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.

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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

One thought on “Lee Miller: A Woman’s War

  1. an excellent review which very well addresses the contradictions and conflicts faced by Miller as an artist as well as highlighting the many strengths
    and the omitted work from this powerful and movings show

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