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Monday, August 13, 2012

The Sweet Spot: Lee Miller's Legacy, Downfall, and Bathing in Hitler's Tub

Posted By on Mon, Aug 13, 2012 at 11:00 AM


Lee Miller died of cancer, overweight, alcoholic, ravaged by depression, and tortured by her husband's affair with a trapeze artist. Anyone meeting Lee Miller then would have been surprised to know that she was once considered the most beautiful woman in the world, second only to Greta Garbo. A former Vogue model and muse/lover to Man Ray, Miller was also famous for cavorting in Hitler's bathtub.

  • Courtesy of the Legion of Honor

These tragic details are not in evidence at the "Man Ray | Lee Miller: Partners in Surrealism" exhibit currently at the Legion of Honor. What is discussed is her struggle to be an artist in her own right. As a photographer she helped discover the Sabatier Effect, a process of development that edges out the lines of the subject in ethereal shadows. According to her, it was an accidental discovery caused by a mouse running over her foot in the dark room. She was an artist and also a photo journalist. She was the only woman allowed to be a combat photographer during WWII. She is quoted as saying to a reporter, "It seems to me that women have a bigger chance at success in photography than men ... Women are quicker and more adaptable than men. And I think they have an intuition that helps them understand personalities more quickly than men."

That is debatable, but what can be said is that Miller's artistic career was often compromised by her ability to just do it. Though always struggling to build her own studio, when it was offered, she often didn't use it. Was this due to her inability to commit, her instability as a person, or was there something far more spurious at work? No doubt, Miller was extremely beautiful, and as a woman that invited the gaze, she was a highly sought after model by the great artists of the day -- artists that she often had affairs with. And it was this, among other things, that caused much of the turbulence in her relationship with Man Ray.

She insisted that she couldn't be kept and that women should be able to be as sexually free as men. She was radical, and people made her suffer for it -- Man Ray included. Despite his rampaging emotionality, while working, Man Ray could reduce the subject of his art to an object. An object of light, shadow, or texture that could be effectively manipulated and ultimately captured. He had an ability to divorce his empathy from his work, thus allowing him to focus on producing. Even Miller herself became his object. He floated her lips in the sky and even cast them in gold.

A l'heure de l'observatoire--les amoureux (Observatory Time-The Lovers), c. 1931. - MAN RAY TRUST/ARTISTS RIGHTS SOCIETY (ARS)
  • Man Ray Trust/Artists Rights Society (ARS)
  • A l'heure de l'observatoire--les amoureux (Observatory Time-The Lovers), c. 1931.

Miller, on the other hand, could not objectify her subject. Her photographs, though technically profound, reveal how powerfully she was affected by what she was seeing. Her image of a rip in the curtain overlooking the Sahara desert is transformed into a scene of aching desolation. A desperate attempt at freedom. An image of four rat tails is neither disgusting nor horrid, through her eyes and her camera, the resulting effect is tenderness. After seeing the exhibit, Nicolala Henares, a local artist, was so moved by Miller's work that she sat crying in the museum cafe for an hour. Miller's empathic approach soared into greatness through her war photos, which included the floating corpses of an SS officer and his horse, and a family of Nazi supporters shown slumped lifeless in an office in the midst of the dust of a lost war. They toasted Hitler and then committed suicide by poison. These images tear at the soul, and frankly, inspire appropriate nausea.

The image of Miller in Hitler's tub is not shown in the exhibit but it was the one that led to the end of her career. The public was outraged at what they interpreted as flippant disregard for the ravages of war. Being accused of insensitivity no doubt took its toll, but it was what she saw, felt, and experienced during those years that sent her into a downward spiral of depression. She could not step away from the subject matter. Who can blame her? However, despite the despair that haunted much of Miller's life, she did contribute a great legacy. Of all of the pieces inspired by Miller that Man Ray created, there is one that speaks most to the power of who she was. It is a small wooden box with a camera view lens built in. Inscribed on the wood are the words, "Consolation for Lee -- if she needs it." When you look through the viewer what appears on the wall behind is a tiny, bright point of light.

"Man Ray | Lee Miller: Partners in Surrealism" runs through October 14 at the Legion of Honor, 100 34th Ave. (at Clement).

The Sweet Spot is a blog column by Ginger Murray who is also the editor of Whore! magazine. Check back next week for more.

For more events in San Francisco this week and beyond, check out our calendar section. Follow us on Twitter at @ExhibitionistSF and like us on Facebook.
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Ginger Murray


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