Man Ray and Lee Miller: Excerpts from a Conversation with Julian Cox
The special exhibition Man Ray | Lee Miller: Partners in Surrealism opens tomorrow at the Legion of Honor. Earlier this summer, Julian Cox sat down with the San Francisco Arts Quarterly’s John Held, Jr. to discuss the photography of Man Ray and Lee Miller, their mutual invention and artistic discovery, and the stormy, but inspired, relationship that ultimately lasted a lifetime. Read the complete interview in issue 10 of the SFAQ print edition on August 3.
John Held: Lee Miller and Man Ray had a passionate breakup, yet they were still able to function professionally.
Julian Cox: Yes, that’s one of the threads of the story we present in this exhibition. After their tumultuous bust-up around the end of 1932, there was a four- or five-year cooling off period during which they had very limited contact. Man Ray was very distraught about their failed relationship—perhaps even broken hearted—he was embittered and terribly jealous.
Lee Miller had moved on to other things, but they reconnected in the South of France in the summer of 1937, at which point their relationship remade itself on a more platonic level. They had a wonderful sustained affection for each other that lasted another forty years. In the end, they died within a year of each other. He died in 1976. She died in 1977.
JH: Man Ray was a fashion photographer and fashion is also how Lee Miller entered into photography.
JC: Absolutely. Fashion was something that both artists had in common. Miller had a whole life in front of the camera—serving as a model and muse—before she had a successful career behind it. Miller’s father was a dedicated amateur photographer and he photographed her from a very early age.
The story goes that when Miller went to Manhattan’s Art Students League to study painting and drawing, she was discovered by Condé Nast while crossing the street. She was thrust in front of the camera and became an overnight sensation as a model. She sat for Edward Steichen, George Hoyningen-Huene, Horst P. Horst, and others.
By the time Miller arrived in Paris in 1929, she was already an accomplished model. She knew exactly how to perform in front of the camera, and she took that talent into her new life as a photographer. When she met Man Ray her modeling skills continued to be well utilized, but it was what she did in her own creative life as a photographer that forms the heart of this exhibition. It is during her relationship with Man Ray that Miller’s artistic identity began to take shape, and it is this rich terrain that the exhibition explores.
JH: When she got to Paris, she did stalk Man Ray, in a sense.
JC: Yes, she did. She was provided with a letter of introduction from Steichen and with that in hand, she went to Paris to track down Man Ray. She knew she wanted to study with Man Ray and get to know him—the closer the better.
JH: We should mention that when she came to Paris in 1929 to meet Man Ray, she was in her early 20s and he was 40. She had a pattern of being with older men.
JC: It was 22 to 39, actually—a 17 year difference. But absolutely, that pattern—to use your term—really begins from her relationship with her own father and then progresses with the mentor figures that she meets in New York, like Condé Nast and Steichen. This was how she operated, how she functioned as a young woman.
JH: It was after her marriage to the Egyptian Aziz Eloui Bey that she met Roland Penrose.
JC: That’s right. When she returned from Egypt to Paris in 1937, before going to the south of France, she met Roland Penrose and began an affair. Then she detached herself from her Egyptian husband and took up with Penrose, whom she later married.
JH: That was an interesting time—the 1937 adventure in the South of France—because that was when Picasso painted her portrait.
JC: He did. He made a series of six portraits of Miller in the manner of what he called Les Arlésienne, taking iconography that Van Gogh had introduced and perfected to make these quick, very powerful portrait studies of Lee Miller, one of which is in the exhibition.
These portraits have some of the dynamic, visceral qualities of Picasso's portraits of both Dora Maar (a mutual friend of Man Ray and Lee Miller) and Marie-Thérése Walter. They are very luscious, painted in a beautiful rich palette, and there’s a poignant, quite profound detail in the picture. The female anatomy is powerfully rendered (not untypical with Picasso), and in this case, Miller’s genitalia is presented in the shape of an eye–a witty allusion on the camera and photography as Miller’s predominant vehicle of expression.
JH: Not to mention, Man Ray’s obsession with her eye.
JC: Absolutely. The eye was a leitmotif in Surrealistic imagery. There are all these jokes, as there often were with Picasso, and little inside references. It’s a wonderful picture that marks that summer of Surrealist love in the South of France. It’s well known that these different artists shared their partners with each other. It was an offering the artists made with each other, as part of the Surrealist way of life in which they all participated.
JH: We also should mention that an important collaboration between Man Ray and Lee Miller was their discovery of solarization.
JC: Yes. Solarization is the reversal of photographic tonality that occurs in the darkroom if either the negative or the print is exposed briefly to light during the processing procedure. The story is that a mouse ran over Lee Miller’s foot during the exposure of a negative–interrupting the process–and it caused this dramatic aesthetic effect that she found very interesting. Rather than discard the picture, Miller (and Man Ray) savored the result and went on to make numerous other experiments using this procedure, seeking to harness the beauty in these “magical,” but essentially uncontrollable effects.
The exhibition shows how, working shoulder to shoulder, Miller and Man Ray explored solarization in their photographic practice. Since both these artists had tremendous egos, they didn’t really live too well with the notion of sharing their discovery. There was an edgy competition between them.
JH: I previously mentioned Man Ray’s fascination with Lee Miller’s eye, but he was infatuated with her lips as well.
JC: He was. When their relationship began to fragment, Man Ray started to do the same thing with imagery of her anatomy. In this way, he breaks apart Miller’s body to focus on its specific elements. The eye and the lips become his particular obsessional focus in a string of different works in various media. This work becomes a way to track the dissolution of their relationship in the later part of 1932.
And then, after they are no longer together, he continues compulsively reworking those elements into other kinds of objects, such as his metronome, Object of Destruction (1932)—the metronome with the eye that’s pasted on to it—and his large landscape painting A L’Heure de L’Observatoire—Les Amoureux (1936), in which Miller's lips are the central feature. He would go on to photograph and reproduce this work multiple times.
The exhibition tracks Man Ray’s obsessive response to the breakdown of his relationship with Miller, including letters and documents that show his yearning for her after she leaves him, and Paris, for New York. Man Ray knows that he can never contain Miller, but he fumbles after her, asking her to come back and mend her ways, which of course never happens.
JH: I think it’s safe to say that both Lee Miller and Man Ray were very much part of their time and played an important role documenting it, reflecting it in both their work and lifestyle.
JC: Lee Miller and Man Ray are decidedly different kinds of artists, but they came together in a remarkable environment. Paris in the 1920s, the cultural capital of the western world, provided a rich, fertile breeding ground for their creativity. They undoubtedly inspired each other to produce great things. And while their love affair was brief and stormy, their story, like their art, is undeniably for the ages.
Man Ray | Lee Miller: Partners in Surrealism opens tomorrow, Saturday, July 14 at the Legion of Honor and will be on view through October 14.