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Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Passion, Jealousy, and Friendship of Lee Miller and Man Ray

Posted By on Wed, Aug 29, 2012 at 3:31 PM

  • © 2010 Man Ray Trust/ARS. Courtesy of The Penrose Collection
  • Lee Miller's neck; Man Ray's Neck.

Man Ray and Lee Miller only lived together in Paris for a short time -- from 1929 to 1932 -- but those brief years had a strong influence on both of their bodies of work. Miller, a model, sought Man Ray out as a mentor to become a photographer herself. The exhibit at the Legion of Honor through October 14, "Man Ray/Lee Miller: Partners in Surrealism," shows the artists' work, art by their circle of friends (including Pablo Picasso, Dora Maar, and Max Ernst), and how Man Ray and Miller reconnected and remained friends until the end of their lives.

"This is the first time their work has been shown in dialogue with each other," said Julian Cox, founding curator of photography for the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. "It also shows the larger context of both artists."

Both Americans, Ray and Miller went to Paris to pursue their art. Past the large golden cast of Miller's lips and the photo of Miller in the apartment she and Ray shared, you'll see photos of Miller as a model and some of Ray's photograms, or Rayographs as he called them. There's a movie playing as well -- Jean Cocteau's Blood of a Poet in which Miller plays a statue come to life. Cox says the way Ray dealt with the attention Miller got from Cocteau and others was one of the things that made their relationship difficult.

Man Ray (1890-1976), Lee Miller Nude with Sunray Lamp. c.1929
  • Man Ray (1890-1976), Lee Miller Nude with Sunray Lamp. c.1929

"He was jealous," Cox said. "Miller was such a free spirit."

In the room showing the couple's years in Paris, Cox points out some of Miller's unorthodox street photography, which he says he loves.

"The angles are odd," he says, gesturing to one. "The perspective makes it seem like it could be down the side of the building. And with the light you don't know if it's dawn or twilight."

Cox points to another favorite of his, a photo by Ray of Miller entitled "La Dormeuse (Lee Miller) (The Sleeper)."

"It's such a beautiful photo," he says. "The surrealists were obsessed with sleep and dreams."

Another thing the surrealists were known for -- the juxtaposition of things that don't belong together is on display in Miller's photo "Untitled (Severed Breast from Radical Mastectomy)," where the breasts sit on white plates with forks beside them. Cox says this was an example of Miller wanting to be taken seriously.

"This shows her daring," he said. "She had a conflict because she leveraged her beauty as a model, but she didn't just want to be objectified."

Another photo of Miller hangs by a self-portrait she did. In Ray's picture, Miller looks soft and sensual; in her own, she looks powerful and confident.

"It shows how they saw themselves, and how they saw each other."

Miller left Ray supposedly in part because of his possessiveness and ideas about traditional male and female roles. Photos of Miller's lips and eyes reoccur in the exhibit -- her eye on a metronome, her lips in the sky. Cox suggests he was fragmenting her body as the relationship was in fragments.

A l'heure de l'observatoire - les amoureux (Observatory Time - The Lovers). c.1931 - © 2011 MAN RAY TRUST/ARTISTS RIGHTS SOCIETY (ARS)
  • © 2011 Man Ray Trust/Artists Rights Society (ARS)
  • A l'heure de l'observatoire - les amoureux (Observatory Time - The Lovers). c.1931

Miller, after going back to New York and opening a studio and then marrying a wealthy Egyptian and moving to his country with him, went on to become a war correspondent. Part of the exhibit is dedicated to the photos she took of SS officers who had committed suicide and during the London blitz. Her work during this period also appeared in the show, "The Art of Lee Miller," four years ago at SFMOMA.

Ray moved to Los Angeles, but he and Miller stayed in touch and offered each other personal and artistic support. Cox says the last part documenting this time is one of his favorites of the exhibition, showing as it does their mutual affection and concern for one another and their shared passion for art.

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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