Man Ray | Lee Miller, Partners in Surrealism explores the relationship between two of the most celebrated surrealists of the 20th century, but the pattern of influence comes off as revealingly lopsided—the female artist of the pair more often than not inspired the male.
Man Ray | Lee Miller: Partners or Altruists in Surrealism. At the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, MA through December 4.
By Yumi Araki
Philosophers and psychologists tend to divide thinkers into those who embrace Logos and those who cogitate via Eros. Thinkers of the French Enlightenment, such as Descartes, Rousseau, and Voltaire, argue that we could explain our lives through the prisms of rationality and pragmatism. Leaders of the British Enlightenment—David Hume and Edmund Burke—believe otherwise: that emotions, affections, and sentiments drive human experience.
The tug-of-war between Logos and Eros is symptomatic of the uneven collaboration between Man Ray and Lee Miller. The work of Miller, the Vogue model-turned-war photographer, represents the collected, steely refinement of the surrealist aesthetic, despite her tumultuous affairs with influential artistic counterparts. Meanwhile, Ray’s art—while rife with symbolism and surreal renderings of passions and emotion—are heavily influenced by Miller’s rationality. As curator Phillip Prodger aptly claims, Ray’s photos, paintings, and sculptures are profound “recipient(s) of Miller’s energy.”
Rather than illustrating a “partnership,” Man Ray | Lee Miller: Partners in Surrealism highlights the delicate unbalance between the two artists—one that underscores a disparity in artistic reciprocity. While Man Ray was inspired by and produced some of his most iconic works vis-à-vis Lee Miller’s inspiration, what Miller produced was fiercely independent—Logos standing free of Eros.
The collection begins with Miller’s creative work before her encounter with Man Ray. Her father, an engineer and entrepreneur, exposed Miller and her brothers to stereoscopy when they were young (the technique of creating depth and 3D imaging). The grounding no doubt inspired Miller’s unique foundations as a photographer. In Tania Ramm and Bell Jar, Variant on Hommage a D. A. F. de Sade (cir. 1930), Miller stages what looks like a severed head inside a Victorian bell jar, paying homage to sadist ornamentation. The photo is characteristically objective and gothic and perhaps a reflection of Miller’s experimental blend of the detached and the grisly.
Ray’s pre-Miller magnum opus, Man Ray 1914 (1914), showcases Ray’s gift for Modernist reinterpretation. The oil painting depicts an abstract, rolling hill landscape, a recurring pastoral motif at the time (for example, similar paintings include Ridgefield (1913) and Elderflowers (1914). Embedded within the landscape is the artist’s name, rendered in Cubist typography. The painting was completed the same year Ray married Dadaist poet Adon Lacroix, who translated the misanthropic anthology Les Chants de Maldoror (The Songs of Maldoror, a poetic novel). One cannot help but imagine that the dystopian color scheme of Man Ray 1914 pays homage to Les Chants.
Around the corner, the collection transitions into “The Paris Years”: this is the period of Ray and Miller’s collaborative stint. Here, there’s actually evidence of artistic reciprocity between Ray and Miller’s work. Much of what’s curated are portrait photographs of Miller by Ray or of Miller by Miller. In Man Ray Shaving (cir. 1929), Lee seems to be taken by the sharp contrast between the white shaving cream painted elegantly across Ray’s darkened visage. The more one examines the photo, the more the viewer appreciates surrealism at play: the white shaving cream appears almost like a strange, bionic application on Ray’s face.
The most iconic piece of the “Paris Years” is Solarized Portrait of Lee Miller (cir. 1930), where Miller’s profile is accentuated by dark outlines like an etched drawing. One day while the photographer was producing some negatives in Ray’s darkroom, Miller felt something crawl across her foot, so she flashed on the lights. It was this happenstance that produced solarization, the technique that produces this accentuated, etched effect. Had it not been for this incident, Miller wouldn’t have discovered what would become one of her signature aesthetic techniques. (Incidentally, even the attribution is obscured by the duality of Ray and Miller’s collaboration; the photograph is attributed as Ray’s work, but some art historians believe that it was actually Miller who produced the negative.)
However, Ray’s impact on Miller wanes after their breakup in 1932. Shortly after they parted, Miller became a war photographer with the onset of World War II. It’s during these years that Ray develops an obsession for Miller and channels his agony into artistic motifs of her beauty. One of Ray’s most iconic images, A l’heure de l’observatoire – les amoureux (Observatory Time – The Lovers) (1931), is an eerie, yet graceful, manifestation of Ray’s fixation with Miller’s lips. Isolated from any other facial structure, the lips stand alone, drawing the observer deeper into the subtly pursed contours of Miller’s mouth.
One particular piece, a Cuban cigar box ornamented with a peek-a-boo lens, stands out as a testament to Ray’s affection and need for Miller. After the war, Miller battled against post-traumatic stress disorder. During this period, Ray sent her several gifts in the hopes of lifting her out of her gloom, including the Cuban cigar box. Adorned with a handwritten message to “Look Here!” next to the viewfinder, the box not only represents the Modernist spirit of finding art in everyday objects but also serves as a profound expression of Ray’s love.
The collection ends with a photo of Ray and Miller at the opening of Man Ray, Inventor, Painter, Poet at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London. In the photo (1975), both Ray and Miller are considerably older and appear to be like an old couple in love. But one cannot help but detect something deeper in Ray’s expression as he looks at a smiling Miller; his eyes express reverence, respect, and admiration. In return, Miller seems to be giving a warm, acknowledging grin, but somehow her smile’s milder than Ray’s gaze. This partial chemistry was indeed the lasting nature of Ray and Miller’s relationship, as master-apprentice, as artist-muse, as lovers, and, eventually, as friends.