la rotonde

Carolyn Burke

An Archetypal Twentieth-Century Woman

By Carl Rollyson, New York Sun
November 16, 2005

Was there an archetypal trajectory to the lives of women artists in the twentieth century? So many seemed to flee from a provincial or bourgeois upbringing to a cultural capital, ally themselves with a favored male artist, and then struggle to find their own individual creative identity. This template came to mind while I was reading Carolyn Burke's ruminative life of Lee Miller (Alfred A. Knopf, 426 pages, $35). Her peregrinations reminded me of innumerable others' — Lillian Hellman, Martha Gellhorn, Rebecca West, Susan Sontag, and Jill Craigie, to list only those I've personally pursued as biographical subjects.

As I read about Miller's Poughkeepsie, New York beginnings, where she chafed at provinciality and took off for Paris to study stage design, I thought of her contemporary Martha Gellhorn forsaking St. Louis for the same foreign capital and making the same mistake: checking into a maison de passe, a hotel for prostitutes. Both modeled clothes — Miller becoming the very image of the Vogue fashion plate. Both aligned themselves with major artists and became celebrated war correspondents.

In our template, the woman is as talented as her male counterparts but finds herself confined to what Gellhorn called "the kitchen of life." Miller made the most of her postwar role as Lady Penrose — she was married to the Surrealist poet and Picasso biographer Roland Penrose — discovering the joy of cooking and establishing an international reputation as, among other things, "the sandwich queen."
Of all the women I have in mind, Miller strikes me as the most heroic. She was raped at age seven and overcame both the horror and a resulting case of gonorrhea, which required painful treatments and made her feel that her life had been blighted almost before it began. She became a first-rate photographer and a pioneer photojournalist, taking some of the most arresting photographs of the Blitz, the liberation of Paris, and the concentration camps (especially Dachau, where Gellhorn herself alighted and set what is perhaps her most important novel, Point of No Return).

Another part of the template is these women's theatricality. Unlike Rebecca West, who did so much to open the world's eyes to fascism and communism; or Lillian Hellman, who rivaled Miller in the culinary arts and shared a knack for self-dramatization; or Gellhorn, who grew bored when she could no longer live for adventure; or Susan Sontag who sought late martyrdom in wartorn Sarajevo, Miller came to terms with her desire to be at the center of history. In her explanation of this, Carolyn Burke rightly emphasizes a shot of Miller herself in Hitler's bathtub.

Taken in the last days of the war, she sits in the tub, a grimy Aryan goddess, making a mockery of Nazi racial ideology, to be sure, but also suggesting how she is implicated in the evil of adoration — caught between the photograph of the Fuhrer on one edge of the tub and a small statue of Venus on the other. Ms. Burke brilliantly draws on Miller's own history to understand this photograph. Miller knew that her own posing for Vogue created a certain kind of standard for beauty, a figure others were meant to idolize. She understood, in other words, what the cost of charisma can be when it narrows the world to a typology of the ideal, especially when that ideal is revved up by the modern media of photography and film.

In the same vein, Miller took a stunning photograph of Martha Gellhorn. The writer sits in front of a mirror, pen in hand, watching herself write while above her a photograph of Hemingway hovers. Gellhorn, Hellman, West, and Sontag never acknowledged just how self-conscious they were about writing themselves into the world's consciousness. Miller is their superior in understanding what it meant to model yourself after others in order to make yourself the next model.

Only Jill Craigie, a documentary filmmaker who, like Miller, later in life settled into marriage (Labour leader Michael Foot was her third husband), understood the devastating toll the artistic life can take. Craigie's name does not appear in Ms. Burke's biography, but it should, since Craigie was the director of "Out of Chaos," a documentary about wartime artists filmed in London in 1943. Miller visited the set and was photographed with Craigie and Henry Moore. Miller made sure Vogue wrote about the film because she understood that Craigie was breaking down the barrier between Modernist artists and the general public. Craigie's footage of Moore drawing and describing how he did his tube shelter drawings is a major document of the self-revelation of twentieth-century art — a piece of film that has been used repeatedly in documentaries about Moore and Modern art.

Lee Miller's photographs do much the same thing as Craigie's film: They dramatize art and history, making both more accessible. Ms. Burke describes Margaret Bourke-White photographing the suicide scene of a Nazi officer.

She "shot the scene from above, at a distance" but:

The treasurer and his family still lay on their deathbeds when Lee [Miller] reached the site hours later. She photographed them not from above but on the same level, the macabre scene formed by the women in the background and the man in the foreground, his allegiance signaled by the portrait of Hitler opposite his desk.

"On the same level" — history brought home, in other words.

Lee Miller was an exceptionally honest artist-observer, one who knew just how deeply implicated she was in her scenes. The composition of such photographs is obvious yet hardly lacking in subtlety, for we are being told so much not only about the scene but also about the scenic eye. This handsomely produced and impeccably written and researched book is surely a state-of-the-art biography.