Last week, I attended the morning press view for the opening of Lee Miller: A Woman’s War at the Imperial War Museum (IWM) in London. The show runs until 24 April 2016 and is accompanied by a book of the same name. I cannot recommend the show highly enough; it is a comprehensive, carefully considered exhibition that puts women firmly at the centre of the story of the Second World War. I have long been a fan of Lee Miller’s work, since I visited a show at The Photographers’ Gallery in the mid 1980s when I was searching out work by women photographers and artists. I also saw and reviewed the last major show of Miller’s work, The Art of Lee Miller, curated by Mark Haworth-Booth with the help of her son Antony Penrose, at the V&A in 2007 for Hotshoe magazine.
I was fortunate enough to grab 15 minutes last week to talk to Antony, who looks after the Lee Miller Archives at Farley Farm in Sussex, and also Hilary Roberts, Curator of Photography at IWM, to talk about the exhibition. The interview is transcribed below. I will post a Photo Stroll through the exhibition in a subsequent post for those who cannot see the show.
Miranda Gavin (MG): How long has it taken to get to this point, since you first decided to put this exhibition together?
Antony Penrose (AP): Four years. We were riding a bus through Jordan admiring camels and sand…
Hilary Roberts (HR): … on the way to a conference.
AP: Yes and we started talking and the thing that intrigued us both, instantly, was the idea of looking at women at war and that’s something that Hilary knows a lot about and this is one of a series of photographic exhibitions that she has done on that theme. Immediately we began talking and realised the potential, and she took it on and this is what we have today, four years later.
MG: We can see the end result here, but what has the process involved?
HR: For me, it’s involved spending a lot of time at Farley Farm where I was made most welcome, and literally going through everything.
MG: And we are talking about how many negatives?
HR: About 60,000 I believe.
MG: How does one go through 60,000 negatives?
AP: One at a time.
HR: Yes, you do. The IWM has a huge collection of photographs, 12 million, and so you develop techniques to view and assess them, so it’s not as formidable a task as it might seem. Obviously, what one was looking for was not only to get a sense of how Lee Miller photographed the subject, but also the sense of the subject itself. How could one put a story together? What should one do to make sure that it would work as an exhibition, and also as a book. In my case, after going through the photographs, there was a period of wrapping a towel round my head, sitting in a darkroom, pacing the floor and thinking through: how does one distil the essence of what I had seen and then present it on the wall?
MG: And were you in conversation with Antony about that in terms of the thread that runs through the exhibition?
HR: Yes, we’ve been talking for four years now and Antony’s expertise and knowledge has been absolutely invaluable and we couldn’t have done it without his input and the team at Farley Farm because they know Lee like nobody else could possible do so. The melding of that knowledge with the broader subject area is one of the outcomes of the collaboration.
MG: I think I am right in saying that this is one of the most comprehensive exhibitions since the V&A exhibition in 2007?
AP: I would say definitely.
MG: Does it complement that exhibition for anyone who has seen the show?
AP: Absolutely. The V&A exhibition was looking at Lee as an artist and it was called The Art of Lee Miller and I think that it succeeded in doing that absolutely admirably. What we are looking at here is her reportage and photojournalism, which is done with art naturally, but it’s also the way that she portrayed the events around her and told the story of what was going on, that was one of the essential things—she was a story teller par excellence, and she used images and words with great skill. We had her as an artist and now we have her as a photojournalist and a storyteller and part of her own story is in there too; it is one more huge piece of information in the totality of what is understood about Lee.
MG: Thinking about the show, there is a narrative thread running through the exhibition and a chronology to the events, yet it is also has a thematic thread relating to the body and women’s place in war, and also, for me, the subtext of what happened in Lee’s life and the theme of an internal battleground and war zone and the way she tried to deal with that. On an external level, there is the surface of her body, her beauty, and how she was portrayed by others in paintings and photographs, as well as in the rather disturbing stereoscopic nude photograph taken by her father, Theodore. Then one starts to unravel internal aspects and the way these may be manifested, for example, her later alcoholism and the horrific fact that she was raped (probably by a family friend) and contracted gonorrhoea when she was seven. How does this tie in with the show?
HR: I will let Tony talk about the symbolism of the artworks, but we all know that there has been a long-standing tradition of judging women by their appearance, so if you happen to be a beautiful, photogenic person, you have an instant celebrity, an instant appeal and there is a temptation to define you by that. One of the things that I think Lee fought against was being defined entirely by her appearance. It was definitely a means to an end and it was important to her, but she didn’t want to just be defined as one of the most beautiful women of her age.
AP: I think you’ve put that with customary elegance and accuracy. There was always a – you used the word battleground – and I think that is absolutely right – there was this dichotomy in her life. Being beautiful gave her access, gave her her first career (as a model), but she also got fed up of being objectified as being a sex object and this very much came forward when she was with Man Ray. One of the most salient photographs that she ever took was the severed breasts on a plate and it was almost as if she was saying, ‘You like breasts so much, well, have one, eat it.’ You tend to forget that behind that breast is a woman with a heart and a soul and a mind of her own.
