There is always something happening around the work of Lee Miller. Her portrait by Man Ray was the poster of the recent retrospective at the National Portrait Gallery.
Early this month Thames and Hudson published Lee Miller in Fashion with thousands of unseen photos uncovered by Antony Penrose from Vogue’s London office.
Last night at the Arts Club, Antony Penrose gave an engaging lecture on the legendary Lee Miller who was his mother. He gave an overall view of this surrealist artist’s surrealist life. The boy who bit Picasso is a fascinating lecturer that demonstrated that it would be more than inadequate to confine Lee Miller to the role of a muse. She indeed threw away to rules book. Not many would be able to be in turn a model, muse, an artist, a combat reporter and a gourmet chef in a lifetime.
She started off her modelling by accident, literally, as Condé Nast saved her life in the streets of Manhattan. She then flew to Paris where she met Man Ray with whom she lived a passionate love story.
There equally fervent collaboration (that they invented solarisation together) allowed her to become a photographer of her own rights in the process. The encounters with the Surrealists are a source of infinite anecdotes each being more delectable than the next.
She started her studio in New York in 1932 before leaving for Cairo after having married Aziz Eloui Bey. Bored among the expatriates who could not compete with the charms of the likes of Jean Cocteau, she went on trips to explore Egypt. The result is a series of fantastic photographs that are far more than just landscapes thanks to the intensity of the message they convey.
On a trip to Paris she meets Roland Penrose, surrealist artist and collector, founder of the Institute of Contemporary Art. He will be her husband until her death. They count amongst their friends Picasso who will paint 6 portraits of Lee Miller à L’Arlésienne.
When the Second World Wars puts an end to the festivities, Lee Miller becomes in the face of all opposition a war reporter. She does it frenetically, taking pictures of the ruins, the victims, the concentration camps managing to go ahead where the most competent war reporters were flinching. It is not surprising that upon her return she suffered from what we would call today a posttraumatic stress disorder. She went down the path of alcohol abuse that she overcame thanks to surrealist cuisine.
Such an inspiring and daring life makes her a forever young character whose exhibitions attracts mostly 18-25 year old and among them a large proportion of women. At then end of it all, it is difficult to define Lee Miller or assign her to a category. Like Antony Penrose did, it seems that one can only talk about The Lives of Lee Miller.