The exhibition The Art of Lee Miller at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London is the fullest exhibition of her work to date. It provides an exceptional opportunity to assess her as a photographer, based on the best available prints displayed sympathetically. Unlike many exhibitions focussed on Lee Miller, it does not dwell long on her career as a model and as Man Ray's muse. Most of the exhibition is devoted to Miller's own work, though there is a nice touch at the very end with a portrait of Miller painted by Picasso.
It is surprising how many iconic images Miller produced (in addition to being the subject of some of Man Ray's finest work): for me these must include the 'Portrait of Space' which is a highly abstract photograph taken looking out at desert through torn mesh; the self-portrait in Hitler's bath; the drowned SS Officer floating in a ditch; and the bombs exploding photographed framed by the window and balcony of her hotel at St Malo.
I asked Mark Haworth-Booth, the curator of the exhibition and author of the catalogue, The Art of Lee Miller, about Lee Miller's contribution to photography. I also asked him about by far the most shocking images in the exhibition, two tiny contact prints of a real human breast, which she recovered from a mastectomy, presented on a dining plate with cutlery as if for a meal.
Nigel: In the process of researching this exhibition and the book that accompanies it you must have studied prints of just about every extant Lee Miller photograph. You've also talked extensively with those who knew her. You are in an excellent position to make an assessment of her contribution to photography. How would you sum this up?
Mark: In the light of the exhibition, I think that we can see that Lee Miller had an astonishing number of separate careers and that she made extraordinary contributions in each of them. Thus, she excelled in 'The Art of the Model' - the first section - and became a 20th century classic as a result of her collaborations with Steichen, Hoyningen-Huene, Man Ray and (on film) Cocteau. If we accept her word, it was Lee who created the image of her neck, as a visceral close-up,
cropped from a negative by Man Ray.
However, the exquisite vintage prints from the second section - 'Surrealist Paris, 1929-32' - incontrovertibly demonstrate her ability as a creator of highly original, and sometimes highly disturbing, Surrealist images. 'New York, 1932-34' reveals her elegance as an advertising photographer, fashion photographer and portraitist. The 'Condom' photograph in that
section could only, it seems, have been taken by Lee.
In the next section, 'Egypt, 1935-39', we see that Lee made the most brilliant Modernist photographs of Egypt - and again produced a masterwork, 'Portrait of Space', 1937. The section on 'War, 1940-45' is again characteriseed by photographs of a kind only Lee made - from the unsettling and macabre 'Women with Firemasks', 1941, to the unflinching portraits of the suicided daughter of the Burgermeister of Leipzig and the killed SS guard underwater. The final section,
'Postwar', reveals Lee's ability as a comic photographer (a difficult genre) in her series 'Working Guests'. So, I think we can find that throughout her career she makes original photographs, as well as many competent ones. We can see that she also made photographs unlike anyone else's - and that these were often highly disturbing - and remain so.
Nigel: For me the paired contact prints of a severed human breast served on a plate were by far the most surprising and shocking images in the exhibition, more shocking than the familiar wartime photography in some ways despite its unflinching approach to death. As I understand it, these are being exhibited for the first time. Lee made these images in 1930 at the height of the Surrealist movement. The combination of sexual imagery, toying with the cannibalism taboo, and the use of incongruous juxtaposition are all consistent with Surrealist ideas, many of which were heavily influenced by the impact of Freud. Where these images differ from many of the other Surrealist attempts to shock and overturn conventions is that Lee used a real human body part to make the image, and the documentary effect is almost prescient of her later images taken after the liberation of concentration camps. They could also be read as a critical comment on the objectifications of fashion photography. How did Lee Miller come to make these images? Did she envisage them exhibited as a pair like this or is that a curatorial decision?
Mark: We don't know what Lee Miller had in mind. I've always known them as a pair because Tony Penrose mounted them up that way when he discovered them. She was, according to Tony, having an affair with the surgeon who performed the mastectomy. She asked for the breast, took it through the streets to the Vogue studio, arranged the composition in the studio there and photographed. She was seen by the studio manager and thrown out, Tony Penrose says.
Nigel: These two tiny contact prints, horrific as they may be, are unforgettable. Mark neatly sums up and contextualises these photographs in his book The Art of Lee Miller (p.88) In some ways they typify her daring and unwillingness to accept conventions:
"The presentation of the breast, on an elegant dinner-plate, twists and scrambles familiar messages. As with other images of hers, Lee's turns a stereotype inside out. The photographs remind us that their author was a woman of remarkable daring and capable of challenging the most forbidding taboos[...]This pair of photographs takes its disturbing place in a lineage of horrr which spans Western art from Titian's 'The Flaying of Marysas' (1570s) through Frederick Sommer's dispassionate and haunting photograph 'Amputated Leg' (1940) to the melodramatic body-part confections of Joel-Peter Witkin and the spectacular grand guignol of Peter Greenaway's 'The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover' (1989)."
The exhibition runs at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London from 15th September to 6th January 2008. I highly recommend it.
Other reviews and articles about Lee Miller
Joanna Pitman in The Times
Arifa Akbar in The Independent
Drusilla Beyfus in The Telegraph Magazine
Maev Kennedy in The Guardian and another piece in The Guardian and another.
Jonathan Keats in Art and Antiquities