Thursday, December 1, 2011

Surreal love story

Once again time has gotten away from me and I haven't written about something I meant to.  This time that something is Man Ray/Lee Miller, Partners in Surrealism, which closes at the Peabody Essex Museum this weekend.

And it's one of the best museum shows of the year, so if you haven't caught it yet, this is your last chance to take in perhaps the only exhibit I've ever seen that actually operates as a heart-breaking love story.

For Partners in Surrealism details the decades-long relationship between Lee Miller and the more famous Man Ray (his besotted portrait of her, at left).  At first the two knew each other as teacher and student; soon, however, they became lovers, even though Ray had the look of some beetle-browed Kafka character, while Miller, already a famous model, was widely considered one of the most striking women in roaring-twenties Paris.  Actually, while gazing at her own calmly rendered nude self-portraits, it's tempting to claim she was one of the beauties of the century.  With her delicate yet plush frame, and a boyish bob framing features that would have rivaled Lauren Bacall's, Miller seemed both an androgynous seductress and an alienated innocent, and the combination all but drove Ray mad; her lips alone inspired one of his most famous icons (below).

Miller's lips dominate the landscape in an iconic Ray image.

For a time the two thrived together, working as near-equals in Ray's studio (Miller is often credited for accidentally discovering solarization, which Ray claimed as his own).  But Miller was a notorious free spirit - a popular wineglass was actually molded from her breast - and was hardly content to play surrealist muse for Ray;  her various liaisons brought their affair to an end within two years.  But in some ways, as the Peabody Essex show demonstrates, it never ended.  Ray was all but shattered by her departure; and tellingly enough, soon began designing surreal works derived from her image which he could shatter in turn - preferably, as he put it, "with one blow."

He was never successful, however, no matter how many blows he struck - years later, he was still painting his memories of Miller, even though she had long since moved on to a career of her own in photography (she never made the kind of conceptual breakthroughs that Ray did, but many of her portraits and photographs - particularly those from Germany after the war - are clearly the work of a master; at left, an image of a Nazi suicide).  Eventually the two reconciled as friends - indeed, the exhibit includes one of the most touching letters I've ever read (clearly a love letter) from Ray to his former muse near the end of both their lives.  Some seventeen years her senior, he died only a year before she did;  but then I don't think he would have wished to outlive her.

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