Modern Scottish Women / Painters and Sculptors 1885-1965

7 November 2015 – 26 June 2016

Modern Two -Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art

Anne Finlay by Dorothy Johnstone Aberdeen Art Gallery and Museums Collection

Anne Finlay by Dorothy Johnstone
Aberdeen Art Gallery and Museums Collection

Dorothy Johnstone (1892-1980). Anne Finlay, 1920. Oil on canvas, 145.3 x 100.5. Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums Collections: Purchased with the assistance of the National Fund for Acquisitions 1983.

“…there is no such thing as a woman artist. There are only two kinds of artist-bad and good.” Ethel Walker, 1938.

I headed to Edinburgh recently to see the Modern Scottish Women exhibition and to attend a study day organised by the Scottish Society of Art Historians (SSAH), examining the lives and work of artists included in the show and exploring some of the issues raised by this ground breaking exhibition.

I began with the show itself and found many brilliant, inspiring examples of self-possessed creativity: women whose paintings, drawings and sculptures resoundingly announced their undeniable status as professional artists in their own right. Out of an original shortlist of over 200 artists, this survey of 45 female painters and sculptors (1885-1965) with Scottish connections curated by Alice Strang, is an exciting expose of largely unknown work. Framed in terms of developments in Art Education (primarily in Glasgow and Edinburgh) and the impact of gender on how female artists were trained, perceived and received by the art establishment as mediators of taste for the general public, this is a challenging show in its continuing relevance. Often named as symbolically and politically subordinate to husbands or male relatives, gender has relegated many of these artists to obscurity, with acquisition of their work largely in the private domain and contemporary writing about their work often patronising or derogatory. Commentary from male critics, such as the criticism of Joan Eardley’s male Sleeping Nude (1955, Oil on canvas), dismissed as the work of a “girl artist” and an affront to the Western figurative tradition, is treatment that we sadly cannot just relegate to history. In an era of Twitter, where uninformed populist opinion is king, women being taken seriously in any profession remains a lifelong struggle.

All too often “women’s” work is written about in terms of its aesthetic appeal –adjectives like “charming”, “pretty”, or the surprise of accomplishment accompanies so-called critiques of female artist’s work. This trend persists in the media today in the discussion of female contemporary artists defined by good or bad girl status, their  sexuality, capacity for child bearing/ childlessness or the appraisal of their physical appeal and dress, rather like the limited reportage on female politicians over and above what they actually stand for. Female creativity has had to overcome significant obstacles to even begin to be seen on the same playing field as male colleagues of the same generation. It was interesting to hear the shocked amazement of visitors, discovering some of the historical obstacles to female creativity found in the battleground of the life class; an essential foundation for the practice of painting or sculpture which was deemed unsuitable for ladies or the marriage bar that prevented married women from taking up or keeping fulltime teaching positions. There is always a danger when we narrow the historical lens, of thinking ourselves to be so much more progressive than previous generations. Hierarchies of gender, culture, genre and region still prevent female artists from being shown and acknowledged more widely, even in more recent times.

Compare art writing and media coverage of the nationally celebrated GSA New Glasgow Boys of the 1980’s: Peter Howson, Ken Currie, Adrian Wiszniewski and Steven Campbell with commentary on Joyce W Cairns, one of the finest living artists in the UK today, whose large scale figurative compositions surpass them all. Major solo exhibitions held outside the central belt at the Aberdeen Art Gallery such as Joyce W. Cairns War Tourist (2006) and Frances Walker: Place Observed in Solitude (2010) are contemporary examples of artists defined by the strength of their work, rather than their gender, which is why a second and even third exhibition of Modern Scottish Women is an imperative in terms of Scotland’s capital art institutions. As part of the SSAH study day, Matthew Jarron’s talk “Placed Under no disqualification”- Women Artists in She-Town, highlighted the work of women artists championed through art education, industry and politics in Dundee, revealing alternative histories of Art outside recognised centres of cultural gravity. This “first major exhibition of work by women artists to be mounted by the National Galleries of Scotland” is an important first step in recognising the contribution of women to Visual Culture, their rightful place in Art History and in the popular imagination. Perhaps it is my impatience for equality speaking when I say that in some ways the exhibition scratches the surface with a pin, but it is also immensely valuable in generating the impetus and momentum for further study and deeper consideration of this work, based on individual merit and the equality between ideas and technique.

