11 October 2011

Man and Lee

As I mentioned yesterday, I made a trip to Salem, Massachusetts to see an exhibit at the Peabody Essex Museum. "Man Ray | Lee Miller: Partners in Surrealism" examines the tumultuous relationship between the two artists and shows how they influenced and inspired each other's work.

Photo by Michele.

Lee Miller is a favourite photographer of mine whose work is usually overshadowed (unfairly) by Man Ray's yet it is difficult to discuss her work without mentioning his so having a shared exhibit on the two makes sense. 

In 1929 Lee, an American model bored with just posing for the camera, arrived in Paris ready to embark on a new chapter in her life. The story goes that she tracked down the well-known Man in a bar and announced "
My name is Lee Miller, and I’m your new student." Man told her that he didn't have students and besides he was leaving for Biarritz the next day. Lee boldly announced "So am I." Lee became his student and soon took on the roles of muse and lover as well.

Theirs was not an easy relationship; during their three years together they
fought often over love and work (there is at least one image in the exhibit that both c
laimed as theirs) and when Lee left him, a devastated Man continued to include her image in his art for years. Yet their partnership resulted in an amazing body of work that exemplified Surrealism.

"Portrait of Lee Miller" Man Ray (1929)

"Lee Miller" Man Ray (1930)

Many of Man's best works feature Lee as the subject matter and for a good reason. She was simply stunning (Lee was considered by many to be the most beautiful woman in Paris). Lee's influence on Man's work went beyond just portraits of her. In one of his most famous paintings, "Observatory Time: The Lovers," a giant pair of Lee's red lips are seen floating in the sky. And "Indestructible Object" is a metronome featuring a photograph of Lee's eye whose instructions state it should be destroyed with a hammer (the one on display at the exhibit is a replica; art students took Man Ray for his word and destroyed the original in 1957).

"Rat Tails" Lee Miller (1930)

"Untitled" (Exploding Hand)" Lee Miller (1930)

I do like Man's work but if anything, this exhibit justified for me why I prefer Lee's. Whereas Man worked in the studio, Lee went out and found her subject matter in the street. She was able to look at common things like a shop door or a group of rats and give them a surrealist touch. Her photographs seem more real to me, which is probably why Lee made such a great photojournalist later during the war.

Man Ray and Lee Miller later in life.

Although I loved all of the photographs, perhaps my favourite piece in the exhibit was a letter Man wrote to Lee right before his death. It ends, "I am pinned down in my little retreat— can not walk and my doctor seems to try out all the pills on the market to which I am completely allergic. But not to my loves— like you. I mean I love you.” 

The exhibit is at the Peabody Essex Museum through December 4, 2011.

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