Visual Arts

Through photographs, ‘Indestructible Lee Miller’ tells a remarkable woman’s tale

Neck (portrait of Lee Miller), c. 1930
Neck (portrait of Lee Miller), c. 1930

Even in death, Lee Miller steals the show.

On opening day of “The Indestructible Lee Miller” show at the NSU Art Museum Fort Lauderdale, visitors stood three deep to see black-and-white photographs by the artist and of the artist, as well as the odd work by Roland Penrose, her husband and the father of her only child. In the gallery immediately adjacent to the exhibit, viewers could stroll amid a display of Pablo Picasso ceramics without bumping into anyone.

Picasso likely would have understood, as he, too, was smitten with her. Miller was a contemporary of Picasso’s and quite possibly his lover. In the summer of 1937, Picasso painted six portraits of Miller dressed as a woman from Arles. Her son, Antony Penrose, even wrote a book about his interaction with the artist — The Boy Who Bit Picasso — (by the way, Picasso bit him back).

The Fort Lauderdale exhibit comes in the midst of a Miller revival with concurrent works from her archives of some 60,000 photographs on display in England, Scotland and Mexico. The Fort Lauderdale exhibition features a 30-year snapshot of Miller’s life — or more aptly her multiple lives as model and muse, war photographer and photographer’s model. There are even a few stills of Miller in her only film role, that of the “Statue” in Jean Cocteau’s controversial film Le Sang d’un Poète (The Blood of a Poet), in which the poet falls in love with a statue that comes to life. She was just 23 at the time. Miller plastered her hair with butter and flour and whitened her entire body. She painted eyes on her eyelids, creating an image of perpetual sight 76 years before Johnny Depp would sport the same look in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest.

As a young woman, Miller posed a triple threat of beauty, brains and bravado. She stole men’s hearts and women’s husbands. Her life appears as one highlight after another. The show spans the years 1929 through 1959, omitting a whole segment of her life in New York, which she crammed with experiences that included dancing in a chorus line, participating in the Arts Students League, meeting magazine magnate Condé Nast (who reportedly yanked her to safety after she stepped off a city curb into the path of a truck), and her subsequent life as an alternating fresh-faced and sultry cover girl.

Instead, the first images one sees are those her lover and mentor, surrealist artist Man Ray, took that emphasized her elongated neck. Initially dissatisfied with the image, he discarded the negative. Miller retrieved it from the dust bin and cropped the image from the neck up. The resulting famous photograph of 1931 was credited to Man Ray, but Miller insisted the work was hers, as she had transformed it. They argued and Man Ray threw her out of the studio. When she returned later that day, she found the photograph pinned to the wall with the throat slashed and red ink issuing forth.

“We were so close, it was as if we were one person,” Miller said of their artistic union. But Man Ray apparently viewed their relationship in a more covetous manner. As if to further cement his claim to the photograph (and Miller), he reproduced an image of her neck in an assemblage of his personal belongings in a painting he created in 1931, Le Logis de l’artiste (The Artist’s Abode). The following year, Miller broke from him, having fallen in love with Egyptian railroad magnate Aziz Eloui Bey, whose wife at the time was considered “one of the five most beautiful women in the world.”

Miller would soon grow bored in Egypt. She met her future husband, Roland Penrose, at a masquerade party in 1937. Shortly afterward her first marriage collapsed and the war intervened. Although Miller and Penrose had been longtime lovers, it took a decade for them to marry, and then only after she was pregnant with Antony, whom she nicknamed Tony.

“She had as many lovers as she wanted,” Tony says matter-of-factly. That didn’t go over well with Man Ray. Although he believed men should be free to indulge, he couldn’t fathom a woman doing so. That double standard in part prompted her to run off with Eloui Bey.