Although I found the contextual framing of this exhibition problematic, I must also acknowledge it as a necessity: after all, to appreciate the qualities of anything you first have to know it exists, or in the case of Art be given the opportunity to see/experience it first-hand. I am sure that the general public and art historians alike will find works in this exhibition revelatory on many different levels. That a segregated show highlighting the achievements of women artist’s remains necessary in 2015/16 filled me initially with sad resignation- is this really the only means we have of shedding light on this work- to frame it in the inequality that it grew in spite of? But as I moved through the exhibition, new voices made themselves known and the framing of the show in relation to dominant institutions seemed less important that the fact that here they were- finally being discovered. Acknowledged in a National Gallery space, these works declared themselves in their own language, revealing strength, boundless talent and human insight.

Margaret Campbell Macpherson (1860-1931) was one of a number of female artists who in the latter 19th century moved to Paris for a more progressive art education at the Académie Colarossi. Working in relative freedom en plein air in the Fountainbleu Forest and in Brittany, the artist’s palette and paint handling evolved in response to the natural environment and as part of the Concarneau artist colony. Head of a Breton Girl (c 1894. Oil on canvas) is an arresting work, rather more profound emotionally and symbolically than suggested by a contemporary critic in 1895 who praised the “admirable tint” and “sweet simplicity” of the face.  The 2015 catalogue entry describing the sunlit scene and the girl in costume, “lost in idle contemplation” misses the mark for me as well. What struck me immediately was the conscious presence of both the artist and sitter. The girl, on the cusp of adulthood completely inhabits her own thoughts, her eyes linked to the deep blue palette of foliage and to Nature. Her white cap, accented with cool tones of blue and green seems caught in winds of change, through the dappled sunlight. She holds a staff which points inwards towards her abdomen, accents of striped cadmium red in her skirt flowing downward into the foreground of the painting. In her left eye is the watery mark of a tear and she stares fixedly downwards, perhaps in contemplation of burgeoning maturity. This doesn’t strike me as an idle girl with a sweet face, but something more consciously heightened by Margaret Campbell Macpherson’s palette and composition; a sense of illumination- in light used not in the service of impressionistic prettiness or optical distraction, but to say something; about feminine experience, adolescence and the sadness that always accompanies the loss of one stage of life in exchange for growth in another. It is a painting as strong and as subtle as its cobalt and emerald shadows, conscious of Nature and demanding to be written about officially in less decorative terms.

Sleeping Mother and Child (1903-05. Bronze) by Gertrude Alice Meredith Williams (1877-1934) reveals the gaunt, high cheek boned figure of woman and her baby emerging from a hewn block of raw material and biblical association. The woman’s hands are clasped before her, around the child in a protectively unconscious state and the child’s mouth turns downward in an expression of uncertainty and consternation rather than peaceful, contented sleep. This exhausted and impoverished Parisian Madonna, a sitter who the artist paid with food and shelter, feels akin to the work of Käthe Kollewitz (1867-1945), although without the gravitas of human brutality and war. It is the protective bond of motherhood that the artist explores here and the recognition of one human being by another, tangibly in three dimensions. It is a work of great sensitivity, vulnerability, intimacy and one of the most emotionally affecting works in the show. Studying at the Liverpool School of Architecture and Applied Art and in Paris 1901-05, including the Académie Colarossi, the artist’s modelling of the figure in this and her painted plaster macquette for the Paisley War Memorial: The Spirit of the Crusaders (c 1922), was no doubt influenced by a progressive education and her scholarship abroad. The subject of a wonderful talk by Phyllida Shaw, who is bringing William’s work to light after discovering her extensive wartime correspondence, there is much more to be discovered about this remarkable sculptor.

Self-portrait (Mrs Grahame Johstone), c.1929

Doris Zinkeisen Self -Portrait (Mrs Grahame Johnstone), c 1929, Oil on canvas, 107.2 x 86.6. National Portrait Gallery, London: Purchased 1999.

