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Much More Than A Muse: Lee Miller And Man Ray

Filed by KOSU News in Art & Life.
August 20, 2011

A new exhibit celebrates the work of two Surrealist artists: first lovers, and later, friends. Elizabeth Lee Miller was an actress, a model, and a war correspondent, who had an intoxicating effect on her lovers. One of those lovers was the avant-garde American artist Man Ray. His love for her nearly drove him to madness — and also inspired some of his most well-known work.

Miller was Ray’s muse, but she became an accomplished photographer in her own right. Now, their work is displayed together for the first time at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass., in an exhibit called Man Ray/Lee Miller, Partners in Surrealism.

Phillip Prodger, curator of the exhibit, and Miller’s son, Antony Penrose, speak with NPR’s Jacki Lyden about Miller and Ray’s passionate relationship — and the love that bound them together and inspired their work.

Interview Highlights

On Miller’s unlikely path to becoming a model, and her transition to art

Prodger: “It was only because Lee Miller was rescued from being run over by a truck in the streets of New York by the publisher Conde Nast that she was discovered as a fashion model. Conde Nast looked at her and said, ‘Gosh, you’ve got the makings of a great model.’ And before anybody knew it, she was on the cover of Vogue.

“But when one of her images was licensed to the Kotex Co., suddenly she found that she was a persona non grata in the fashion industry, and she had to find another job. She went back to art, and she was recommended to meet Man Ray. [She] traveled to Paris, unannounced — just presented herself at the doorstep — and the rest is history. Shortly after that she became his assistant, and also they became lovers at that time.”

On the blossoming of Surrealism in Paris in the late 1920s

Penrose: “When Lee arrived in Paris she had, in a way, been a Surrealist for some time — before the movement even had a name — because she had that determination to pursue her life free of the constraints of society which the Surrealists were already rebelling against. They wanted to create a new world which was not governed by religion or law or whatever. … The Surrealist movement was going in tremendous force, and she was ready-made for it, and it for her.”

On the 1932 breakup, and the art it inspired

Prodger: “When Lee left Man [in 1932], it sent him into a despair that he expressed through art. And he made some of the most memorable pieces of his career in that period.

“One of the most famous is the fabulous metronome with the ticking eye on it. The eye was Lee Miller’s eye, and the idea behind the piece was that you would wind up the metronome and watch the eye tick back and forth as long as you could stand it. … You would then smash it with a hammer, and somehow by smashing it you would exorcise that lost love.

“He [also] made a series of paintings and objects that relate to Lee Miller’s lips. And I have to say, I think Lee Miller’s lips have now become the most famous lips in the history of art. He made a fabulous painting called l’Heure de l’Observatoire or The Lovers. Every day for two years, he says, he woke up and the first thing he did was he contributed to this painting. … And it helped him get over the loss.”

On their reconciliation and lasting friendship

Prodger: “It took a few years after the breakup for them to be reintroduced. It was at a party in 1937 that they got together, and they finally agreed that things had calmed down enough that they could bury the hatchet and become friends again. … I think what was so surprising about working on this project was to realize the depth of the love they shared, essentially after they broke up. From 1937 until the end of their lives, Man Ray and Lee Miller remained close.”

On Miller’s later career as a photojournalist in World War II

Penrose: “The thing that became her distinctive, Surrealist style was what I call ‘the found image.’ She takes a photograph of, perhaps, an everyday occurrence, and she does it in such a way that it becomes an image that is containing ‘the marvelous.’ So, even when she’s a combat photographer in Alsace [France], amid the absolutely appalling conditions there, we find these absolutely quirky images as part of her work from that period.”

Prodger: “The experience of having photographed in the second world war was absolutely brutal. She saw some of the ugliest things that anyone could ever see in the concentration camps at Buchenwald and Dachau or on the front lines. She probably suffered from what we would now call post-traumatic stress disorder.

“By 1953, she effectively gave up photographing. She spiraled into depression, she became alcoholic, and Man Ray knew this about her. And he would send her gifts designed to pick her up, to try and break her out of her malaise.”

On the delayed discovery of Miller’s art

Penrose: “I barely knew that she had been a photographer during her life. She was so secretive about it, and she deliberately hid all of her work in the attic of our old farmhouse. … So it was an absolute bombshell of a surprise after Lee had died that we went into the attic and found all of this incredible work. But I think she made a deliberate decision to bury her career, and this was partly as a result of her war experiences, and partly as a result of her post-traumatic stress.”

Prodger: “There’s a long history of women not being given their due in the history of 20th century art. … Lee Miller has often been described as Man Ray’s muse. And even though she was a muse, we wanted to make the point that there was something deeper and more important there. They were both powerful artists, and they fed off of each other.

“When we put the exhibition together, we wanted to be sure to challenge that idea of her as this unilateral force and him as the recipient of her creative energy.” [Copyright 2011 National Public Radio]

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