For most people, Man Ray is far more well-known than Lee Miller. He even makes an appearance in Woodie Allen’s Midnight in Paris, but his muse, lover, and student, Lee Miller, is conspicuously absent. Perhaps this is because their relationship did not begin until 1929, and the exact year into which Owen Wilson wanders every night is never named, or perhaps, as so often happens, the female painters and photographers were simply forgotten. Whatever the reason Man Ray is there as a pillar of Surrealism and Lee Miller is not mentioned at all.
This is not the case at the Man Ray | Lee Miller: Partners in Surrealism exhibit, currently on display until October 14 at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco. It features over 115 photographs, paintings, drawings and manuscripts by Ray, Miller, and many of their contemporaries exploring the collaboration, interaction, heartbreak, and the individual brilliance of these two artists. At the Legion of Honor, Lee Miller is far from forgotten: she completely steals the show.
There is plenty to attract the fashion historian and the art historian alike. The exhibit opens with a few pieces from the time before they met, though the character of the work is slightly different. Man Ray was working as an artist, and Lee Miller was working as model — fashion photographs of her make up most of this section, though there is an illustration of her face adorning a Vogue cover from the mid to late 1920s. Miller moved to Paris towards the end of the 1920s where Ray became her photography teacher, then her lover. The exhibit focuses largely on this time period in the pair’s life, from 1929 to 1932, and on the conversation between student and teacher, artist and artist. It features truly collaborative projects such as Neck (seen below), which Ray photographed and Miller developed, as well as a variety of self portraits, portraits of each other, and independent work.
The exhibit is quiet, but powerful, especially when Miller ceases to be a student and transitions into an artist in her own right. One photo of Miller’s, Untitled (Severed Breast from Radical Mastectomy), of a severed breast laid on a dinner plate at a table setting was shocking, and particularly powerful in its statements about the female body and its objectification by society. It brought my mother, a breast cancer survivor who has undergone such a procedure, and myself, who watched her go through it, to tears due to its personal nature and profound commentary. The treatment of the female body — even her own — seemed to be Miller’s strongest message and driving force during the three year period she lived with Ray. The juxtaposition of two photographs of Miller in the nude, one by Ray, and one by Miller herself, created an entire dialogue on the subject of the male versus the female gaze.
While soft, beautiful, and almost classical in its composition, Man Ray’s portrait of Miller “with sunlamp” paints her as an object of desire, one he may love and respect, but an object none the less. Miller’s portrait of herself one year later is a completely different view of the very same female form. She is confident, not demure; she knows she is being photographed, rather than appearing to be caught unawares. The male gaze is frequently discussed, but rarely do we get to see it side by side with the female gaze, looking at the exact same object. Ray’s photograph is a portrait of love, Miller’s is a declaration of independence, and a foreshadowing of the future, since two years later she would leave Man Ray, and the effects would be devastating.
The next section of the exhibit is predominantly the work of Man Ray as he tried to work through the depression caused by the end of his relationship with Miller. Ray’s l’heure de l’observatoire — les amoreux (The hour of observation — the lovers) painting featured above (and on promotional posters and bus advertisements for the exhibit throughout San Francisco) is dominated by Ray’s memory of Lee Miller’s lips. The “Indestructable Object” he created (above) to represent how all-consuming and ever present his heartbreak was, and poetry on the back of a photograph of Miller’s eye speak volumes. There is not a piece for years that does not feature Miller’s eyes, her lips, her shadow, or her name, it seems, in some subtle way. This is a side of Man Ray I had not expected. A Man Ray I did not know existed. It’s almost a Surrealist work of art in itself: The world-famous Surrealist as Man Broken by Love.
Portrait of Man Ray, 1931
Gelatin silver print
9 1/8 x 6 7/8 in. (23.3 x 17.5 cm)
Lee Miller Archives, Sussex, England
Photograph by Lee Miller © Lee Miller Archives, England 2011
Miller, however, had moved on, becoming an amazing and respected artist in her own right, and the first female war photographer in history. A whole room of the exhibit is dedicated to her gritty, devastating, poignant images of Europe post-World War II which transform newspaper headlines and textbook facts into breathtaking reality. She and Ray had reconciled — without rekindling their romantic relationship — and so her former mentor and lover was there to help her through the depression she inevitably experienced after her ordeals in war-torn cities and among the refugees. Whimsical paintings to make her laugh, sculptures made of wooden clothes hangers, and private letters offer a much needed uplift after the all-to-real photographs of war.
The exhibit is a true exploration of a collaborative relationship between two artists who influenced and encouraged each other for over forty years. Man Ray’s name is better known, and he is the reason that paintings by the likes of Picasso and Max Ernst are included. It was through his connection to them, the Surrealists and the artistic community in Paris, that Miller not only knew them, but probably learned from them. Yet the true triumph of the exhibit lies in the way the artwork demonstrates — in a way no book or commentary can — that even the greatest artistic legends are as vulnerable to life’s tragedies as the rest of us, and that sometimes a teacher’s student really does become the master.