Lee Miller and Picasso - Edinburgh Festival - Exhibition Review

Lee Miller was a creative force and muse during one of the most extraordinary periods in recent art history. She is known mostly for her photographic work; in particular, her wartime pictures for Vogue Magazine. Her photographs also form the basis of 'Lee Miller & Picasso' at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh. This show documents their long lasting friendship, through turbulent and difficult times.

Born into a prominent American family in 1907, she was a favourite subject for her father's amateur photographs and eventually became an accomplished photographer in her own right. During the 20s, Miller worked as a model and was on the cover of Vogue. A huge success, she was photographed by some of the leading fashion photographers of the day.

Arriving in Paris in 1930, Miller sought out the photographer Man Ray. Initially, he was reluctant to take on an apprentice. However, she did became his model and collaborator, as well as his lover. She also got to know other important artists like the Surrealist poet Paul Eluard and Jean Cocteau; who cast her as the statue who comes to life in his 1930 film 'The Blood of a Poet'.

This exhibition is mostly composed of Miller's photographs from 1937 onwards, the year she met Picasso, during summer in the south of France. Her pictures of Eluard, his wife Nusch, Ady Fidelin and the man who would become her husband, Roland Penrose, capture what looked to be a carefree and almost idyllic time.

Miller's photographs of Picasso show both the artist's playful side as well as capturing aspects of his complex mercurial personality. They also demonstrate how he loved to pose for photographs. As for Picasso himself, he was intrigued by Miller. The sole portrait in the exhibition by the Spanish Master is of Lee and is extremely revealing on multiple levels.

Lee Miller was an insightful photographer, with a gift for clarity and composition.

Many of the pictures here are of Picasso's muses and lovers. These included Dora Maar, the artist and photographer who famously documented Picasso painting 'Guernica' in 1937, during their intense and complex relationship. Françoise Gilot is also pictured, along with their small children Claude and Paloma. After the breakup, Gilot famously published her memoir 'Life with Picasso' . She was a resourceful woman who managed to keep hold of her identity as an artist whilst running the Picasso family and estate. Many others, including Maar, had breakdowns after breaking with the artist. But not Gilot.

Other pictures show intimates of Picasso including Georges Braque, his collaborator in developing Cubism and their dealer Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler. But my favourite has to be Gary Cooper. With his political views, it must have been quite a meeting, given his well known hatred of Communism and Picasso's allegiance to it.

During the war, Miller worked as a war photographer for Vogue and was in London during the Blitz and Paris during the liberation. She experienced combat in Alsace, as well as Buchenwald Concentration Camp. Her wartime work also included other harrowing assignments; such as photographing dying children in a Viennese hospital. Few of these pictures are exhibited here as presumably they are outside the context of the show. However, the famous picture of Lee in Hitler's Munich bathtub, taken by her LIFE Magazine colleague David E. Scherman, is included.

Prominent in this exhibition are Miller's portraits of Picasso taken just after the liberation of Paris. He is pictured in his studio, surrounded by the work he had done under virtual house arrest during the occupation (his Spanish citizenship probably saved him from much worse). Many of the pictures are details of the studio itself or group portraits with some of their old friends such as Paul Eluard. As a member of the Resistance, clandestinely publishing his work as part of the struggle against the Nazis, he'd been lucky to survive the war. So many of their friends had been murdered. After the war, Lee was deeply traumatised by her experiences, suffering severe depression, but she continued to work.

Many pictures show Picasso with Roland Penrose. He and Lee married in 1945 (their certificate is displayed). He was a pivotal figure in the Surrealist movement (especially in Britain). It was he who arranged the sale of Picasso's 'Three Dancers' of 1925 to the Tate. This was one of the artist's most important works and Miller photographed the painting with its creator prior to sale.

Penrose was also responsible for publicising Picasso's work in other ways. After the war, he was commissioned by publisher Victor Gollancz to write the first authorised biography of the artist. One image shows a nervous Penrose behind Picasso as the artist reads the manuscript. Several of the photographs show the Penrose family in England. With young son Anthony and a visiting Picasso, who looks like the village squire!

Later pictures of Picasso show the artist at work and play in the south of France. Memorable images include him dressed in traditional Russian peasant costume, looking very much the part. During the late 40s, he was working on ceramics at the Madoura Pottery in Vallauris. We see concentration and wonder on Picasso's face; traits that never left him.

The photographs Lee Miller took of the artist through to his death in 1973 show him at work or relaxing with his young family and old friends. They remain intimate documents of the life of arguably the most significant artist of his time. Sadly, Lee Miller died of cancer in 1977 still haunted by her wartime experiences.

The show continues until September 6th and is definitely worth a visit if you are interested in Picasso or the figures associated with the Surrealist movement. Or even just curious about an extraordinary, complex woman and her extraordinary times.

(C) Gideon Hall 2015


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