found that she was a persona non grata in the fashion industry and she had to find another job. She went back to art and she was recommended to meet Man Ray, traveled to Paris unannounced - just presented herself at the doorstep - and the rest is history. Shortly after that, she became his assistant and also they became lovers at that time.

LYDEN: So, Antony Penrose, the year is 1929. Man Ray is 17 years older. He's already known for his use of objects. Let's talk about Surrealism for a moment.

PENROSE: Really, when Lee arrived in Paris, she had in a way been a Surrealist for some time before the movement even has a name, because she had that determination to pursue her life free of the constraints of society, which the Surrealists were already rebelling against. And they wanted to create a new world, which was not governed by religion or law or whatever. And that is where, I think, Man Ray's object-making found such free reign. Because he would take anything and transform it into something else, very wittily, and with tremendous profound thought behind it in many cases, which is often lost by the wit because we think, gosh, that's a great stunt but actually it's got a really deep bite. And so Lee to arrive in Paris at that moment was probably the best moment she could have pitched up because the Surrealist movement was going in tremendous force and she was ready-made for it and it for her.

LYDEN: Phillip, on the cover of the catalog, you've got this gorgeous pair of gold lips. It's a Man Ray image. But it means just more than a mouth. Could you tell us what it means?

PRODGER: Well, you know, when Lee left Man it sent him into a despair that he expressed through art, and he made some of the most memorable pieces of his career in that period after 1932 when she left him. One of the most famous is the fabulous metronome with the ticking eye on it. The eye was Lee Miller's eye, and the idea behind the piece was that you would wind up the metronome and watch the eye tick back and forth as long as you could stand it. The idea was that you would then smash it with a hammer and somehow by smashing it, you would exorcise that lost love. In his case, it was the lost love of Lee. The other thing that he did was he made a series of paintings and objects that relate to the idea of Lee Miller's lips. And I have to say I think Lee Miller's lips have now become the most famous lips in the history of art. He made a fabulous painting called A l'Huere de l'Observatoire, or The Lovers. Every day for two years, he says, he woke up and the first thing he did was he contributed to this painting - he built the painting up over two years. And it helped him get over the loss. And then eventually he produced a sculpture in lead, and this was in one of his darker periods. It was a piece of lead that was coiled up with a noose around it and it had sort of an inscribed, scrawled version of Lee Miller's lips on that lead piece. Later when his mood brightened - we don't know exactly when it happened - he did her lips in gold. He made this fabulous solid gold pair of lips. And in that way, he was literally transforming lead into gold in the same way that he had transformed that dark period of loss of her love into something different as their friendship evolved.

LYDEN: How did these two reconcile later? Because I'm looking at a photo - and I do want to talk about this a little bit; talk about obsession. One night after the breakup of 1932, Man Ray goes to her former studio, howls in the rain all night long underneath it. And the next day sets up this photograph I'm looking at of himself posed as a suicide with a noose around his neck and a gun to his head. So how did they become friends again later after something like that?

PRODGER: Well, it took a few years after the breakup for them to be reintroduced. It was at a party in 1937 that they got together, and they finally agreed that things had calmed down enough that they could bury the hatchet and become friends again. But in a way, I think what was so surprising about working on this project was to realize the depth of the love they shared, essentially after they broke up. From 1937 until the end of their lives, Man Ray and Lee Miller remained close.

LYDEN: Phillip Prodger, why have these two artists who had such a profound influence on each other not been exhibited together before?

PRODGER: And when we put the exhibition together, we wanted to be sure to challenge that idea of her as this unilateral force and him as the recipient of her creative energy.

LYDEN: Well, and in fact, as an artist she is just amazingly inspiring. I mean she goes on to become a photojournalist. She goes to Dachau and she photographs London during the Blitz. Does she use, do you think, in her work, Antony, her Surrealist background as a photojournalist?

PENROSE: Definitely. You can see it permeating the work. Of course, not every shot is like that because she was a very good photojournalist. But the thing that became her distinctive Surrealist style was what I call the found image. And it's where she takes a photograph of perhaps an everyday occurrence, and she does it in such a way that it becomes an image that is containing the marvelous. So, even when she's a combat photographer in Alsace, amid the absolutely appalling conditions there, we find these quirky images as part of her work from that period.

PRODGER: The experience of having photographed in the Second World War was absolutely brutal. She saw some of the ugliest things that anyone could ever see in the concentration camps at Buchenwald and Dachau or on the front lines. She probably suffered from what we would now call post-traumatic stress disorder. And by 1953, she effectively gave up photographing. She spiraled into depression, she became alcoholic, and Man Ray knew this about her. And he would send her gifts designed to pick her up, to try and break her out of her malaise. And to me that was one of the most touching things that I discovered in working on the show and the book.

LYDEN: Antony, one of the things I'd like to ask you is while your mother was alive what was your relationship with her like? And how much did you come to know her as an artist after her death? How did that compare?

PENROSE: I barely knew that she had been a photographer during her life. She was so secretive about it, and she deliberately hid all of her work in the attic of our old farmhouse. I knew Man Ray's work far better because there were many examples and I used to go and visit him in his studio in Paris. So it was an absolute bombshell of a surprise after Lee had died that we went into the attic and found all of this incredible work, including some of those fabulous vintage prints of her by Man Ray that are in the exhibition. But I think she made a deliberate decision to bury her career, and this was partly as a result of her war experiences, partly as a result of her post-traumatic stress. Then eventually she got through that and reinvented herself as a gourmet cook and had a fabulous last 10 years of her life being widely celebrated as a Surrealist cook.


PENROSE: And that really put paid to any thought that she may have had of organizing her collection.

LYDEN: Antony Penrose, thank you so much.

PENROSE: Thank you.

LYDEN: And Phillip Prodger, thank you.

PRODGER: Thank you.

LYDEN: And you can see "Man Ray/Lee Miller, Partners in Surrealism." The exhibit is at the Peabody Essex Museum in Massachusetts in Salem. It's showing until December 4th.

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