Another trailblazing artist represented in the show is Doris Zinkeisen (1897-1991) who’s Self Portrait (Mrs Grahame Johnstone) (c1929, Oil on canvas) is one of several resiliently present statements of femininity and power in the genre of portraiture, characteristic of this exhibition. Trained at the Harrow School of Art and the RA School in London, Zinkeisen’s work as a theatrical and film designer finds expression in her dramatic image of Self. Draped in a Chinese shawl, her pale white shoulders, red lips and rouged cheeks take on a symbolic rather than a seductive stance. The artist’s gaze extends above and beyond the viewer, her hand on a white curtain, about to step into the dark space beyond the set. Like Dorothy Johnstone’s portrait of Anne Finlay (1920), the contentious poster image for the show, it is an image that resists feminine display for a predominantly male gaze. Zinkeisen is resoundingly sure of herself in beholding who she is- her sexuality is part of that certainly, but it isn’t the only aspect being acknowledged by the image.  In Johnstone’s portrait of Anne Finlay, the sitter meets the artist’s gaze as an equal, finding expression for the strength and dynamism of her personality, beheld and captured by another woman/ artist.

Belsen April 1945, 1945

Doris Zinkeisen Belsen: April 1945: 1945. Oil on canvas, 62.2 x 69.8cm. IWM (Imperial War Museums): War Artists Advisory Committee commission 1947 .

Although much admired in the press as a well-groomed socialite and model of femininity, Doris Zinkeisen’s tenacity extends well beyond her self-portrait to documenting the horrors of World War II. Tasked with documenting the St John Ambulance Brigade’s work in war torn Europe and therefore slipping under the radar of official war Art, Zinkeisen was one of the first to enter the Belsen concentration camp with the ambulance service post liberation. In her painting Belsen. April 1945 (Oil on canvas) she depicts a suspended, otherworldly, hellish space; blackened by death and smoke, with the glimmer of a furnace and unnatural clouds compressed into the high left of the composition. The splayed limbs of ghostly pale, emaciated bodies piled up in the centre of the painting align with the feeling in the floored pit of the viewer’s stomach – the foreground tonally falling away as if the ground beneath the viewer’s feet is collapsing. Zinkeisen’s direct response as a witness is an important, emotionally centred document of inhumanity and humanity perceiving it. Everything else including the gender of the artist is stripped away the scene before her, (and before us) heightened in shadow and universal in meaning.

Another memorable discovery was Margot Sandeman’s (1922-2009) painting 3 Bathers, one of the most beautiful and richly contemplative in the exhibition. From left to right we see three stages of life; childhood/ innocence, adulthood/ knowledge gained, and old age/death aligned with cycles of Nature. Sandeman’s symbolic treatment of her subject is reminiscent of Munch and Redon, with a dappled progression of luminous colour underpinned by a timeless progression of ages. In the figure of the child the torso is illuminated in sunlit yellow and orange, the head of the girl contrasted in cool blue, becoming one with the sky. The middle bather is in a crouched position, her face hidden sorrowfully in a towel and in the final section of the triptych-like composition we see the body of a woman, lain in a grave of deep ultramarine. Sandeman’s palette links the girl with natural cycles of life, death, decay and renewal with dominant blue defining the realm of her intellect and the flowing spring at her feet. The child’s steadfast gaze doesn’t portray a carefree state of youth but knowledge of what will come to pass, naturally in time to us all. There is a strong sense of the Feminine in Nature in Sandeman’s work which transcends her identification as a female artist.

Mabel Pryde Nicholson’s (1871-1918) The Grange, Rottingdean (1912, Oil on canvas) contains a different kind of knowing in her complex interior double portrait of her children Nancy and Kit. Her daughter is seated in profile in the foreground, staring fixedly through a window we cannot see but which illuminates both her and her brother, who we see through an open doorway to another room. Framing the space the girl occupies, and also the male child like a proscenium arch, is a wall dividing the domestic space; decorated with a series of six 18th century military costume engravings on the wall. On top of a rounded corner cupboard to the left, a statue of a blue and red coated gentleman with a cane seems to mirror the attitude of Kit, the artist’s son, looking directly at us through the open door. Wearing a Glengarry cap, his hands are steadfast in his pockets, feet apart in an assured, rightful stance. It is a Vermeer –like space in terms of its intimacy and perspective, but intensely psychological in the accents of colour and mark, drawing the viewer’s attention to status and gender, the relativity of one child to another, established in the light hitting them both. This sense of illumination invites interpretation; in the display of masculinity in the home and in the foreground space occupied by the female child, pensive, self-contained and absorbed in her own thoughts. One feels looking at this image that the boy’s experience of life has an established historical precedent of position, of the man he will become and the traditional space he will occupy within the family home. His sister’s foreground position within the composition brings her closer to the artist’s own space, feminine experience and in relation to her male sibling. Curiously in spite of the boy’s age, size and  distant position, his presence is expanded within the painting by masculine objects to the point where the artist renders him and his older sister equal human presences in the work. It is of course a mother beholding her children and one could argue an interior life/ figurative study, but the tension in this work suggests more than that; a more potent sense of psychology and a subtle, powerful comment on gender.

