Publication: The Times
Around the Galleries 26/06/01
The American photographer Lee Miller and the English artist Roland Penrose married in 1947. Theirs was a remarkable coupling, representing a fruitful and mutually inspiring relationship. Miller was a sought-after model for ‘Vogue’ magazine and Penrose a key member of the international Surrealist movement. During the Second World War Miller worked as an accredited correspondent and photo-journalist for the US Army. Her assignments took her to some of the war’s most dangerous and harrowing events — she covered the siege of St. Malo as well as the liberation of some of the most notorious Nazi death camps.
In the Thirties, Miller lived in Paris with the artist and photographer Man Ray. Many of her early essays in this medium show Man Ray’s powerful and long lasting influence. This is clearly evidenced in such works as ‘Caged Birds’, ‘Rats’ Tails’ and ‘Carousel Cows’ which date from around 1930, and show her predilection for ‘found’ scenes and objects, an approach which she shared with other members of the Surrealist movement. The aim was to highlight the extraordinary in the apparently ordinary aspects of everyday life.
Other works such as ‘Portrait of Space, near Siwa Egypt’ (1937) and ‘Stairway, Cairo’ (1936) show Miller’s highly developed sense of composition and her remarkable gift for elevating the mundane to the poetic. Miller’s photographs of the aftermath of war in Europe are valuable historic documents as well are highly wrought artistic statements. A photograph of a mangled typewriter taken in London in 1940 can be read as a metaphor for the destruction of culture more generally. Many of her photographs make painful and thought-provoking viewing as in ‘The Bürgermeister’s Daughter, Leipzig, 20 April 20, 1945’ where a suicide becomes as much an aesthetic statement as an historic document of the failure of the Nazi dream.
Penrose came from a Quaker family whose high morals and crushing protection he longed to escape. He found his freedom in the liberal artistic and sexual milieu of Montparnasse in the 1920s and began a life-long love affair with the French approach to art and intellectual life. As an artist Penrose never achieved the heights to which many of those in his circle climbed (his friends included Paul Eluard, André Breton and Max Ernst). However, in his assault on British conservative tastes his energy was unstinting. In 1936 Penrose organised the first International Surrealist Exhibition in London and in 1948 he was instrumental in setting up the Institute for Contemporary Arts. As a collector and patron, Penrose was equally tireless and some of the best works of his contemporaries formed the basis of the collection on display here. Penrose conducted his campaigns from his base at Farley Farm in East Sussex (purchased with Miller in 1949). The farm, now the Roland Penrose Collection and the Lee Miller Archive is run by the couple’s son, Antony Penrose.
The Surrealist and the Photographer
The Dean Gallery and The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art
0131 624 6200
Until Sept 9