When Lee Miller broke up with Man Ray in 1932, he cut a picture of her eye out, stuck it on a metronome and wrote: “With a hammer well-aimed, try to destroy the whole at a single blow.” He called the piece, “Object to Be Destroyed.” Ray, the famed surrealist artist then known for his innovative and subversive photographic and mechanical techniques, had already made this device, in the vein of Marcel Duchamp’s readymades (i.e. the toilet Duchamp is famous for) collection, in 1923. But, this new version sparked something new for Ray — something darker. His relationship with the former Vogue model, Miller, had been intense, passionate and fiercely creative. Now, you can trace this collaborative, sometimes corrosive, artistic union between mentor and muse at the Legion of Honor’s latest exhibit: “Man Ray and Lee Miller: Partners in Surrealism.”
It should be mentioned, this isn’t the first time this material has been featured. In 2008, San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art highlighted the works of Ms. Miller, in particular, with their showcase “The Art of Lee Miller.” And while there are materials from that exhibit that do overlap with this new one, “The Art of Lee Miller” was almost strictly biographical in scope and content. “Partners in Surrealism” not only spans a relationship, but a dynamic era and a shifting artistic and social ethos.
The early pieces, like Man Ray’s masterful rayograms (a photographic image made by placing objects directly onto light-sensitive paper), his film collaboration with avant-garde director Jean Cocteau (“Le Sang d’un Poète”) and a 1927 Vogue cover of Miller, present a halcyon narrative of the 1920s. This is the decade of Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, booze, jazz, subversion and experimental art. That much is evident in the prolific and wildly imaginative output of both Ray and Miller. Of the more than 115 works displayed at the Legion of Honor, the majority are set within these few years of uninhibited fancy. Stunning photographs of Miller, and other popular models of the day, nude grace the walls alongside Ray and Miller’s technical achievements.
According to anecdote, these two discovered the photographic method of solarization (that glowing black line you see around many of their pictures) by accidentally flipping the light switch on while film was developing. Whether authentic or not, the result is, like their nudes, simultaneously bold and intriguing. But, the tone tends toward a darker light as the years progress and their relationship fades. Images like Miller’s photograph “Untitled (Severed Breast from a Radical Mastectomy” in which a woman’s pair of removed breasts lie upon white china with a fork, ready to eat. This is indicative of the macabre feminism Miller tended towards in the 1930s as Ray remained fixated on Miller.
Post-breakup, Ray’s obsession can be seen in the various paintings, art pieces (such as the metronome mentioned earlier) and letters the Legion of Honor has on display. Where Miller’s career gravitated increasingly toward this type of grim realism, Ray’s work grew more and more bizarre and outlandish. Miller’s lips, eyes, legs and torso became the focal points of pieces like the strange “A l’Heure de l’Observatoire Les Amoureux,” where a large pair of lush, red lips hang mid-air amid a blanket of clouds. The various Picasso, Max Ernst and Alexander Calder works on display serve further to cement the divergent contrast between Ray’s and Miller’s later work.
In 1942, the United States Army granted Miller full accreditation as a war correspondent. What emerged from her time spent in the harrowing scenes of war-torn Europe are images of profoundly beautiful tragedy. In one photograph, an SS officer lies dead in a still pool of water. Like Miller in Man Ray’s early pictures, this officer looks like a model. The composition is perfect, as well as the lighting. But, amid the beauty, a somber overcast of pointlessness permeates.
This is not the same absurdity we see from Ray across the wall from Miller’s photographs. On a small canvas, one of Ray’s paintings contains a small black dot in front of a vivid, orange background. The title? “Anal Sunrise.” It’s a visceral, comedic work to be sure. But it also highlights the bitter contrast between these two former lovers. Completed in 1956, “Anal Sunrise” is in the vein of Man Ray’s best material — irreverent and perverse. It stands, in the Legion of Honor, in conflict with Miller’s stark images of a Leipzig family suicide on the opposite side. And while both figures have been covered extensively, “Partners in Surrealism” does an exquisite job of placing Ray and Miller within the context of the sublime and severe generation they helped to define.
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