Born in Canada and resident in Scotland from 1928 until her death, Margaret Watkins (1884- 1969) is has been acknowledged far more widely in the New World. A pioneer Fine Art photographer working in the world of advertising, Watkins exquisite monochrome compositions are beautifully poised, her juxtaposition of objects full of associative narratives. Domestic Symphony is a photographic statement of tonal rhythm using everyday objects; eggs and the scroll of a bathtub, elegant as any treble clef. Seemingly mundane objects become elevated through Watkins’ eye and lens and in the arrangement of her still life compositions. Head and Hand (1925, Palladium print) is an elegant, though sharply ironic, image of the hand of dancer/ author Marguerite Agniel holding a carved, stylised head- a portrait of herself by the American artist Jo Davidson. It’s an image of idealised Beauty, display and possession, with the woman holding an appropriated image of Self in three dimensions, there in the palm of her hand where the gaze of others assumes its proper proportion. The hand itself adopts a pose of attention, a powerful positive surrounded by negative space.

I was delighted to see the work of Hannah Frank (1908-2008) included in the Modern Scottish Women exhibition. I had the great pleasure of meeting and interviewing her, a few years before her centenary. She was, and still is through her Art, an irrepressible spirit and I think her sculpture Woman with Bird (1955, Bronze) sums up my thoughts about this exhibition. A female figure sits cross legged, holding aloft a bird with care and aspiration, about to extend its wings to fly. Frank renders the figure with characteristic delicacy and strength of spirit. It’s an image of freedom, imagination and Hope- a work which only she could have created.

Lee Miller: A Woman’s War

Imperial War Museum, London, until 24 April, 2016.

leemiller-largeLee Miller in steel helmet specially designed for using a camera, Normandy,      Unknown Photographer, 1944. Images © Lee Miller Archives.

After the Lee Miller & Picasso Exhibition at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery last year, which left me angry and wanting, I had been looking forward to a more comprehensive and insightful presentation of Miller’s work in her own right at the Imperial War Museum. The unique context of this museum I thought, would perhaps allow greater latitude, exploring the complexities of a woman cast between Beauty and her own mastery through the medium of photography.

I left this exhibition feeling inspired by Miller’s Art of seeing; in the many superb examples of her work before, during and in the aftermath of World War II, but felt equally conflicted by her projected image. Not in what was present by virtue of her images, but in what was notably absent; for example Miller’s confrontational, documentary photographs of piles of bodies or of captured prison guards taken during the liberation of Buchenwald and Dachau. The curatorial choice in this section, covering the liberation of the Nazi death camps is a more modest collection of images; of balletic feet in prison uniform, a doctor and her patient in Dachau hospital and a room of women forced to work as camp prostitutes awaiting transportation as a summation of her “feminine” experience. Nearby Miller’s photograph of Regina Lisso ( daughter of Dr Kurt Lisso, city treasurer of Leipzig, after committing suicide with her parents in the town hall on 18 April 1945)is a disarming image of youth, cowardice and perfected beauty of a different kind in the context of Nazism. Lisso appears as if asleep, a less confrontational image than others Miller took of Nazis, who took their own lives rather than face defeat and capture. These curatorial choices don’t adequately represent the outrage of Miller’s words or the scope of her images, which bring the viewer face to face with humanity’s suffering and with the banality and complicity of evil. The testimonial of her dispatches, communicating her direct response to world and life changing events demanded a space of its own. If you can’t display the Horror of what Miller saw, wanted the world to see and “believe”, in the context of the IWM then where or when will it ever be publicly shown?

