Lee Miller and Picasso

Publication: The Times.   
July 2015

CENTRAL to this exhibition of photographs, painting and archival material is an image of the American photographer and former model, Lee Miller, in the studio of Pablo Picasso in Paris, 1944. The shot, which might nowadays be called a ‘selfie’, shows Miller and Picasso together in the Spanish artist’s studio in Rue des Grands-Augustins on 24 August during the liberation of the French capital. Miller, who was an accredited war photographer with the 83rd Infantry Division of the U.S. Armyfound herself in the vicinity of Picasso’s studio and visited him there. He is reported to have said “This is marvelous, this is the first Allied soldier I have seen, and it’s you!”

Despite its apparent informality Miller’s photograph is, in fact, a carefully orchestrated composition.  It shows the taller, younger, glamorous blond woman alongside the shorter, dark, older Spaniard. Picasso’s left arm extends around Miller shoulders, clasping her neck.  In his right hand he holds what looks to be a cigar. Miller’s right hand rests lightly on Picasso’s left shoulder, while the two, smiling, gaze adoringly into each other’s eyes. We are told that Miller visited Picasso alone and close examination reveals the camera trigger and cable extending from her right hand, allowing her to create the double portrait.

Everything about the photograph shows Miller’s dedication to her art , which she initially learned while working for Man Ray as his model and studio assistant, in Paris, from 1929 to 1932. In the background, Picasso’s sculpture Man with Sheep, echoes the stance of the pair, while strong horizontal light, coming from their left side, illuminates them.

Given the short supply of film and other equipment it was presumably necessary for Miller to compose this shot with the utmost care to ensure its success in what by any standards is an historic moment. Picasso’s presence in Paris was tolerated by the Nazi regime but his survival under the strictures of occupation was by no means guaranteed and his decision to remain in Paris was an act of bravery and defiance.

Miller and Picasso’s friendship endured for more than thirty years from their first meeting until Picasso’s death in 1973.  In 1937 Miller, accompanied the English surrealist artist and writer, Roland Penrose to Mougins in the south of France to stay with Picasso in his villa in the company of Paul and Nusch Eluard, Man Ray and his new partner Ady Fidelin, and others, including Eileen Agar.  Miller eventually married Penrose in 1947. Here, Miller captured the innocence,  and sexiness, of the sojourn in a series of photographs one of which shows the group in a contemporaneous interpretation of Eduard Manet’s 1862 painting Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe. The women, bronzed, lithe and topless, laugh in the dappled sunlight of the Mediterranean summer.

Miller’s closeness to her subject allowed her to convey both scrutiny and admiration in equal measure. Accordingly, these images capture some the ordinary, and extraordinary, moments in the life and work of one of the twentieth century’s most important artists.