If there was ever an exhibition that we could say “has many different readings”, without falling into either clichés or exaggeration, it has to be Lee Miller and Surrealism in Britain, which is currently on at the Miró Foundation in Barcelona.
To start off, the name Lee Miller, which has acquired mythical status in twentieth century photography apart from having a delicious biography and being one of the most courageous and hypercreative women in a men’s world, seems to be the perfect hook for explaining to the public the Surrealist movement in Britain, which can be situated on the periphery of the French movement. It is the central theme of this exhibition, produced by The Hepworth Wakefield, in West Yorkshire (another periphery compared with London).
In this “net”, as the exhibition curator Eleanor Clayton calls it, Lee Miller, along with her last partner, the artist and critic Roland Penrose, became the ambassador for international Surrealism in Britain, having been a photographer in Paris since 1929. It is at that time, when she was working in the French capital, and accompanied in both a professional and sentimental sense by the “official” photographer of the Surrealism movement, Man Ray, that the exhibition starts. If it is true that a little mouse running between Miller’s feet while she was in the darkroom was the chance cause of the solarisation process, in this exhibition that is a minor detail.
One of the readings of the exhibition is that it shows the creative genius of Lee Miller, who learned photography when she was working as a model in the USA. Chance, self-representation and self-construction of her character, a sense of humour, contradiction, mystery and even denouncement are present throughout Miller’s work, whether it be artistic photography, fashion or photojournalism. When, while taking photos of surgical operations to earn a living in Paris, Miller “stole” a breast that had been removed in mastectomy and placed it on a plate as if it were a delicious meal, she is making Surrealism. When she makes her swimsuit model for Vogue pose with an inflatable fish, she is making Surrealism. When, to document the health workers in the Second World War, she shows a nurse wrapped in sterilised gloves like menacing hands, she is making Surrealism. And Miller makes Surrealism when she climbs into Hitler’s bath in Munich and constructs one of the most iconic photojournalistic images of the Second World War.
This is also an exhibition of exhibitions, which reflects the crucial role of the exhibition in the discourse of modern art history. It revisits and, in part, reconstructs, the key shows of British Surrealism, in particular the large and well-known International Surrealist Exhibition at the New Burlington Galleries in London in June 1936. Present in that exhibition were Lee Miller’s lips floating over a well-known landscape by Man Ray, but also Salvador Dalí who was on the point of suffocating inside a diving suit he had worn for one of the exhibition’s conferences.
This is also an opportunity to discover much less well known artists in Spain, such as the painter and sculptor Eileen Agar, whose shadow reflected in a column appears in one of Lee Miller’s best known photos; painter Tristram Paul Hillier, influenced by Tanguy, De Chirico and Dalí; painter John Banting; and obviously Roland Penrose, well beneath the talent of his wife but nevertheless with a great capacity for leadership and analysis within the group.
Another reading of the exhibition describes the connections on either side of the English Channel, the friendships and elective affinities among the surrealists. As a result of these comings and goings, and also for love, Lee Miller ended up living in England. When Penrose met her in 1937 he invited her to “a sudden surrealist invasion” in Cornwall, and there Miller photographed Paul Eluard and Nusch, Max Ernst and Leonora Carrington in an atmosphere of complete freedom. Joan Miró was also a great friend of the couple. In fact, Roland Penrose commissioned the large retrospective of Miró at the Tate Gallery in 1964.
And finally, this is an exhibition for simply strolling through a host of artist jewels such as the mysterious forest paintings by Max Ernst and Leonora Carrington Henry Moore’s organic sculpture shapes; the diminutive Earth and Excrement by Maruja Mallo; and obviously all the works by Miller. By the way, has it occurred to you that when we talk about ‘genius’ we are rarely thinking of women?
Lee Miller and Surrealism in Britain can be visited in the Fundació Joan Miró in Barcelona until January 20, 2019.