Lee Miller and Picasso

 23 May – 6 September 2015, Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh.

NC0002 1, Lee Miller and Picasso after the liberation of Paris, by Lee Miller, Paris, France, 1944

There are no women artists. Women cannot create. So said the oracles and we thought it must be true. Alice Hubbard, Photography Comes Into the Kitchen, Vanity Fair, October 1921. [1]

I have always admired Lee Miller’s definitive work as an artist, photographer and war correspondent, so I was naturally drawn to this latest exhibition at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. The relationship between Miller and Picasso is a fascinating one in terms of the visual connection between artist and subject and how male and female creativity are perceived. However the celebrity status of Picasso billed in the press release as “the greatest artist of the twentieth century” is followed by reference to “the beautiful model, who became a skilled and highly influential photographer.” I can think of no reference to a male artist/ photographer or war correspondent in the history of Art or journalism that begins by telling us he was handsome, as if this were his primary attribute. When I visited the exhibition a high school group was introduced to Miller by a guide as “one of the first supermodels” defined by her relationships rather than her work and again my hackles were raised. That she began her career on the other side of the camera is as indisputable as her physical beauty, but in the context of an exhibition in the Robert Mapplethorpe Photography Gallery, in the National Portrait Gallery and as part of the Institute for Photography in Scotland (IPS) 2015 Season, that really isn’t the point. In spite of the problematic framing of the show and its attendant labelling, Miller’s work resoundingly speaks for itself, a perfect counterfoil to the dumb language of celebrity which persistently surrounds it.

As author Ali Smith rightly described in her article The Look of the Moment in The Guardian, Sept 8th 2007; “Much of [Lee Miller’s] life would be a negotiation between the act of seeing and the act of being seen.” In a similar way the viewer of the exhibition must also negotiate these contradictory attributions of value. During the late 20’s and early 30’s Miller was adopted as a muse by the male Surrealist circle; appearing as Cocteau’s painted goddess, a statue brought to life in his 1932 film The Blood of a Poet. When she apprenticed herself to Man Ray, she became his lifelong obsession. The central curatorial conceit of this exhibition is Miller’s relativity to famous men, one Spanish artist in particular, yet in these early years she clearly established herself as an artist in her own right; producing Self Portraits and works such as Nude Bent Forward, Paris, 1930 and Solarised Portrait of an Unknown Woman (Meret Oppenheim), Paris, 1932. Miller also created highly provocative and challenging works;  Untitled, 1930 (Severed Breast from a radical mastectomy) arranged for consumption on a white dinner service and her portrait Tanja Ramm under a Bell Jar, Paris 1931, an apt metaphor for the suffocating ideals of Beauty and the Feminine that still persist today. Miller’s capacity to confront the viewer with uncomfortable truths found real expression and purpose in her work as one of the few female war correspondents and the only one to have seen combat during the second World War. She was present at the liberation of concentration camps at Dachau and Buchenwald, getting so close to her subjects that it is impossible for the viewer to turn away from them. This is the real platform upon which to begin examining her relationships with fellow artists. Unless the general public walk in with prior knowledge or are curious enough to explore Miller’s life and work for themselves the starting point is a step backwards.

The exhibition celebrates the life and work of Pablo Picasso as documented by Lee Miller from their first meeting in 1937 to a final photograph taken in 1970, three years before Picasso’s death. It was a long and enduring friendship, Miller photographing Picasso over a thousand times and Picasso painting Miller six times. The presentation of artefacts, photographs and artworks drawn from the Lee Miller Archives and The Penrose Collection, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, create a sense of the great male artist and those in his orbit. However what is infinitely more satisfying is the opportunity to see up close Miller’s insight into the relationships between men and women within a close artistic and literary circle during a tumultuous time in human history. What shines throughout the exhibition is the eye and mind of Miller behind the camera and her connection to Picasso as fellow artist/ seer, rather than a muse.

Picasso, Hotel Vaste Horizon, Mougins, France, 1937, P0110 (1)

In one of Miller’s earliest portraits of Picasso (Hotel Vaste Horizon, Mougins, France, 1937) we see the intensity of his penetrating gaze held at the centre of the composition, an open doorway in the background positioned immediately behind his head, the artist turning to face the photographer. It is a moment of recognition, one of many throughout their 36 year friendship which feels like an acknowledgement, rather than the gaze the viewer is accustomed to seeing in Picasso’s Art- that of an older man beholding a younger woman in desire and ultimately in fear. Miller captured the many facets of Picasso’s personality, his childlike playfulness, his intensity and creative energy. What is clear in both the images of Miller and Picasso taken on 25th August 1944 during the liberation of Paris and in their final embrace in Notre Dame de Vie, Mougins, France in 1970 is their mutual admiration and respect. It is the equality of their gaze and the warmth of their smiles in regarding each other that is most striking. There is a strong feeling of Miller seeing him for who he was, also expressed in Picasso’s gift of Homme et Femme (Man & Woman, Pastel, coloured pencil and wash on paper, 1967) to Miller. The caricature-like depiction of the 86 year old Picasso sitting on a chamber pot with a naked female model (his wife Jacqueline Roque) legs open, face violently distorted, cuts through the myth of male virility and cultural dominance. The drawing acknowledges the vulnerability of age and masculinity in relation to the raw creative power of the Feminine, knowing that Miller would understand the joke.