Bereft over the breakup, Man Ray transformed an earlier work titled Object to Be Destroyed. Originally created in 1923, it featured the image of an eye on the swing arm of a metronome. A decade later, he replaced the original eye with a photograph of Miller’s eye, with the instructions to smash the entire assemblage:

Cut out the eye from the photograph of one who has been loved but is seen no more. Attach the eye to the pendulum of a metronome and regulate the weight to suit the tempo desired. Keep going to the limit of endurance. With a hammer well-aimed, try to destroy the whole at a single blow.

He created several versions of the work, one of which is in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art and another on display in Fort Lauderdale. An insurance agent recommended that he buy an infinite supply of metronomes with the hefty settlement he received after one of the works was stolen in 1957 while on exhibit in Paris. The artist went even further, renaming the work Indestructible Object.

Throughout the ’30s and beyond, Miller captured life in Europe and Egypt, often in a surreal way. Her camera of choice was a Rolleiflex. “I would rather make a picture than be in one,” she once said.

In an effort to explore the essence of feminine beauty, she obtained a breast amputated during a radical mastectomy and photographed it as if steak to be devoured, decorously placed on a white plate atop a napkin flanked by knife, fork and spoon.

Despite her attraction to and repulsion of posing for the camera, Miller was not averse to demonstrating the effectiveness of a camouflage net by stripping off her clothes and lying on the ground with a tuft of turf covering her private parts. The 1942 image recalls the body-earth sculptures that Cuban artist Ana Mendieta would create in the 1970s. “I love when that happens, where you can see that influence in other artists,” Miller’s daughter-in-law, Suzanna Penrose, told the Miami Herald.

Miller also took a provocative self-portrait wearing a black fire mask, as if appearing in a surreal masquerade. While in Munich, with the mud of the Buchenwald concentration camp still on her boots, Miller posed in Hitler’s bathtub. Unbeknownst to her at the time, the photographs were taken the same day Adolf Hitler and his wife, Eva Braun, committed suicide on April 30, 1945. The following month, Miller located Braun’s house and posed in her bed. Miller brandished a cigarette and placed a bottle of alcohol on the nightstand — a direct assault to Hitler, who notoriously abhorred drinking and smoking.

Miller visited four concentration camps, including Buchenwald and Dachau. She photographed the wretched remains of bony bodies stacked like cordwood. The June 1945 edition of USA Vogue carried her photographs of Buchenwald that illustrated an article that bore the stark headline imploring: Believe It.

Not only did Miller chronicle the crimes, she recorded the punishment meted out in the aftermath of liberation. One of the photos shows two German guards who had changed into civilian clothes with the hope of escaping. Their well-fed faces were battered and bloodied. Another image is that of a guard with an obviously broken nose and eyes wide with fear. But perhaps the most haunting photo is that of an SS guard floating in a canal near Dachau. Framed by river grass, the portrait bears an eerie resemblance to Millais’ Ophelia.

The war would take a toll on Miller, whose son described her as suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder long before the term and disease were officially recognized. But one bright spot came during the Liberation of Paris in 1944.

She ran into Picasso while still dressed in her Savile Row war correspondent’s uniform. Their meeting is recorded in a photograph where a beaming Picasso has his left hand at the nape of her neck and is looking up into her eyes. Tony Penrose says that Picasso looked at her in astonishment and said, “The first Allied soldier I’ve seen is a woman — and it’s you!”

If you go

What: ‘The Indestructible Lee Miller,’ an exhibition primarily of black-and-white photographs that depict the life Miller led between 1929 and 1959. The show is co-curated by Walter Moser of the Vienna-based Albertina Museum and Bonnie Clearwater, director and chief curator of NSU Art Museum Fort Lauderdale.

Where: NSU Art Museum Fort Lauderdale, One East Las Olas Blvd.

When: Through Feb. 14, 2016

Hours: 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, till 8 p.m. Thursday, noon- 5 p.m. Sunday. Closed Monday.

Admission: Adults $12; seniors and military $8; students (age 13-17) and college students $5; Free for members and NSU students, faculty and staff, and children under 12.

Info: Call 954-525-5500 or visit nsuartmuseum.org.

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