Throughout art history, the muse has played a central role in the artist’s process. The modern art muse has found its most frequent embodiment in women, from Victorine Muerent to Camille Claudel to Kiki de Montparnasse to Marie-Therese Walter (and the numerous other women portrayed by Picasso). Female muses have been both model and artistic catalyst to their typically more famous male collaborators, even though their own creative production is often considered of equal value. Lee Miller, one of the subjects of the special exhibition Man Ray | Lee Miller: Partners in Surrealism (on view at the Legion of Honor through October 14), has long been pigeonholed as Man Ray’s muse. But, as this exhibition reveals, Miller’s relationship with Man Ray was only the beginning of her journey from muse to master.
Lee Miller’s swift acceptance into New York’s fashion world occurred after a serendipitous encounter with Condé Nast when he dramatically saved the young beauty by rescuing her from the path of an oncoming truck. Her stunning features promptly landed her on the cover of Vogue at the age of 19, and she soon became a darling of the industry’s leading photographers, including Edward Steichen. When Kotex licensed Steichen’s regal portrait of Miller to be used in an advertisement for feminine hygiene products, however, a scandal erupted around the model and the fashion industry just as quickly turned against Miller.
Her modeling career cut short, Miller decided to try her hand at photography. With a letter of introduction from Steichen, Miller set out for Man Ray’s studio in Paris. What ensued was a tumultuous love affair, in which Miller’s beauty and youth served as a stimulus for some of Man Ray’s most important artwork, while Miller—for a time—also found inspiration working alongside Man Ray, rapidly developing as an artist in her own right.
Together, Lee Miller and Man Ray produced some of the most significant photographs of their respective careers. In the studio, Miller not only posed for Man Ray, but also helped to choreograph iconic pictures such as La Prière (The Prayer).
This collaboration in turn compelled Miller to create Nude Bent Forward, a related but distinct work that exemplifies the visual dialogue in which the two artists actively engaged. They worked so closely, that questions of attribution are often difficult to determine.
Solarization, perhaps the duo’s most memorable contribution to their field, resulted from a happy accident in the darkroom. As the story goes, the two artists were developing film together, when Miller felt a rodent scurry over her foot. Startled, she turned on the light to see what it was, briefly exposing the film mid-process. Man Ray quickly submerged the film into fixer, which brought about the now familiar silver lining effect. The technique would be utilized by both artists for the remainder of their careers.
While Man Ray’s artistic process often restricted him to the studio, where he created surreal vignettes and surprising compositions, Lee Miller sought out the surreal in the real world. Walking the streets of Paris, Miller captured arresting moments that transformed the quotidian into the bizarre.
As their relationship developed, Miller’s independence continued to drive her both artistically and in her personal life, much to Man Ray’s dismay. Whereas Man Ray wished to continue their relationship with Miller as his lover and muse, it became increasingly clear that Miller would reject both of these roles. In 1932, Miller left Man Ray to escape the objectification she had faced in both the fashion world and in their relationship, choosing instead greater freedom and increased ownership over her identity, artistic and otherwise.
Learn more about the artwork Lee Miller and Man Ray created together and apart in Man Ray | Lee Miller: Partners in Surrealism on view at the Legion of Honor through October 14.