There is a photo of US photographer and war correspondent Lee Miller with Pablo Picasso, taken by her after the liberation of Paris in 1944. They look into each other’s eyes with such intimacy that you feel like you’re intruding on something deeply personal. Not romantic, exactly – although the way her hand touches the back of her neck is certainly intimate – but perhaps deeply affectionate. With that in mind, it’s no surprise that the image was chosen to promote a new exhibition focusing on Miller’s extraordinary life and the relationship between these two artists, which opens this week at the Newlands House Gallery in Petworth, West Sussex.
He captured, his son Antony Penrose tells me, an extraordinary moment after years of hardship and separation. “Lee found his way to Picasso’s studio on Rue des Grands-Augustins, he knocked on the door. He opened it and nearly fell backwards. And he hugged her, kissed her and hugged her, and then finally, when he pulled back, he looked at her and said, ‘It’s amazing. The first allied soldier I should see is a woman. She is you. ‘”
She was photographed in Hitler’s bathtub on the day of his death and later made fun of how tacky her place was.
Miller and Picasso met correctly in 1937, during a beach vacation in the south of France, although they may have crossed paths earlier in the decade when she was working with Man Ray and discovering the solarization process for which he, not her, he would end up being credited. A deep friendship ensued between their two families: Miller was married to the British artist, poet and historian Roland Penrose, Picasso was with Dora Maar, then Françoise Gilot, and they spent their holidays together, often in the various houses of the Spaniard. Antony, born in 1947, remembers many children and animals: Picasso made a goat named Esmerelda sleep outside her room and he called her because he was afraid of the dark. There would be long lunches, with the kind of exotic foods that were a rarity in post-war Britain, and practical jokes too. Miller liked to put ice cubes containing frozen flies in drinks.
Penrose remembers being asked at school what he did during the holidays and amazed his classmates with his answer. “I said quite casually, ‘Oh, we were visiting Picasso.’ I had no idea it was a great thing to do, because my parents approached her with incredible modesty. They never said, ‘Look, this guy is the greatest living modern artist in the world.’ He was just a person they treated with great respect and reverence ”.
Picasso respected Miller as an artist, says Penrose, long before anyone else. “Of course, she was very beautiful. But the fact that she was very smart and she knew how to do things was significant to him. She knew she was a good photographer. She knew the photographers because she had been with Dora Maar for six years. “
Miller’s beauty and background as a model led to her neglect of her remarkable talents, a situation not helped by the fact that Picasso painted her six times and there has long been a concern for her “muses”. This became a problem when Penrose began trying to put together exhibits of her mother’s work. “To begin with, when I was approaching people who should have known each other better, I should have explained that Lee Miller was a woman. Then they would take it and say, “Oh yes, she was Man Ray’s muse.” And then I should disabuse them of this notion.
Things began to change in the 1980s, however, as feminists began to reexamine the lives of female artists, particularly the surrealists. As has happened with other models turned artists, Miller’s work made her curious about creating images. “When she was younger,” says Penrose, she “was photographed by the key photographers of the time: Edward Steichen, George Hoyningen-Huene, people like that. Speaking to some of them later in life, they said she was like she considered it a tutorial. She was constantly asking questions. “
This meant that when Miller’s career as a model came to an abrupt end – she was blacklisted after modeling for Kotex, having been stigmatized for vintage products – she was able to jump from New York to Paris and reinventing herself as a photographer and later war correspondent for Vogue, documenting first the blitz, then the liberation of Europe. The image of her in Hitler’s bathtub, taken by fellow photographer David E Scherman as the Fuhrer’s death was announced, shows her challenging her: she made fun of how tacky her apartment was, says Penrose. . The boots in front of the tank are still covered with mud from the extermination camps.
Miller’s 1945 images of Dachau’s liberation – some of which appear in the exhibition – are, Penrose explains, exercises in controlled fury. As a seven-year-old, Miller was raped. It was this, in addition to seeing the boy she was in love with die in an accident when they were teenagers, that shaped not only her worldview but his work as well. Trauma, says Penrose, often generates a sense of disconnection. “If we look at Lee through that prism, we see that she has been able to distance herself emotionally to a certain extent. Then we have her stare at the faces of the dead in the concentration camps and photograph them up close. When I interviewed Scherman, I said: ‘How does he do it? How does she stand there taking these pictures? ‘ And she said she was in a freezing rage.
His wartime experiences exacerbated what Penrose believes was PTSD. She says Miller wasn’t a great mother. Prone to alcohol abuse, like many traumatized people, she could go on a rampage and there was a distance between them. Miller had seen children die in hospital in Vienna for lack of drugs that were being sold on the black market and had kept her son at a safe distance, although he was very concerned for her safety.
I have a feeling it must have hurt deeply, especially since Miller could be so loving to others. Yet Penrose is magnanimous, having devoted much of his life to establishing his legacy as an artist and acting as director of the Lee Miller Archives and the Penrose Collection, in his parents’ former home, Farley House in Sussex, where Picasso stayed for his second visit to the UK in 1950. Over the years they have also hosted Man Ray, Miró, Max Ernst, Eileen Agar, Eduardo Paolozzi and Richard Hamilton. There is a splendid photo in the show of the young Penrose sitting on Picasso’s lap, a look of cheerful complicity between them. It was during this visit that Picasso considered the couple’s Ayrshire bull, William, inspiring the 1950 Grasshopper Bulls print, never before shown in the UK.
“I know there were implications that there was a sexual aspect to the relationship he had with her,” says Maya Binkin, art director of Newlands House. “But I don’t think it matters. He respected her enormously, loved her company, and appreciated her friendship. “When I ask her how she feels about female artists being continually seen in terms of their relationship with men, she is frank in using Miller’s friendship with Picasso. as a way to bring a new audience to his work, but he also says it’s hard to separate the two.Miller has shot nearly 1,000 photographs of the artist in 40 years.
“Their relationship was extraordinary,” adds Binkin. “He captures some wonderful images of Picasso at work and in play, but also at home and in his free time, which has been more difficult in recent years because he was very, very camera conscious. He knew the importance of being photographed. He has access to Picasso when he’s not playing in front of the camera.
The #MeToo movement, Binkin notes, hasn’t been kind to Picasso. “Personally I don’t think we can judge him as harshly as some have been,” he says. Penrose agrees. Although she considers feminist criticism justified in her own way, she points out that the Picasso man was a complex character. “Sure, there were times when maybe he didn’t treat women well. But I don’t think it’s fair that we should be suing at this point. It is very easy to stumble upon all the bad things he did and forget that he had this incredible humanity and kindness. It is very convenient for some people to forget it because they feel it weakens their case to turn it into a monster. As for her mother, she adds: “It was a deep love. She always said things were much better when Lee was there. He seemed to have a special affection for her. And he would have been quieter when she was around.
Miller would later define herself, perhaps ironically, a “Picasso widow”. She had had to struggle all her life to carve out a space. “To begin with in Paris,” says Penrose, “she was very happy to allow her photographs of her to be published under the name of Man Ray. She said, “We were so close, it was like we were the same person, so it didn’t matter.” She then she began to import ”. But when it came to Picasso, Miller was far from embittered and her work now speaks for itself. Getting to this place, says Penrose, “was all uphill. But in the end we won. “