Man Ray | Lee Miller, Partners in Surrealism
Man Ray | Lee Miller, Partners in Surrealism
Peabody Essex Museum
Through December 4, 2011
All photos courtesy of Peabody Essex Museum
Every year there are countless exhibitions of surrealist art, and every year we shuffle through, taking notes and pontificating all we’ve learned in school about the movement. We stare into images of circuses and dripping clocks and vitreous-spewing eyeballs and talk about how much more amazing it all would be if we were tripping on mushrooms. We nod at the urinal on display and pretend we understand why it’s there. We take much of surrealism at face value because we’re so distracted by how weird-looking it is that sensible explanations for why it exists are often overlooked. But surrealist pieces are nothing without an understanding of the times from which they came, and the narratives from which they derive.
This particular exhibition at the Peabody Essex Museum, which expounds on the brief but torrid relationship of Lee Miller and Man Ray, is the most skillfully constructed exhibition narrative I’ve seen since the Rembrandt exhibit at the MFA almost ten years ago. The exhibit is sectioned into five areas of their artistic lives including their work before their affair, their torturous breakup, and the period of reconciliation years after they had moved on with their lives, but found their love had never diminished.
Before he complicated his life with his infatuation with Lee Miller, Man Ray had spent the early decades of the 20th century spreading Dada throughout New York with Marcel Duchamp. Ray was an influential part of a small collective of artists at the forefront of the avant-garde movement before Lee Miller was even out of diapers. Miller left New York for Paris after a brief modeling stint at Vogue to study under Ray, and the two began a three-year affair during which they produced some of the most meaningful surrealist work of the century.
Though the exhibit is centered on their mutual relationship, there was always an imbalance in the story. Even when she was not the actual subject of a piece, which was rare—nearly half of Ray’s photographs on display here are titled Portrait of Lee Miller—her presence is still felt more heavily than Ray’s. Curator Philip Prodger excluded all of Miller’s World War II photography, which is considered some of her most important work, partly because it would have “thrown the complexion of the exhibition,” and partly, I think, because Miller’s work would have tipped the scale of focus. Ray’s surrealist work is indubitably more acclaimed than Miller’s, but the story that is told here hints that perhaps Miller’s work was more provocative. I don’t consider them “partners in surrealism”; they were just lovers who made art at the same time.
Miller’s surrealist scenes were more organic—found images of the scratched glass door of a perfumery in Paris, a line of rats perched on a rod, wind-up toy dogs walking the perimeter of a cage of birds—while Ray’s were often constructed in his studio. Miller experimented with the angles and framing of a scene, a technique she would later apply to her devastating and painful photojournalism. Her need for artistic space and a separate image from Ray is apparent in the visual telling of their story. In a 1929 nude of Miller, Ray showed her sitting on a bed “bathed in romantic light,” her head facing downward. A year later, Miller’s own nude self-portrait depicted her posing warrior-like, emphasizing her toned muscles in an almost masculine manner as an obvious protest against Ray’s image of her. She further distanced herself from Ray when she rented a separate studio down the street from where they often collaborated. Miller left Ray in 1932 not entirely because she disliked him, but being an indifferent young woman at the crux of her career, she was mercurial and nomadic and wanted to regain the identity she seemed to have lost when she was with Ray. At seventeen years his junior, and always being somewhat emotionally distant, she had a smaller capacity to love him. Ray tried to keep her ensnared, guarding her like a possession as one may protect their little trinkets. It seemed at times he treated her simply as a muse, paling her talents as an artist.
Also on display are two letters Ray wrote to Miller as she was making the decision to leave him, which were for many years withheld by the Man Ray Trust because they feared he appeared “too clingy.” Even though he could sometimes be highfalutin—“I have tried to justify this love by giving you every chance in my power to bring out everything interesting in you”—we get a sense that he really did find her to be a supreme talent whose beauty and freedom he found “so rare in women.” Ray’s work here often straddles the line of obsession, especially in the section devoted to their breakup. But her power is undeniable—perhaps it was she who possessed him. This is why we find some of Ray’s behavior—the pleading letters, the tormented nightly howling outside of her old studio, the two years he spent painting the famous floating lips (A l’heure de l’observatorie–les amoureux) in an act meant to purge her from his soul, the way he kept cut-out photos of her eye in his wallet—somehow excusable.
Ray ignored the surrealist credo of free love–he, like all humans, was prone to jealousy. The woman he loved was an enigmatic sprite, the type of woman so alluring to artists and men of humanity. All of the men who loved her at one point found her distant and remote. Picasso’s Portrait of Lee Miller àl’ Arlèsienne represented her heart as a metronome-like object: a machine that ticks and nothing more. She gave up photography in the early 1950’s after spending years on the frontlines of the war, looking for missing friends among the piles of corpses at Dachau and Buchenwald, and in place of art took up PTSD, depression and alcoholism. Her son Antony Penrose, in a conversation with Prodger, referred to her as a “difficult mother.”
By the end of the story, Miller had married Ray’s best friend Roland Penrose and started a family, but still had trouble overcoming the dour realities of her past. Until his death in 1975, Ray frequently sent Miller gifts, including a cigar box with an apartment’s security peep-hole secured to it so she could look into it and re-imagine the world through a different lens. The Cactus Flower, though more abstract than other Ray pieces on display, symbolized his faith that Miller, even in the harshest conditions, could bloom. On the last wall of the exhibit there are two photographs: a candid of Miller and Ray circa 1930 at a fairground arcade game, and a tender exchange between them at Ray’s 1975 retrospective. As Miller leans in toward Ray, now confined to a wheelchair, they share similar smiles which act as the perfect epilogue to their epic love story.