la rotonde

Carolyn Burke

As rational as a scattered jigsaw

By Alastair Sooke, The Daily Telegraph (UK)
November 28, 2005

Lee Miller: A Life by Carolyn Burke

Carolyn Burke is upfront about this in her meticulous study of the feminist icon who hung out with Picasso (le Maître painted six portraits of her as a Provençal wench). Researching Miller's life, Burke felt as though she were "assembling a puzzle from which pieces were missing" — an image that becomes more potent when you read what Miller said, despairing for her future, in 1945: "I feel about as popular as a leper and as rational as a scattered jigsaw puzzle." No wonder that her son, Antony Penrose, pluralised the title of his portrait of his mother, The Lives of Lee Miller.

Born Elizabeth Miller in 1907 in a small town in upstate New York, she was raped by a family friend when she was seven years old. The incident remains murky — her son only found out about it after her death — but the damage inflicted cannot have been salved by her father's insistence, throughout her adolescence, on photographing her in the nude.

By her late teens, she was a minxish bombshell, a flapper straight out of the novels of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Her career began after her accidental discovery, in New York in 1927, by Condé Nast, and an invitation to model for Vogue. She made her debut on its cover, a month before her 20th birthday, and was soon in demand as the soignée embodiment of modern womanhood.

Keen to try her luck behind the camera as well, Elizabeth changed her name to the androgynous "Lee" so that her sex wouldn't get in the way of a career as a photographer. She moved to Paris in 1929 and tracked down Man Ray. The Surrealist photographer took her on as an apprentice, and — despite a difference in age of nearly seventeen years — the two became lovers, making erotic home movies in his Montparnasse studio.

The next few years were a giddy mix of libidinal and artistic energy. Lee became known for having the shapeliest breasts in Paris. One glass manufacturer even modelled a champagne glass after her bust. Her bête noire Cecil Beaton was a little more ambiguous, describing her as "a sun-kissed goat boy from the Appian way."

After her relationship with Ray floundered, Miller married a wealthy Egyptian before falling for the English Surrealist artist and collector Roland Penrose in 1937. She spent the summer in a Cornish farmhouse at his invitation. The party included Max Ernst, Henry Moore and the English artist Eileen Agar. "It was a delightful Surrealist house party," Agar recalled, "with Roland taking the lead, ready to turn the slightest encounter into an orgy. I remember going off to watch Lee taking a bubble-bath, but there was not quite enough room in the tub for all of us."

This chapter of "al fresco romps" marks a turning point in Burke's biography: the group converged on Picasso's summer quarters outside Cannes, where they enjoyed déshabillé picnics in the mould of Manet's Déjeuner sur l'herbe, but their golden summers were soon tarnished by the prospect of war.

Miller was in London during the Blitz, holed up with Penrose in his Hampstead house. After D-Day, she became a photojournalist, and spent the rest of the war hot-footing it across Europe, filing pictures for Vogue. She documented the liberation of the concentration camps ("I could never get the stench of Dachau out of my nostrils," she later said), and visited Hitler's kitsch house in Munich, where she staged the darkly ironical image of herself in his bathtub, scrubbing her left shoulder. The contrast with her former self cavorting in a Cornish bathtub is devastating.

Miller's wartime experiences changed her irrevocably. She drifted into irascible alcoholism, and drink destroyed her looks. By the 1950s, she had moved with Penrose to a farm in the hamlet of Muddles Green, East Sussex, where cooking became her passion. Old friends were stunned to see her in an apron, though, typically, her domestic display masked defiance. When Roland and the critic Cyril Connolly disparaged the American taste for marshmallows and Coca-Cola, she deviously prepared a "bombe surprise" for dessert. "When they'd eaten every last mouthful," she recalled, "I was pleased to announce that they had just eaten my patriotic invention: marshmallow-cola ice cream."

It's nigh on impossible to get a handle on Miller, who died from cancer in 1977, in Roland's arms. Her life was a frenzy of reinvention and metamorphosis, and Burke often deploys metaphors of movement to describe her subject. Miller is "a spark-shredding locomotive," "her own perpetual-motion machine," "always in motion," even towards the end of her life. "I keep saying to everyone, 'I didn't waste a minute, all my life'," she said in 1947, concerned that she would not survive a Caesarean section. "But I know, myself, now, that if I had it over again I'd be even more free with my ideas, with my body and my affection." That sense of freedom is irresistible.

Since her death, Miller's reputation as a photographer has grown, and she is no longer known primarily as the Surrealists' "perversely enchanting muse." Burke stresses her claim to be remembered as an artist in her own right. Muse or artist, her independence is worth commemorating in itself. Lee Miller was an astounding woman, brought memorably to life in this astounding book.