Lee Miller and British surrealism

Lee Miller's influence on British surrealism is the focus of a new exhibition. Yvette Huddleston reports.

Lee Millers image - David E. Scherman, dressed for war, London, England, 1942. (Copyright Lee Miller Archives).
Lee Millers image - David E. Scherman, dressed for war, London, England, 1942. (Copyright Lee Miller Archives).

It’s always such a pleasure to visit the Hepworth Wakefield – the thought and care that the curatorial team put into their exhibitions guarantees a rich, rewarding experience for the viewer, and their latest show is no exception.

Lee Miller and Surrealism in Britain, which opened earlier this summer and runs until early October, focuses on the work of one of the most original photographic artists of the 20th century. Born in 1907 in small-town up-state New York, Miller started out as a model but quickly became bored with that – she famously said “I’d rather take a picture than be one” – and set off for a new life in Paris in 1929. There she met the artist Man Ray, becoming his apprentice, muse and collaborator and was soon firmly ensconced in the Surrealist network, creating her own striking experimental work.

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Miller’s magnificent, wide-ranging career is celebrated in the exhibition – with a selection of eye-catching photographs covering her work in fashion, art photography and her ground-breaking photojournalism during the Second World War – but the show also delves deeply, as its title suggests, into Miller’s seminal role in the development of British Surrealism in the late 1930s.

As the socio-political landscape in Europe in the run up to the outbreak of war grew darker and more troubling, several Surrealist artists made their way to Britain where the movement began to blossom. The exhibition tells this story through Miller’s eyes, focussing not only on her own work but also that of the artists she befriended, photographed, worked with and exhibited alongside. It is an extraordinarily layered show because of that, with paintings, sculptures, works on paper, collages and sculptures by artists such as Max Ernst, Rene Magritte, Paul Nash, Henry Moore, Salvador Dali (including his lobster telephone) and Eileen Agar.

“In 1936 the International Surrealism Exhibition, which was seen by over 23,000 people, took place in London and we tracked down some of the people and artworks that were in that exhibition to show the context that Miller was part of,” says curator Lauren Barnes.

That 1936 exhibition was organised by artist Roland Penrose, later to become Miller’s second husband, with the help of Herbert Read, Henry Moore and others and several pieces from that show – including a lithograph of Man Ray’s painting A l’Heure de l’Observatoire – Les Amoureux depicting Miller’s lips floating in the sky – are on display at the Hepworth.

But it is Miller’s photography that is, for me, the real draw – beautiful black and white art compositions, imaginative fashion shoots, disquieting disembodied self-portraits, hard-hitting photojournalism – all demonstrating her Surrealist’s eye. “That is what we wanted to bring out,” says Barnes. “She always had such an experimental approach – even to documenting life in London during the Blitz, for example. The way she composed her pictures communicates the way in which people’s experience of the city had changed because of the war. You could be walking down the street and everyone is wearing a gas mask or there are fallen statues littering the landscape – she was trying to draw attention to the surreal nature of all that.”

Even her warm and intimate snapshots of her friends larking about in a Cornish garden, some of my favourite images in the whole show, reveal an ever-present awareness of the potential for Surrealist imagery. Her subjects – Max Ernst, Man Ray, Leonora Carrington the poet Paul Éluard and his wife Nusch – are placed half in shadow or shot from unusual angles. This gathering, which took place in 1937, was organised by Penrose who invited a number of artists and writers to what he called ‘a sudden Surrealist invasion’ of Cornwall.

“In those photographs you can see Miller has a real eye for relationships between people and the way she captures this spirit of new friends and relationships that were being established at that time,” says Barnes. “What’s really interesting about her photography is that it’s not only radical in form but the images also work as significant documents of that important historical moment.

“We would know much less about how Surrealism arrived in Britain without those photographs. Miller was very much part of bringing those people together.” As she got to know some of those people better, her photographs become warmer, more affectionate and playful. There is a lovely portrait of Henry Moore hugging his own sculpture Mother and Child, another of René Magritte wittily references his own recurring themes as the great Belgian Surrealist painter sits in front of an overcoat and hat hung up behind him. One of the most memorable images in the show, however, is the daring and slightly disturbing self-portrait of Miller in Hitler’s bathtub taken in 1945 when she and her colleague David E Sherman were the first people to enter the Führer’s abandoned apartment in Munich.

Miller’s impressive output is given space to breathe in this excellent exhibition, acknowledging both her significant role in the Surrealist movement and her extraordinary individual achievement

“Female artists working in Surrealism were constantly having to fight the attitude that they were supposed to be just muses,” says Barnes.

“So it is incredible that Miller managed to continue working across all the different areas that she did. That also applies to her war work – she ignored the fact that female journalists were not allowed on the frontline. She was a rule breaker.”

Lee Miller and Surrealism in Britain is at the Hepworth Wakefield until October 7.

Vivane Sassen: Hot Mirror

Running at the Hepworth Wakefield at the same time as the Lee Miller exhibition is a fascinating show of the work 
of Dutch artist and photographer Viviane Sassen which 
includes both still and moving images.

It is possible to see many parallels between the two women’s work – fragmented bodies, dream-like landscapes, striking composition and a thoughtful attention to detail 
all feature in both.

“She takes the fundamental idea – that dreams and memories, lived and current reality all have equal significance – and applies them to her work,” says Barnes.