“Man Ray Lee Miller: Partners in Surrealism” at the Legion of Honor

by Admin on 07/22/2012

A first meeting allusive to one written for the silver screen, Lee Miller and Man Ray, two Americans in 1920s Paris, found each other in a quiet bar frequented by the artists of a burgeoning art movement, Surrealism, only hours after Miller boldly visited Man Ray’s studio unannounced and was told he was not in. The next day, they were on an excursion to Biarritz together. First as student and pupil, and later as lovers and artistic collaborators, Man Ray and Miller lived together in Paris from 1929 through 1932. Though their relationship lasted only three years, Man Ray | Lee Miller, Partners in Surrealism now at the Legion of Honor examines how their mercurial relationship and its turbulent ending inspired some of the most powerful works of each artist’s career. Comprised of 115 photographs, mixed media, paintings, sculpture and drawings, this exhibition organized by the Peabody Essex Museum, Massachusetts offers a window into the electrifying artistic and social experimentation that animated Paris in the 1930s and gave inspiration to the assorted writers, poets, filmmakers, musicians and visual artists.

Although exhibitions of Lee Miller have been organized in San Francisco, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art held a retrospective in 2008, it would be a detriment to reduce the current exhibit at the Legion to a sequel of sorts. At SFMOMA, Lee Miller was cast in the role of model and muse; it was only after her relationship with the Surrealists fizzled that she was finally able to explore her photography career as a journalist during World War II and her subsequent life in Egypt. The exhibit at Legion of Honor is the first to illustrate her relationship with Surrealism as more than a beautiful woman and muse, and it is the exclusive exhibit that explores their deeply profound artistic relationship, and Miller’s significant contributions to their 3-year collaboration. Expounding on this fact, the works here are uniquely drawn primarily from the Lee Miller Archives and Penrose Collection housed at Farley Farm House in Chiddingly, Sussex, England. Lee Miller is regarded here as an artist and potent Surrealist force in her own right, rather than a foil for Man Ray’s work. The presentation of Man Ray and Lee Miller together on equal terms echoes artist relationships that eschew stereotyped roles of masculine artist and feminine muse throughout European art history: Auguste Rodin and Camille Claudel, Berthe Morisot and Edouard Manet, Dora Maar and Pablo Picasso, among others.

 Untitled (Gold Lips), Gold, Man Ray Trust

Man Ray | Lee Miller: Partners in Surrealism at The Legion of Honor

This exhibition also brings to the surface those more personal layers of meaning in Lee Miller and Man Ray’s collaborative works. Art objects naturally have multiple layers of meaning whether by intent, circumstance, or by accrual over time, and those elements that tell the story of the evolution in art history are often just one of the hundreds of layers. When Man Ray and Lee Miller parted, he would often lovingly and cleverly refer to her in his artworks years afterward. Below, the “Indestructible Object” contained a silver gelatin print of Lee Miller’s eye upon a metronome. Soon after Man Ray and Lee Miller split decisively in 1932, he created this object and instruction were as thus: “Cut out the eye from a photograph of one who has been loved but is seen no more. Attach the eye to the pendulum of a metronome and regulate the weight to suit the tempo desired…. With a hammer well-aimed, try to destroy the whole at a single blow.” The act of destruction was meant to help exorcise the memory of lost love. Ray used Lee Miller’s eye for his copies, but was never able himself to destroy it.

Indestructible Object, also known as Object to be Destroyed, orig. 1932, destroyed Paris 1957, this replica, 1959
Metronome with gelatin silver print of Lee Miller’s eye

Man Ray | Lee Miller: Partners in Surrealism will be at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Legion of Honor through October 14