Whilst there is truth in the Feminine narrative presented in Lee Miller: A Woman’s War, there is also an enduring persistence of limitation present. This is perhaps best expressed in former British Vogue editor Audrey Withers’ observation that Miller: “was reluctant to abandon the adventurous life which she found her true vocation and sensed rightly that she would never again have the opportunities it had given her”. I felt in viewing this show that similar lines of experience had been drawn around the chosen images- in accordance with the overarching theme of the exhibition and with Miller’s sensitivity in relation to the experiences of women in wartime certainly –but limiting exposure to an Artist in her own right. The selection and release of only four press images from the Lee Miller Archive also present glamour and beauty over experience, a tendency which is also reflected in the gift shop. “A Woman’s War” is fought on many fronts and although Miller’s images give active voice to this complexity within the exhibition, this feels in spite of the thematic trajectory rather than because of it.

The trappings of exhibition framing and accompanying texts aside, this is a wonderful show and an opportunity for reappraisal of Miller’s remarkable work in terms of who she was and what she represents on multiple levels. Like George Hoyningen-Huene’s photograph; Lee Miller with Crystal Ball, Paris, France, 1932 where the model’s face and hands emerge from darkness, illuminated from below, Miller’s head and hands/ intellect and actions are resoundingly present in the composition and guts of her photographs. As a metaphorical overview there is self -determination in this God/ Creator-like pose, with Miller grasping either side of the glass sphere or prism containing Vogue model Agneta Fischer in miniature. It is a surreal image of poised high fashion reflecting Miller’s own designated role of model and muse- beautiful, idealised and goddess-like, a desirable object trapped in a fishbowl.  However it is the powerful portrait of Miller that dominates the image, looming over the confinement of Feminine beauty, gazing into the crystal ball, into how others would perceive her.

Because how others- often leading male artists or photographers of the day, saw and projected Miller and because those images are such an influential part of how we are exposed to her work, I’m going to deal with them early! There are telling examples of how Miller was perceived and defined throughout the exhibition, that when stacked up against her own oeuvre, make her toweringly enduring images all the more remarkable in resistance. Photography behind the lens freed her, from the past and from how her own image/sense of self was appropriated by those around her. From early childhood Miller was subjected to invasive photographs taken by her father Theodore. The Stereoscopic nude study of Lee Miller by her father, Poughkeepsie, NY, USA 1928 visually and sexually holds her prisoner in a disturbing display; daughter as subject/object and the father behind the lens. Her arms are folded behind her back, her full frontal torso displayed in a format used at the time for pornography. Her head is turned away in an emotionally detached, downcast gaze, there’s nothing liberated or liberating about this image of the female body or the implied relationship between subject /object and photographer. Man Ray’s Shadow patterns cast by a net curtain on Lee Millers torso, Paris, France, c.1930 which crops off her head entirely has a similar effect, artfully draped in avant-garde eroticism typical of the well documented male Surrealist movement. Similarly her husband Roland Penrose’s portrait of Miller; Good Shooting (Bien visé), London, England 1939, positions her with hands raised above her head in the repose of a classical nude, headless, chained to a bullet marked wall and clad waist down in metal, another example of appropriated, idealised Beauty .

However Miller’s insistence and circumstance carved out a different path than that of a passive victim, muse or an object of obsessively held desire. War transformed her, giving her the opportunity, like many women during the 1940’s, to step outside and beyond what was expected of them in everyday life. Miller seized her opportunity as a war photographer and correspondent with both hands. The contrast between pre-war photographs of Miller the model and David E.Sherman’s image of Lee Miller at the entrance to the fortress of St Malo, Brittany, France, August 1944, starkly convey how fully she embraced life with the troops, finding purpose and meaning through the lens.

When the war ended and expectation of women’s roles assumed pre-war expectations, it is not surprising that Miller lost her vitality and sense of purpose, spiralling into depression and alcoholism in later life. Much of who she was and what she had experienced remained unseen until the discovery of Miller’s work by her son, Anthony Penrose, following her death in 1977. Miller kept the best of herself compartmentalised in an attic; 60,000 negatives, 20,000 prints, contact sheets and thousands of documents and manuscripts. The inspiration throughout this exhibition resides in knowing what she overcame to be who she truly was as a photographer. The evidence is in her images.

