Published  04/10/2007

Its Lee Miller on the line (overseas call)

It’s Lee Miller on the line (overseas call)

The exhibition of photographs entitled ‘The Art of Lee Miller’ at the Victoria and Albert Museum (until 6 January) still has the freshness of a phone call summons. We are summoned in the most irresistible way to see her again with all her charisma and poise, shot through with the surrealism that underlaid her focused realism: a unique combination. She provided Vogue with coverage that revealed a ruthlessness of subject focus that many editors would baulk at publishing, whether dealing with children emaciated by war in city hospitals or the liberated victims of the Holocaust. Her eye was sure. Her transmissions to the Vogue editor were embellished by an equally meticulous, steely prose, atmospheric only when clarification was needed for the fleeting visual image. It seemed that Roland Penrose, her husband, could accomodate her sharp and descriptive prose well enough, but was unable to encourage and fully value her camera work, which is how that whole visual archive of prints and negatives ended up in the attic of their home at Farley Farm, Sussex, where they otherwise lived in married bliss, with time off for such visiting celebrities as Max Ernst, Alfred Barr (Director of the Museum of Modern Art, New York) and Mrs William Turnbull (Katherina Wolpe). The Penroses’ son Antony has now to be complimented for retrieving this treasure trove, this Lee Miller archive, which is now also presented in a new book entitled The Art of Lee Miller by Mark Haworth-Booth, timed to complement her centenary retrospective. Miller's wartime dispatches to Vogue were of the highest order. The closer she was (with her camera at the ready) to the edge of danger or pathos, the more remarkable she became in the quest for truth. Social contact and force of circumstance also collaborated as when she reached Picasso ahead of the pack on the liberation of Paris, and got to picture him a truly free man: more soberly, she was fleet-footed enough to be amongst the first journalists to get into Dachau and Buchenwald concentration camps to capture the human atrocity and desecration. Next, she got to use Hitler's bath in the requisitioned flat in Munich that he had occupied more or less at the point of the dictator's suicide in Berlin. There she could wash her hair of it all. She was a dream for Audrey Withers, her Vogue editor, capturing on film Colette, Fred Astaire, Marlene Dietrich and Maurice Chevalier in various liberation contexts. It seemed her husband Roland Penrose was too much threatened by her creative essence, too close to surrealism in all its realism. She had learnt to compose words rapidly, as visual surrealists often do. But her acerbic, streetwise cosmopolitanism forced open stiff doors, and allowed her to portray the bitter truth of war and its aftermath – not only visually, but in words.

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