P0895, Picasso with La Coiffure, Villa La Californie, France, 1956

Miller’s portrait; Picasso with La Coffure, Villa La Californie, Cannes, France 1956 significantly positions the artist in relation to his work rather than his legend. Here Picasso is squatting low on the studio floor flanked by three of his paintings, taller in stature than the artist himself. Miller’s composition positions the artist in front of the fluid lines of a backlit Nouveau window/ doorway, mirrored in the painting on the lower right. Two artists and their ways of seeing are brought into focus in her insightful photograph. Similarly Miller’s son Anthony Penrose, Director of the Lee Miller Archives, framed the love between Miller and Picasso as a creative partnership; “My parent’s friendship with Picasso was a central part of their lives. Beginning from the camaraderie and ideals shared on the beaches of Côte d’Azur it developed rapidly into a love and creative collaboration. Roland Penrose became Picasso’s biographer, the curator of key exhibitions and regarded as ‘The Picasso Man’. Lee Miller lovingly chronicled the men and their achievements. It is fortunate she loved them both as much as she did. A lesser devotion would not have allowed her to tolerate Penrose’s obsessive passion for Picasso.”

One of the most compelling images in the show; Pablo Picasso and Roland Penrose, Mougins, France, 1937 explores this triangle. Here we see a dual portrait of both men, starkly framed by an open car door and bisected diagonally by heightened dark and light. We can see Miller reflected in the psychological barrier of glass and lens in this beautifully composed shot; the light diagonal behind Penrose’s head as he leans, hand behind head in supported admiration of Picasso, a dark diagonal framing Picasso’s head in the lower left, his eyes aligned with the black of the car door frame. The stiff white collar of convention and British reserve are evoked by this dual portrait, together with a darker creative presence. The composition of the photograph and its tonal associations are a powerful part of the three way dialogue. Penrose is elevated, aligned with a higher purpose, whilst the dominant personality of Picasso equally inhabits and grounds the frame. Many years later Miller described herself as a “Picasso widow”, a reference to her husband’s commitment to Picasso and her own.

The way that historical documents interact with images in the exhibition inform the viewer not of Miller’s Dispatches and photographs of the WW2 and its aftermath, but telegrams informing her husband of her safety or a letter from Man Ray to Roland Penrose dated September 24th 1942 enquiring “and what is our little Lee doing?” Although the exhibition press release refers to her important work during this period, the public face of the exhibition and text labels are more concerned with domestic arrangements and personal relationships. Fair play you might say, as this is at base an exhibition primarily about Picasso using Miller’s photographs to document his life. However in 2015 I would argue that the curatorial and educational responsibility is greater than that. Miller is a wonderful example of a woman challenging the conventions of her time and perceptions of the Feminine in her images, writings and actions. The presentation of the exhibition unconsciously puts her back in the “Beauty”, wife and mother box, rather than actively exploring the complexities and contradictions of her life’s work.

In a small photograph of Lee Miller in Hitler’s Bathtub, Munich 1945, we see her head and shoulders as she sits washing away the dirt, grime and experience of war, muddy boots and uniform by the tub. On her right is a white goddess-like statue, in this context the Neo-Classical aesthetic of Aryan propaganda, timelessly ironic in its idealisation of Beauty. Miller glances sideways at this nude, seemingly in distrust, aligned with her own nakedness. It is as if the statue is a reminder of how others perceived her in this private moment, publicly staged. It’s an image of multiple narratives and “many lives” lived by an extraordinary woman that begs further exploration. Whilst I can see the appeal to a public undoubtedly more familiar with the name Picasso than that of Miller, I would expect that this exhibition, which seemingly places her name first, would follow through by example.

Whilst in Edinburgh I also had the opportunity to see an exhibition of cyanotypes by early photographic pioneer Anna Atkins (1799-1871), responsible for the first book to be illustrated with photographs and works from the 1920’s by Modernist photographer Margaret Watkins (1884-1969) at the Stills Gallery/ Centre for Photography (25 April- 12July 2015). Also part of the IPS Season of Photography the information in this show focused attention on each artist/photographer in their own right and the volunteer who introduced me as a visitor to the exhibition was knowledgeable, passionate and the best possible ambassador for wider appreciation of two relatively overlooked photographers. In stark contrast when I visited the National Museum of Scotland’s exhibition Photography: A Victorian Sensation (19 June- 22 November 2015) “meet[ing] the pioneers of photography” didn’t visibly include Atkins or signpost the exhibition at the Stills Gallery for visitors to discover her work. Focusing on the lowest common denominator of the commercial development of photography, its equipment and Fathers of the medium, again the curatorial focus for a public institution was disappointingly narrow. In the UK especially, where historically photography is not regarded highly in the hierarchy of Fine Art, public galleries have a role to play in widening awareness and appreciation of the Art form and promoting equality of representation.




* All images by kind permission of the National Galleries of Scotland.

[1] Alice Hubbard, Photography Comes Into the Kitchen, Vanity Fair, October 1921 (p60). Cited in Seduced by Modernity, The Photography of Margaret Watkins by Mary O’Connor and Katherine Tweedie. McGill-Queens University Press. 2007.