9f1e0de41c3cf289d449919c8a8121ec

Lee Miller self portrait with Sphinxes, London, England 1940 by Lee Miller (2995-5) Images © Lee Miller Archives.

 To see Miller’s development in the exhibition; from early studio self-portraiture, high fashion shoots, her observations of the relationships between men and women as part of an inner circle of artists in pre-war Paris, folk customs in Romania, studies of people, architecture and landscape in Egypt, to her work documenting the lives of soldiers, Resistance fighters, prisoners, evacuees and civilians; many women and children, during and after WWII is a breath-taking journey through “many lives”.

Prior to WWII we can see Miller evolving as an artist in her own right; in her supremely dignified portrait of Eva Jessye, Choir Mistress, New York, NY, USA, 1933 (the first black American woman to receive international recognition as a choral director and conductor) which speaks of equality way ahead of its time. Her portrait of Mafy Miller, sister -in-law of Lee Miller in the Bazaar district, Cairo, Egypt, 1937, displays her mastery of lighting and composition. Her portraits of Leonora Carrington and Max Ernst, Lambe Creek, Cornwall, England 1937 and Ady Fidelin and Man Ray, Mougins, France, 1937 capture Miller’s understanding of the psychology and dynamics of power in male /female relationships.  Her Portrait of a local woman, possibly in Siwa, Egypt, c. 1938 and her portrait of Argentinian artist Leonor Fini, Saint- Martin- d’Ardéche near Avignon, France, 1939, are also particularly fine examples of Miller’s ability, insight and technique which applied equally to named, famous or unknown subjects during this pre-war period.  Miller rightfully identified early in her career that a photographer’s “approach” rather than their “technical genius” was paramount.

Miller’s mastery of photographic technique and intent prior to WWII finds heightened expression in her wartime photographs of American Nurses 2nd US Army taken in Oxfordshire, January 1943 and female ATS Searchlight Operators, London, England, March 1943; perfect compositions of tone and form, bringing a sense of radiant illumination to the work of women as part of the war effort.  Lesser known images of found objects taken during the Blitz including Remington Silent and Piano by Broadwood seen in the publication Grim Glory: Pictures of Britain Under Fire by Ernestine Carter and Lee Miller (1941), reflect civilization in surreal, molten destruction.  Miller’s intellect and humour can be seen in her images of Vogue models wearing protective masks at the entrance to the photographer’s air raid shelter in Hampstead, London (May 1941) and in the defiant image of a model wearing a Digby Morton suit posed in front of a bombsite (June 1941). The framing of the archway is still intact, the model’s head turned in acknowledgement of the destruction immediately behind her but adopting an upright stance, one foot turned- the other pointing toward the viewer as though she could turn and stride forward into our foreground. Miller’s photographs of ATA pilot Anne Douglas, Flight Lieutenant Anna Leska, Life magazine photo journalist Margaret Bourke-White, Director Jill Craigie and unnamed women in uniform working in factories, as radio mechanics and technicians, darkroom assistants, nurses, ambulance drivers, interpreters, land girls, women filling in trenches and clearing rubble in human chains, provide a window on the trailblazing expansion of women’s many and varied roles in wartime, beyond domesticity and simply keeping “the home fires burning”.  I hope that many young women will have the opportunity to see this exhibition and be inspired by it, due to Miller’s undeniable sensitivity and audacity behind the lens rather than her undeniable beauty in front of the camera.  Can she not be both? Apparently not yet, would be my answer, as A Woman’s War is sadly still being fought in the way that female artists continue to be described and defined in terms of their gender, their clothes , physical appearance or their relationships with men, rather than their talents.

Anna%20Leska,%20Air%20Transport%20Auxilliary,%20Polish%20pilot%20flying%20a%20spitfire,%20England%201942%20by%20Lee%20Miller%20(4327-45)_jpg

Anna Leska, Air Transport Auxilliary, Polish pilot flying a spitfire, England, 1942 by Lee Miller (4327-45) Images © Lee Miller Archives.

