Model Portraits: Lee Miller At The National Portrait Gallery

By Caroline Lewis | 04 February 2005
Shows a black and white photo of two men. One is standing tall behind the other and the backs of their heads are reflected in a mirror.

Man Ray and Roland Penrose. Los Angeles 1946. © Lee Miller Archives, England 2004. All rights reserved.

First, she posed for Vogue, then she posed others for its pages. Lee Miller (1907-77) produced some of her most exceptional portraits for the fashion magazine, some of which are now included in an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. The display features 120 black-and-white images by the model-turned-photographer and runs until May 30 2005.

The exhibition charts Miller’s progression from neophyte surrealist to Vogue war correspondent and finally her later years. The Second World War, which turned out to be a long project for Miller, left deep emotional scars. Afterwards, she concentrated on recording her artistic and literary friends, particularly on their visits to her Sussex farm.

Shows a black and white photo of Picasso in a courtyard with a palm tree.

Picasso. Hotel Vaste Horizon, Mougins, France 1937. © Lee Miller Archives, England 2004. All rights reserved.

The selection of Miller’s portraits from the 1930s demonstrates her grounding in surrealism, a product of her then relationship with Man Ray.

Solarized portraits of beauties with arched eyebrows, unusual camera angles, isolated heads and interesting juxtapositions are the hallmarks of her surrealist tutelage. The Floating Head of Mary Taylor looks at once dead and unnatural, beautiful and serene, ascending through the frame with dignity despite being disembodied.

Shows a black and white photo of Lee Miller, in profile.

Self-Portrait. New York studio 1932. © Lee Miller Archives, England 2004. All rights reserved.

Many of Miller’s portraits have this dual quality – posed yet natural, restrained yet powerful. Take the young evacuee in his shorts and long socks, sitting on a sack that’s propped between a sign pointing to Luxembourg in one direction and a German town in the other. It’s immediate and emotional – the boy’s innocent expression and grubby knees – yet as stylish as any of her formal portraits, evidence of her talent.

There are echoes of a double character in her life. Her friend Leonora Carrington barely remembers Miller taking photographs, yet admits she was a magnificent photographer. Curator Richard Calvocoressi points out that unlike so many, she never pushed her work: “She didn’t publicise it, even suppressed it, dismissed it, hid it in the attic of her house.”

Shows a black and white photo of Jean Cocteau standing in a colonnade.

Jean Cocteau, Palais Royal colonnade, Paris September 1944. © Lee Miller Archives, England 2004. All rights reserved.

Throughout the display, you gain an impression of Miller herself. Apart from the self-portraits and numerous pictures of friends, there are excerpts of her writing from Vogue. In one, you can hear her despair following the liberation of Luxembourg: “The pattern of liberation is not decorative. There is the beautiful overall colour of freedom but there is ruin and destruction.”

Yet Miller was able to capture the exquisite against the backdrop of destruction. There’s the picturesque silhouette of an opera singer against a bombed-out Viennese opera house. And the ATS searchlight crew in Hendon, a team of smiling women in bear coats – the searchlight they manned was machine-gunned shortly after the shoot.

Shows a black and white photo of a woman's head surrounded by deep shadow so her neck is not visible.

Floating Head, portrait of Mary Taylor. New York City 1933. © Lee Miller Archives, England 2004. All rights reserved.

The surreal and fantastic qualities that Miller managed to extract from mundane situations are also memorable. The young and handsome Bernard Burrows blowing up an airbed in bright sunshine seems otherworldly, while a shadow of her friend Eileen Agar on the decorative pillar of the Royal Pavilion looks like the silhouette of an imp or fairy.

Miller’s plentiful portraits of her creative friends must not go without mention – Miro, Magritte, Schiaparelli, Henry Moore and of course, her husband Roland Penrose are but a tiny few of those she captured, often with their work in shot.

Shows a photo of several women all facing the camera with their arms on each others' shoulders. They are wearing massive fur coats and tough boots. Behind them is a big searchlight.

ATS Searchlight Operators. North London 1943. © Lee Miller Archives, England 2004. All rights reserved.

The images range from the playful – faces reflected in teapots, a bohemian picnic with bare-chested women – to the symbolic – filmmaker Humphrey Jennings lit starkly, staring into a cloud of cigarette smoke, which emerges from him like a cartoon thought bubble. Picasso sat for Miller many times, and she for him.

Miller’s portraits are model portraits. They are masterfully lit, unforced, calm and measured. Sometimes witty, occasionally mysterious, always beautiful.

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