MG: Yes, and weirdly when she got into gourmet cooking wasn’t there food that looked like a breast?
AP: Yes, the pink cauliflower—it reprises all the way back to that and I’m jolly glad that I hadn’t seen the severed breast image when I was trying to eat the pink cauliflower.
MG: In some of my reading about Lee, I read that she was looking for a ‘raison d’etre’, a ‘reason to be’, do you think that towards the end of the Second World War she came into a space where she felt that her body receded, someone (quoted in this exhibition) commented that she looked like an ‘unmade bed’.
AP: Yes, she looked like a total wreck.
HR: When she started working for British Vogue in 1940, she got her colleagues talking because she consistently wore trousers. You can see that in the Picture Post shot. It’s important, from her point of view, to manipulate all these lights, scramble up and down and sort out the staging and wearing trousers make the most sense. If you look at the film clip in the exhibition, you can see women looking as if they are going out as if to a cocktail party, wearing hats; it started from the point that she became a professional working women, and from that point her mind seemed, to me, to be focused on the job. When she was required to put on a polished presence for the cameras, she absolutely could do it. The photograph of her with the other women correspondents in the case. Look at that line up.
AP: Can you pick her out?
HR: Spot the model! When she wishes to use her appearance to make a point, she was perfectly capable of doing so, but at that point in time for her, her appearance and standards of dress would have been a problem rather than an asset, and would have got in the way of her being accepted by the soldiers that she photographed. Again, in the film clip, David Sherman makes that point that she very much became one of them and that helped her enormously in doing the job she did during that period.
MG: The show opens with a couple of paintings one by Roland Penrose and one by Picasso. It feels to me that this leads from the V&A show into this one. Why these two paintings?
AP: It is Hilary’s show, she chose them, but to me I think they are there to show Lee’s position among the surrealists as a revered icon of surrealist women. She was different from the other surrealist women in the fact that she refused to be subordinated and, mostly, the great beauties like Nusch Eluard and Ady Fidelin they were talented and beautiful women but they allowed themselves to be second placed by the men at the time. Lee wasn’t going to have that and I think that the surrealists were a bit surprised by that aspect of her character. I know that she nearly drove Man Ray nuts.
MG: How would this manifest itself? Was it in the way she behaved, as some would call women like this ‘difficult’?
HR: It infused her entire lifestyle. One of the reasons why her relationship with Penrose worked so well in those years was that he completely accepted that aspect of her, that she was a free spirit. The paintings reflect that evolving perspective of her. The two painted in 1937 by Roland and Picasso were created weeks apart, or months at the latest. They both see Lee Miller at this point in the life and there are some similarities and some contrasts. So Picasso (L’Arlesienne) sees her spirit as dark and unknowable, Roland (Night and Day) sees her— it’s clouds and sky.
AP: If you look in Picasso’s painting, yes, she’s got the sun face, but if you look in her chest there’s Man Ray’s metronome ticking away. It just rolls. Look at the pink background. If that’s not erotic, I don’t know what is.
HR: Roland’s later painting (Good Shooting/Bien Vise, 1939) shows her pinned down and chained to a wall; there’s all sorts of readings of that painting that are possible, but one is that it’s her gender and war that has actually pinned her down and she’s chained to the wall by what seems to be a chastity belt. The golden head is missing and is replaced by a peaceful scene from the Norfolk broads, so there is an evolution there that is set against a background of war.
AP: That’s a very interesting point as at that time there was the Spanish Civil War not the main war and Roland was very closely emotionally connected to that, he went there as a reporter. The wonderful think about that painting is the absence of her head, and in a way, I feel that Roland is saying that she is giving him her body but he will never have her mind.
MG: It looks like the book complements the exhibition further, is that so?
AP: Yes, I think it takes it further and it will be on the bookshelf for many years to come, and will be such a good reference.
HR: It obviously captures the visual but also allows people to drill down further into some of these aspects that we have been talking about.
MG: Last question, I have to ask you, Antony, is it true that Kate Winslett is going to be playing Lee Miller in an upcoming film about her life?
AP: If this news is true, it is very good news indeed because she is exactly the person I really hoped for and I think she will be absolutely brilliant. We have a whole new team now on the production; we have a new writer and a new producer, and they are mostly Australian and I love them because they are so direct and so funny. It’s Hopscotch productions and they are just the most wonderful bunch of people I could wish to work with.
MG: Yes, and I think it will help in making Lee Miller become a household name and not just known as a photographers’ photographer.
A book Lee Miller: A Woman’s War by Hilary Roberts with an introduction by Antony Penrose has been published to coincide with the major exhibition at the Imperial War Museum London. It tells the story beyond the battlefields of the Second World War by way of Miller’s powerful photographs of the women whose lives were affected. It is published by Thames & Hudson and is available for £29.95 hardback with 156 illustrations.