Miller’s images of women in war torn Europe are among her most arresting and moving in the way that they transcend time and place to express universal human behaviour and emotions. Woman accused of collaborating with the Germans, Rennes, Brittany, France 1944 is a scene bisected by light and darkness from left to right; the woman being interrogated in foreground close up, her head shaven in retribution. Rather than the spectacle of public shaming or the judgment of the interrogator who is out of shot, she depicts an inward moment of recognition in the face of a young woman with her head pensively bowed, another woman in a dark cardigan standing behind her in shadow like another self or an unholy guardian angel. She could be anyone and any one of us. In a photograph taken during the liberation of St Malo, Brittany, France in August 1944, we see the French family of a German soldier hiding their faces in a huddled group, painfully aware of being seen, hair hung limp masking their faces. Only the face of a frightened child grasped tightly by its mother turns to face the viewer/ photographer, aligned with the lighter wall in contrast with the dark clothing and foreground, horizontally bisecting the photograph. This tonality has moral resonance in terms of the shaming consciousness of the three young women in the family group and the eye behind the lens. It is a powerful image of a standard unit of society and of collaboration with the enemy. However it is not without empathy. The body language of everyone in the shot, especially the young child, renders them vulnerable in capture and therefore judgement hangs in suspension in the open lit space above them.

Miller’s image of liberation on multiple levels, of Ghislane Schlesser, a French ambulance driver, with her father, Brigadier General Guy Schlesser, commander of a French armoured division taken in Alsace, February 1945, is one of the most beautiful in the show. Ghislane stands in the viewer’s foreground as if we are party to the conversation. The positioning of the young woman is at the forefront of the composition and on the same level as her father who stands behind her, hand on her shoulder, smiling and smoking a cigarette in a moment of pride, victory and relief. The sense of equality and camaraderie in uniform, shared resistance and the bond between father and daughter makes this such a beautiful image. Miller’s wartime photographs contain darkness, dispossession and despair, but also moments of profound beauty and hope.

Another example is Miller’s image of homeless girls on a Budapest Street, taken in January 1946. They stand together, bare footed- one gazing directly at the woman behind the lens, the other smiling at something or someone out of shot to the left. Behind them is a poster of an elderly woman’s face and beside it a Soviet-style poster of a woman, her fist raised triumphantly. It is an image of poverty, deprivation and displacement certainly, but it is also an image of resilience and trust between the two young girls and photographer. To capture such a moment amongst the rubble and chaos of post –war Europe speaks of Miller’s compassion and intent. She spent the first winter after the war in Hungary and Romania and like millions who were displaced by the conflict, faced the seemingly impossible task of rebuilding their lives. Listening to the painfully scripted interview with Ona Munson on CBS Radio’s Town Tonight show in 1946 and seeing the final image of Miller in her kitchen at Farely Farm, Sussex, part of a feature in House and Garden in 1973, it is easy to feel her discomfort and unease with civilian life. There are so many images in the Lee Miller archive, yet to be seen, with many more stories to tell.

One of the most famous images of Miller taken by David Sherman during the allied advance through Germany is Lee Miller in Hitler’s bath, Munich, Bavaria, Germany, April 1945, showing Miller caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. Beside the tub are her combat boots, caked with the mud of Dachau; on one side is a portrait of Hitler – use of personal space within his apartment, a symbol of allied victory. On the right is a female nude statue, an example of idealised Neo Classical beauty; an aesthetic of racial purity actively utilised in Nazi propaganda. Many of Miller’s friends were branded “Degenerate” artists and fled persecution by the Nazis. Between the defeated Fascist leader and the statue of idealised feminine Beauty sits Miller, washing the dirt and stench of Dachau from her naked body. For me the positioning of the female statue at the side of the tub has always held a sense of irony specific to Miller’s personal story. Like many women actively in service during WWII she was part of the fight against Fascism, but also caught between this new found freedom of duty and the restrictions re- imposed by victory. Projections of Beauty have continued to plague reception and access to Miller’s work – the statue by the tub is a powerful reminder, together with her life experiences, which she could never wash away.

“What is liberty? It is the little things, added up to equal freedom instead of despair. It is the columns of evacuees leaving the front, sad to leave their land, but willing; it’s the cinema for no purpose; it’s the group in the street, laughing; It’s trusting your friends and your family; or a newcomer because he has an honest face; it’s the opportunity to offer or refuse yourself for something you understand.” Lee Miller.

www.iwm.org.uk

http://www.iwm.org.uk/exhibitions/iwm-london/lee-miller-a-woman-s-war

www.leemiller.co.uk