The new exhibit at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, MA, titled “Man Ray / Lee Miller, Partners in Surrealism,” showcases the long and complicated relationship between the two avant-garde artists. Bringing together the work of Ray, Miller and others from their close circle in an interesting retelling of their story, it documents the various phases of their interconnected lives: as strangers, as mentor and student, as lovers, and finally as friends. Ultimately, it demonstrates how their liaison was critical to each artist’s growth as a Surrealist.
If for Miller their encounter meant a foundation for a career in photography, Ray’s oeuvre evinces his strong fixation with her. He created haunting works based on Miller’s body and facial features that are now powerful and classic images, most notably “Observatory Time — The Lovers,” in which Miller’s glorified lips hover in a cloudy sky. Reviewer Chris Bergeron describes such pieces as “visual archetypes for the dream states, subconscious impulses and sense of dislocation Surrealists sought to convey.” These particular works are certainly reflective of such impulses, but they also exemplify what can be understood as the dilemma for Surrealist women: On the one hand, their desire to work as artists themselves, but also the unavoidable positioning of their bodies as objects of desire for their male contemporaries.
A beautiful subject, Lee Miller is sometimes seen as merely a muse. The PEM exhibit allows us to better understand her success as an individual, independent of Ray, though still in inevitable interaction with him. Curator of Photography Phillip Prodger explains that part of the goal in telling their story was to represent Miller “on equal terms” with Ray. In removing the hierarchies of master and student, artist and muse, male and female, the show vindicates Miller without diminishing Ray.
Yet the exhibit makes clear the degree to which Ray’s work, while stunning, is soaked in masculine desire. It pulls back the veil of lust that flattens Miller into an object of that desire. Ray’s depiction of Miller’s body in whole or in part may create a “sense of dislocation,” but there is perhaps nothing more dislocating than Miller’s work as a photographer/correspondent during World War II. This deserves appreciation in its own right, as it reveals her as not only an authentic Surrealist, but a visual storyteller with integrity and empathy.
The show runs through December 4.